My son is six-years old, but knows how to do a search on Bing and use a browser to get to his favorite site, NickToons.com. While he doesn’t know the answer to the question, “what is the Internet?” or “what is a URL,” he is using the tools and techniques that are critical for tomorrow. I am proud that he has taken to computers so early, but my hope is that as he grows older, he takes the time to learn everything there is about digital literacy. The pace of technology today is a double-edged sword. It moves so fast, many are opting to just learn about the hot social site of the week, ignoring the other 90% of the Web.
Understanding the “whole” Internet, Web and power of digital technology gives you a foundation that provides an advantage in everyday life. Today people can scour hundreds of jobs online or apply for financial aid for scholarships we never knew existed. I have saved more time in the past 5 years than in the prior 10. I used to stand in line at the bank, the DMV, and the grocery store. I used to spend hours in the bookstore researching some topic. Digital literacy gives you back all this time, when or if you want it.
The second reason to gain more proficiency in Web and digital technology is that ironically, it teaches you how to think when it’s not available. When Wikipedia went “black” to protest SOPA, there was a second protest going on in the bedrooms of students across America. How do I get my homework done when I can’t access Wikipedia? Using the Internet to find the nearest libraries and 24-hour coffee shops would have been helpful that night. Understanding that if you save your term paper to the “cloud” you can still get to it, if your laptop is accidently dropped, is good to know. From trusting the Google calculator to the directions on Bing maps or the GPS in your car, we tend to take everything technology gives us as gospel. Only when it breaks do we realize it’s just another tool and plan accordingly.
If my six-year old son cannot access his favorite site and says, “Daddy, the Internet is broken,” that is one thing, but when an adult says the same words, it’s a problem. In the adult’s case, he or she didn’t learn enough about “what is the Internet” to know it’s not really broken. There is a basic set of skills that everyone now must learn online if they want to be more successful offline.
Digital divide and digital literacy initiatives tend to focus a lot on Internet access and giving people computers, but it cannot end there. Once people find the answer to what is the Internet, it is critical that we encourage people to reach a level of proficiency and even mastery. It’s in this latter area of knowledge where you get the next generation of tech entrepreneurs. Knowing every feature of Facebook is nice, but being digitally literate enough to earn a degree online is probably better. And starting a tech company to teach math to students thousands of miles away not only benefits the founder, but benefits humanity.
In the end, digital literacy is about having more choices, like college. Many people in the world still do not have choices. If you cannot adapt to today’s digital world, you will become part of the group who won’t see or have access to all the choices, making success and happiness that much harder.