8th-grade students from the U.S. participated in the 2018 International Computer and Information Literacy Study (ICILS) along with 13 other education systems.
Results showed that our 8th graders can use computers competently to gather basic information, complete simple tasks and that they have some awareness of security risks in the digital world. However, students were less proficient when it came to understanding the purpose of sponsored content on a website or use generic mapping software or know how to control color and text when creating a presentation.
These results should come as no surprise, really. One would expect most 8th-grade students today to be able to complete searches, use digital communication tools, and create/edit messages. These types of activities skills can be completed on almost any mobile device and are core to daily social life. In other words, this is the easy stuff, picked up by most teenagers via repetition and osmosis through their community existence.
On the other hand, there is little in the 8th grader’s daily social life that requires them to use presentation software or to navigate the intricacies of sponsored content or misleading news stories. These activities require more specialized training, as well as a different mindset.
Teenagers and adults alike spend ample time staring and poking at their smartphones. Most of this activity, however, fall into two clear categories — simple information retrieval and communication. Students send and respond to text messages, participate in social media forums, post media for their friends to see, and look up information about people and events. The web-based applications they use for these activities feature many of the same tools, navigation workflows, and icons, making it relatively simple to master many applications without necessarily developing more sophisticated computer skills.
Moving from Instagram and Snapchat to PowerPoint presentations or sophisticated layout and editing features in Word or Google Docs, however, requires mastering new tools, unfamiliar application menus, and information organization skills. Like the basic computer skills teenagers already possess, these are learned through purposeful application and repetition. Given clear explanations, relevant application, and practice students will master these applications and skills with relative ease.
While the same essential learning requirements — explanations, relevant application, and practice — hold true for developing information literacy skills, information literacy also requires improved reasoning and critical thinking skills. This, I think, is a challenge for most educators because it is more difficult to design and assess activities for these skills.
We are comfortable teaching and assessing information mastery. This is the primary focus of all our teaching and standardized testing. We often struggle, however, when it comes to creating learning environments for more complex thinking skills. Student abilities and progress in these areas tend to be less homogeneous, which makes it difficult to set expectations and measure class/school progress. In addition, measuring critical thinking abilities is more nuanced and complex than evaluating reading, writing, and math abilities.
As with most large systems, U.S.education tends to migrate toward simpler models and outcomes, those that can be scaled and standardized across a nation. And this certainly makes sense for training teachers and managing millions of students on core knowledge. Unfortunately, these models are inadequate for helping students develop more sophisticated application and reasoning abilities.
Given these realities, we should expect student performance on basic computer skills to continue improving and their abilities in more complex applications and critical thinking to lag behind.