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International Comparisons in Digital Literacy: What Can We Learn?

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The importance of "digital literacy" for all citizens in the 21st century seems to be universally accepted. The Obama administration has launched DigitalLiteracy. Microsoft has launched a curriculum on digital literacy as well. Educators across the nation are incorporating it into their schools and their teaching.

But I often wonder if what we are doing in the name of "digital literacy" is actually developing the skills that we hope to develop in our students. So when I recently learned that PISA (the Programme for International Student Assessment, a worldwide evaluation of 15-year-old school pupils' scholastic performance -- and one of the main sources of concern over the state of reading, math, and science education in the US) had released an overview of performance in digital reading, navigation and computer use in 2009, I was excited. Unlike standardized assessments that measure how well a student can regurgitate knowledge, PISA attempts to measure skills and competencies -- what we hope to impart on students.

Unfortunately, the US did not participate in this section of the assessment. I don't know why (a brief Google search didn't turn up any indication), but I still think that we can learn a lot from those that did take part as we as a nation struggle to figure out how to best impart digital literacy to students.

The Definition

For starters, I appreciate that PISA uses the same definition of "reading literacy" (understanding, using, reflecting on and engaging with written texts in order to achieve one's goals, develop one's knowledge and potential, and participate in society) for both print and digital reading. In doing so, it helps ensure that computer skills are not substituted for digital reading skills. Students who can simply scroll and navigate through web pages and locate simple information are not considered performing well. While such lower-level digital skills are critical to eventually gaining what we as a nation mean when we say "digital literacy," those aren't the skills critical to life in the new century.

The Results

The top performing system in digital reading was Korea, by a significant margin. Also performing above average were New Zealand, Australia, Japan, Hong Kong, Iceland, Sweden, and Belgium. In most countries, performance in digital reading and print reading are closely related.

There were a number of additional findings in the report, but a few in particular stood out to me. Not surprisingly, socioeconomic background is associated with digital reading performance. And while overall access to information and communications technology (ICT) has grown significantly in recent years, a digital divide (often linked to socioeconomic background) still exists between and within countries.

But there were a couple surprises here. The biggest? While using a computer at home is related to digital reading performance in all participating countries and economies, computer use at school is not always. The report suggests this means that that "students are developing digital reading literacy mainly by using computers at home to pursue their interests."

What Does This Mean for the US?

Given my limited knowledge of education here in the US, I think that it is unlikely that we would perform much differently than those participated in this study. So for educators and education advocates, there are a number of important policy implications pointed out in the report.

For starters, we need to do more to eliminate the digital divide and ensure disadvantaged students have access to computers at home, not just at school. Some programs, such as Connect to Compete and Internet Essentials, have already started on this work, offering low cost computers and Internet access to families of students that receive free or reduced price lunch. There are also one-to-one programs that allow students to take home devices. And there are examples like those of the Salesian School in Hong Kong, which provides their old computers to low-income students.

In addition, we must reconsider how we use computers at school. Perhaps computer use in school should look more like computer use at home. The report suggests offering more project-based activities using ICT, particularly those that do not impose constraints on how to accomplish tasks but allow students to explore various approaches to problem-solving (like they do when they use the computer at home) to improve their navigation skills. At the same time, we must develop assignments that improve students' ability to judge whether material is relevant or not, and that help students learn to structure, prioritize, distil and summarize text.

Of course, this vision for learning is much more difficult to enact than simply putting students at a computer to type, make a spreadsheet, or go to three pre-assigned websites. It requires extensive professional learning by educators at all levels, as well as the development of new materials and the purchase of new technology. But if we truly want to ensure that all students have the digital literacy skills required to succeed in the new economy, we have to do it.

Interested in spreading the word about the importance of digital learning? Participate in Digital Learning Day on February 1. Learn more at

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Juan Medina's picture
Juan Medina
High School Art Teacher from Hoffman Estates, Illinois

Much like you suggested, we in the Fine Arts seek to impart knowledge while not confining the student to a set path towards discovery. By empowering the student with the power to explore, we inherently teach the students the skills necessary to achieve on his/her terms. The process of exploration cements the student's point of view regarding the assignment, thus becoming ever more connected to the task of learning. We must, in education, not be afraid to allow students to pilot their own learning, lest we turn technology education into yet another yawn of a power point presentation. As technology becomes more and more linked to education. One must support if not demand self advocacy regarding digital literacy and loosen the reigns that tie us to antiquated methods of evaluating teaching and learning.

Mrs. Rinehart's picture
Mrs. Rinehart
Second grade teacher from North Carolina

I wonder why the United States did not participate in this study. Possibly they were afraid about ranking too low? I absolutely agree that socioeconomic status plays a huge part in digital literacy. Fortunately in my classroom most of my students have Internet access and a computer at home. However, I can always tell which students spend time reading and investigating websites and which students spend their time viewing silly videos. The computer and Internet are vital tools that we as educators must use in our classrooms in a productive way, I agree. I feel that some teachers may be a little frightened and reluctant to turn their students loose on the Internet at school without any direction, in order to do research or find an answer to a problem. We have several "safe" websites that children use to conduct searches, like NetTrekker (, as well as access to WorldBook Online( and Britannica ( There is no reason that the United States cannot be a leader on the digital literacy front in the coming years.

Juan Medina's picture
Juan Medina
High School Art Teacher from Hoffman Estates, Illinois

I also wonder if the United States did not participate for fear of ranking too low. The Obama administration is in fact addressing the socioeconomic divide that bifurcates digital literacy into educational technology versus technology that is just for entertainment. The student that has a computer at home in tandem with supervision that understands the need to support educational technology is one who naturally approaches learning with the skills necessary to mitigate 21st Century approaches to learning. However, the student who does not have the benefit of educational technology and support in the home is in my experience one who understands technology as nothing more than a diversion. This is where we as educators need to push and equalize with every trick we own. Our teaching needs to be linked to technology as text is the communication modality that our students live the most. Multimedia is what holds our students attention best. We need to return to the days when we were comfortable leading in the realm of technology. How best than to support our students with an education that focuses on digital literacy as a means to achieve the spirit of innovation once enjoyed in America.

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