The Importance of Digital Literacy and Empowerment

The recent surge in online learning both before and after the Coronavirus crisis has brought into sharp focus the reality of students using computers for many hours and for many things, including the advancement of their education and learning. Whether or not we agree with students using computers for learning, the reality of our current situation is that many students are using technology in education in one way or another. I believe that it is our task as educators and caring adults to understand the implications of using technology in education and to strengthen students’ ability to use technology responsibly. This is no easy task, and it starts with awareness of what technology is, its effects on us, and how we can live in harmony with it, now and into the future.

The Basics of Technology

The first step is to become aware of what technology is at a basic level. To start, we can share a brief history of the development of technology with students. Modern technology began with humans creating tools to help make basic tasks easier, more efficient, and more comfortable. Examples of such technology could include tools for stonework and fire for cooking and warmth, just to name a few. We can quickly see that technology has a rightful place in our world, and conversely, we can reflect on its harmful effects. These reflections can create opportunities for healthy debate and deep and important discussions.

Additionally, it is important for students to understand the basics of how machinery and digital devices work. Learning about simple hardware components of a digital device or a computer can be a good start for all students. Algorithmic thinking can be a good start for students to understand simple logic. For the older student, learning about electricity and how it powers digital devices, binary math and simple programming could be appropriate and interesting enhancements to the curriculum. These topics help demystify technology and can be the seeds of empowerment and human responsibility for technology.   

Technology’s Effects on Us, and How to Stay Safe and Digitally Responsible

Once this awareness and a basic understanding and vocabulary has been built, students can reflect on the effects of technology in many aspects of their lives.

First and foremost, students should learn about the basics of online safety and protection. Essential skills for staying safe online and not revealing too much information are critical. Contemporary issues of computer security and privacy issues can be addressed, and students can learn the basics of how to protect their personal digital information.

Students should be shown the deceptive methods used by many organizations to track, retain, and commoditize their personal information and to manipulate their behavior and attention. By learning about these realities, students can make more informed choices about their engagement with technologies and platforms. Students should also be taught about the effect of their “digital footprint” on their current and future personal and professional lives. 

Next, students can learn about how computer and device usage can affect body and mind. Students can do their own experiments by observing how they feel, physically, after using technology for periods of time. In addition, there are many studies that show the negative effect of technology on vision and spinal health, and these and other topics of ergonomics can be introduced and explored. The effect of technology on mental health and mood is of paramount importance; this discussion can illuminate, for all, the effects of too much technology and addiction to it.

The effect of technology use on social health is also an essential topic. Learning about how to use technology in socially appropriate ways, how to be a good digital citizen, how to create our own healthy digital footprint and why that is important, media literacy, including how to spot fake news and how to know if digital information is reliable are just a few of the topics that middle school students and older should explore. In high school and in college, students should be required to take a course in the social and ethical implications of technology to raise their awareness of biases and other ethical issues in AI and technology. This could help all students broaden their understanding of the ethical issues in creation and use of technology, which can lead them to personal reflections on the topic, thereby raising awareness.  

Living a Healthy, Harmonious and Balanced Life with Technology

Last but perhaps more importantly, we must help students learn how to live a balanced life with technology, because it is so integrated in our modern lives. We can help students understand technology’s rightful place in our lives, and how to find a healthy balance for themselves. Ultimately, living in balance with technology means that we must continually strengthen our “non-digital” lives. Our “non-digital” life includes, but is not limited to, activities such as in-person connections and relationships, engaging in laughter, art, experiences in nature, and anything that makes us uniquely human, that feeds our senses, our souls, and our need for creativity and connection with others and the non-digital world around us. Balancing our “non-digital” and digital lives can help students build fortitude, inner strength, and overall health for a lifetime.

In summary, students must understand that technology is a tool to be used in service of humanity and that it will only do what humans tell it to do or allow it to do. Therefore, technology is our collective responsibility, and this can be taught to all students, in developmentally appropriate ways. We must help students understand technology, its implications in their lives, and how to live responsibly with it.

While almost all schools are using computers for some degree of learning, very few, if any, have a program with the components I have outlined here. I believe that it is irresponsible to place technology in students’ hands without helping them learn the realities of it, the good and bad, and how to be responsible with this powerful tool. It is not unlike the importance we place on learning how to drive a car safely and responsibly. Ultimately, the future of humanity could depend on our commitment to building students’ awareness of digital technology and how to interact responsibly with it.

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