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The “tech literacy” gap

July 12, 2014 - Rachel

I’ve been pondering “tech literacy” a lot recently. For one thing, it’s a central part of quite a lot of the conversation that hung off Museum Next this year, what with Koven’s talk about “authentic digital” and various other discussions about digital strategy, whether you need a “head of digital” or the use of the word “digital” at all. This stuff also forms such a central part of any process of exposing digital stuff to users that we find it pops up in our work almost every single day: emails to clients, website planning, digital strategy, training.

This week I was reminded again of this “tech literacy” phrase and the meaning behind it during the weekly Code Club session that I help run at the boys’ school. We’ve been developing games for Scratch and although it’s brilliant to watch the enthusiasm and energy that some of them bring to the coding party there is often a painful mismatch when they fail totally doing things like downloading an image from the web or trying to find Chrome in Windows Explorer.

[aside: as I edited this post I stumbled across an example of what I’m talking about. I wanted to have a quick look at the Code Club website, Googled it and ended up with this:

Code Club security cert

..what a great illustration. What’s a “security certificate”? Why is it important? How has it expired?… etc etc ]


At the heart of the whole debate, whether in museums or elsewhere is our relationship with technology. Koven’s idea – the “authentically digital” museum – has at the centre a relaxed, natural, flowing relationship with digital tools and content. It’s a lovely idea, and one that everyone should probably embrace as a potential vision – but I think it’s also an impossibility for most people.

Why? Well, it comes back to the tech literacy thing. Our lives (museum lives, working lives, home lives..) are full of people who are – frankly – crap at technology. They’re scared or pretending it doesn’t matter or simply don’t know where to start. It’s understandable – I’m not having a go – technology is sometimes pretty shit and unbearably inpenetrable, and us geek types quite often do a terrible job of explaining what we’re doing. But nonetheless this is where we’ve got to.

The answer is to invest in kids – and build this competancy right from the ground up, but the problem as I see it is that we’re throwing the wrong solution at the problem. Our solution has been “invest in getting kids interested in coding!” – which in some quarters has become “if you can code you can get a job!” or worse “if you can’t code, you’ll never get a job!”, all of which is clearly bullshit. For sure there are pretty good coding jobs out there and there’s worse things to do – but it isn’t the golden bullet it’s sometimes held up to be.

The danger here is that schools teach kids how to use Word and Powerpoint, and do a bit about internet safety – all worthy, all good, (all arguably out of date by the time they actually hit the outside world, but that’s by the by). Then at the same time we’re also giving some of them (the lucky ones) Code Club competancy too – telling them how to store variables, code if/then loops, logic, gamplay.

And in the middle is this huge swathe of stuff that us tech literati (sorry) use all the time. Things like cloud services, using Dropbox to share files, collaborating with Google Drive, backing up, password strengths, phishing, downloading images, finding trusted sources, when to use Wikipedia (and when not), browser extensions, instant messaging (old skool), webcasts, viruses, Trello, bookmarking tools, social media, connecting your device to a network…

As far as I can see, we’re not giving our kids any training in or exposure to this stuff. They’re not getting it at school – the poor bloody teachers are being so endlessly pressured and squashed by twats like Gove that they can’t possibly be expected to keep up. They’re not getting it at home – parents are either scared, technologically useless, or fall back to the rather pathetic but endlessly common “I don’t do technology, ask [name of family geek]”. And they’re certainly not getting it at Raspbery Code Pi Club.

Maybe they’re soaking it up just by being immersed in the tech all the time? Maybe spending x hours a day playing Minecraft or zombifying in front of the Xbox is doing something good for their tech literacy? I suspect not: I suspect playing Minecraft all day may be good for creativity or collaborative gameplay, but it doesn’t do shit for anything else. I think parents too often hide behind this: “oo, Jonny is GREAT at tech, look how good he is with that touchscreen”…

This seems to me a gap; a dangerous gap, and one which will over time continue to create a generation with the “geeks on the outside”, one which is a million miles away from the “authentic digital” vision.

I’m not yet sure what the solution might look like: I suspect it’s parents like me being slightly less helpful – when Son1 asks me why he can’t get on the web I should probably just tell him to work it out for himself. Or maybe I should give him sandbox environments where he can play without fear of doing something horrific. Or maybe it needs something more solid – a kind of “authentic digital” training plan where non-technically-literate parents can work with their kids on shared problems.

I don’t know, but I’m working on it. Maybe there are tools and stuff already out there that you’re already using, in which case tell me – I’d love to know what everyone else is thinking or doing.

[ Edit: Matt Jukes pointed me to this excellent post he did back in 2011: Mozilla maybe missing a step? in which he makes pretty much the same point – well worth a read]


1 Comment

  1. madgeni

    July 12, 2014 at 11:19 am

    I think there’s a risk of over worrying about the learning of some of these ‘core’ skills at an early age – i’d imagine you (like myself) knew nothing of these until they became pertinent, and then you were taught – whether through formal education, or work placed training. The fact that some kids don’t know their way around windows explorer isn’t necessarily a reflection that they’re missing something – rather that, to some extent, the way people are interacting with technology is changing. Less use of desktops, more use of mobile/tablet and their native apps. We can argue the right and wrong about that another day!
    I’d say that if there’s a need for some skills *around* code club (my eldest goes to hers also), then those skills become something that the people who run them should incorporate as part of the learning. 
    I don’t think a syllabus is required, or to provide a sandbox (of what, to do what?), just tackle things as they come up, and they’ll come to the things they need, when they need them. I’m sure there’s plenty of tech out there neither of us know how to use/interact with, but there’s always time to learn 🙂

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