Literacy in school brings back memories of reading books and writing stories. While these skills will always be prevalent in curriculum, another literacy type is growing in importance: digital literacy.
Douglas Gentile, Iowa State professor of psychology, works with the DQ Institute, an organization rising to the forefront of digital literacy and education. Gentile’s research has led the way for the program by defining the problems today’s digital users face.
“What’s remarkable about the new DQ framework is that it is the first fully comprehensive definition of digital literacy,” Gentile said.
The DQ Institute’s program has become widely adopted by governing bodies at a time when it’s needed the most.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, with schools increasingly using online platforms when in-person instruction isn’t possible, the Institute said kids need to know how to use technology now more than ever, including what benefits there are and what risks may be lurking.
Gentile’s praise of the Institute fell short of his level of concern. Digital technology has been around for multiple decades, but its promotion in the educational system has fizzled as of late. Gentile cited public opinion as a cause of its curbed growth, mainly between the sides of information-based or values-based teaching.
“I think this is part of the reason why we’ve made so little progress in the U.S. in the past 30 years; we’ve wrestled over a definition rather than actually doing very much,” he said.
Even before outlining the diminished focus, Gentile notes the complexity of digital literacy. His use of the word "comprehensive" proves accurate: DQ’s website defines digital literacy in 32 words, leaving most of the description to its eight-pillared breakdown featuring 24 subcategories.
These essential details cover everything from communication, consumption, identity, management, empathy and safety. From this list of words, safety has become one of the primary topics DQ researches.
According to the Child Online Safety Index (COSI), the Institute found that 60 percent of children experienced one or more defined cyber risks. The research, spanning from 2017-19, ranked the United States just above average out of 30 surveyed countries (51.0 score). Spain and Australia led the way with scores of 75.6 and 75.1, respectively, while Thailand ranked the lowest with a score of 10.5.
This multinational approach includes research from a diverse range of data collection tactics.
“The way the DQ Institute did [research] is through their education,” Gentile said, listing video games, TV shows, trading cards and plush dolls as a few examples of ways they reached kids and learned about their digital literacy. “Every country got to figure out how they wanted to use the program that made sense given their own local customs or rules within their ministries of education. In a sense, it gives us much better data than what we would have gotten if we tried to do a traditional survey.”
As for the results, Gentile primarily looks for similarities between cultures. The COSI report led to one primary point he hopes to highlight with awareness.
“What surprised me in the results … was that no country was immune," he said. "All countries are dealing with these types of cyber risks for their kids.”
The 60 percent risk line alarms experts such as Gentile, especially considering its effects on all countries. In other words, digital safety is yet to be solved by anyone.
The DQ Institute is chasing this solution, citing progress as a chief goal of their work. Gentile outlines the necessary objectives of the program: define the comprehensive nature of digital literacy, put it back into the classroom, make it accessible and, most importantly, train teachers.
“We say it’s important, but then we don’t give teachers the resources and the training they actually need to be effective teachers,” Gentile said. “It’s going to take a fair amount of political will, first to get the educational code changed in the state and then to get teachers the resources they need so they can do it effectively.”
At the end of the day, Gentile hopes another public will join in the effort: parents. He directly challenges parents to see their potential.
“What parents can do that’s most beneficial is actually have these deep conversations with their kids,” he said. “Having [kids] see that you as the parents are not the enemy, that you’re in fact their partner in trying to help them face it. To the extent that parents are able to, begin to have this open communication about what the risks are so that the kids feel safe. They know if there’s a problem, they can get their parents on their side.”
As one of Iowa State’s own, Gentile’s research, paired with the DQ Institute’s work, champions what it means to be on the kids’ side. He encouraged students who have learned about digital literacy in their classes to promote the cause and offer their insight to teach to others.