Investigating Children's Emerging Digital Literacies

Harouna Ba, William Tally, Kallen Tsikalas


Departing from the view that the digital divide is a technical issue, the EDC Center for Children and Technology (CCT) and Computers for Youth (CFY) have completed a 1-year comparative study of children’s use of computers in low- and middle-income homes. To assess emerging digital literacy skills at home, we define digital literacy as a set of habits through which children use computer technology for learning, work, socializing, and fun. Our findings indicate that both groups of children used the computer to do schoolwork. Many children with leisure time at home also spent 2 to 3 hours a day communicating with peers, playing games, and pursuing creative hobbies. When solving technical problems, the children from low-income homes relied more on formal help providers such as CFY and schoolteachers, while the children from middle-income homes turned to themselves, their families, and their peers. All the children developed basic literacy with word processing, email, and the Web. Not surprisingly, those children who spent considerably more time online developed more robust skills in online communication and authoring. The results also show that children’s digital literacy skills are emerging in ways that reflect local circumstances, such as the length of time children had a computer at home; the family’s ability to purchase stable Internet connectivity; the number of computers in the home and where they are located (bedroom or public area); parents’ attitudes toward computer use; parents’ own experience and skills with computers; children’s leisure time at home; the computing habits of children’s peers; the technical expertise of friends, relatives, and neighbors; homework assignments; and the direct instruction provided by teachers in the classroom. The findings highlight issues impacting social, school, and assessment policy and practice. Specifically, these results have implications for local educational systems interested in developing digital literacy assessment instruments that demonstrate progress as well as specific areas that need improvement. The digital literacy analysis model developed in this study affords teachers opportunities to start to construct activities based on 5 central digital literacy components: computing for a range of purpose, understanding the function of and ability to use common tools, communication literacy, Web literacy, and troubleshooting skills. These activities can help teachers scaffold for their students and themselves the range of digital literacy proficiency skills, that is, their proficiency in using common tools as well as their use of different communications and Web tools. However, when it comes to large-scale assessments of digital literacy of teachers and students at the national and federal levels, the use of the digital literacy analysis model outlined in this study would be operationally and financially impractical. The field urgently needs to develop valid methods and instruments of assessment that help aggregate state and federal data as schools and districts at the local level acquire more and more technology. These methods and measurement instruments are likely to include surveys, e-readiness assessment tools, multiple-choice tests, pre- and post-tests, etc., that can measure individual as well as group progress in digital literacy.

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