The vast majority of UK kids today don’t have the IT skills they need. This at least is the view of an IT professor at a leading British University to whom I was talking this week. 90% of the students who join us are functionally IT illiterate, he said.
Is this a surprise? Perhaps, given the amount we hear about the natural facility that Millenials and Digital Natives are supposed to have with computers. But using Facebook on a smartphone isn’t the same as being digitally competent. Far from it.
Searching and researching
So what are these digital life skills that our children are not being taught? My professor friend started with web search. His students, he told me, are incapable of searching online efficiently. And searching efficiently is a skill: it is difficult to formulate searches that are likely to bring up the most relevant results without thinking carefully first and choosing the best search terms. How you search is also important: using phrases, “Boolean” search, advanced search, and the different “Channels” of search engines (web, news, images, shopping etc): basic skills.
Choosing the right results is also important. It is never likely to be sufficient when researching an issue to go straight to Wikipedia and copy out what is there. Unfortunately kids are not told about how Wikis work (anyone can edit them); they are not told to look for authoritative sources and sources that confirm what other people are writing. There is a lot of rubbish published online: and if that rubbish is easy to find then kids will as often as not believe it and repeat it.
Ever lost a file because you forgot to save it and your computer froze? Yes? Me too. Not for a while though. Saving files before I start working on them is second nature to me now. And I’ll name my files in such a way that I can find them later. I’ll even create my own filing system, both for documents I am working on and for my emails. It makes life so much easier.
And talking of emails, it’s frightening that around a quarter of time spent by office workers is on managing email. That is a huge waste of resource. And it’s because people aren’t taught how to manage their emails. (Please don’t tell me that emails are dying out: you need them for most shopping sites and they are going to be around in offices for a while yet.) Different accounts for different situations; filing systems; rules for which sort of emails remain in your inbox, which ones are filed and which are automatically deleted; skill in interpreting the headers of emails and deciding which ones to look at; all of these ways of working (and others) make it far easier to manage the mudslide of emails that most office workers suffer from.
Another thing about email it is important to teach: there is no physical context. All you get is words. If I insult you as a joke, you can tell it’s a joke by my expressions and body language. That’s not there with email.
Perhaps the most basic skill for a digital life is touch typing. I’ve never learned I will admit: too old now! (And my fingers suffer from the way I type.) Touch typing (and perhaps texting too) should be a basic skill for all children.
Why do we let our children put themselves in the way of danger all the time? Keeping safe online is essential. This isn’t just about “stranger danger” and avoiding porn – pretty well taught online. But there are a host of other dangers out there.
Ever taught your kids to recognise phishing emails (perhaps you don’t recognise them yourself) or safe behaviour around clicking on links in emails? Do they know about the dangers they put themselves (and probably you as well) when they download copyright material such as movies illegally?
How well are they able to protect their reputation online? Do they understand the dangers associated with unwise social media posts, sexting, and the like? And what about “trolling” (being unpleasant and threatening to people online, for instance on Twitter or during video games): I don’t mean how to respond to it, but the fact that it is often illegal and can result in jail sentences?
And what about keeping accounts secure? What sort of passwords are your kids using? What sort of password will they use for online banking and other life-crucial applications? And while we are about it, do they understand the dangers of using public wi-fi? Or public computers? Thought not!
What to do?
There is a lot that can go wrong in a digital world. Most of the inconveniences and dangers are relatively easy to manage. But you need to know about them. You need the right education.
Where should this happen? In schools naturally. But after primary school most children are not taught IT skills to any extent Even when they are, the subject isn’t taught adequately: one of my children who is studying for an IT GCSE isn’t being taught programming, or any of the skills I have outlined above. The syllabus is confined to learning MS Office.
Something needs to change in our schools. Otherwise the UK will fall far behind other nations who are better preparing the new generations for life in a digital world.