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Is digital literacy the fourth pillar of education?

Author | Tania Alonso

Along with healthcare challenges, one of the most challenging aspects we are facing as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, is tackling disinformation and fake news. To prevent fake news from spreading, it is essential to provide society with tools and knowledge through digital literacy, a challenge that is yet to be addressed in many regions of the world.

On September 8 of this year, the International Literacy Day will be held, which offers the opportunity to reflect on the consequences of the education gap in general and technology literacy in particular.

What is digital literacy?

When we refer to digital literacy, we are referring to the ability to use technology to achieve specific useful goals in our lives. That is, it is not simply about being able to switch on and use a computer: a digitally competent person is also capable of using a computer to solve his/her problems. For example, communicating, searching for relevant information for their work or carrying out basic procedures and formalities.

Digital literacy is, in short, the ability to access, understand, communicate and create information through digital technologies. According to the UNESCO, it includes competences such as computer literacy and literacy in information and communication technologies (ICT).

Information literacy and media literacy are also important: the former allows one to know when and why information is needed, where to find it and how to use it correctly. The latter enables one to understand how the media work and to be critical when understanding their messages. These competences are essential in order to fully take part in society and broaden people’s possibilities on a personal, labor and economic level, among others.

The importance of digital literacy today

Information and media literacy are particularly relevant at times such as those we are living in, in which fake news has jeopardized the health and integrity of many people.

But, what exactly is fake news? As the name indicates, it refers to unfounded rumors disseminated as news through information portals or social media, in a deliberate and selfish manner. The aim of those behind the fake news may be varied: from discrediting an idea, a person or an institution, to gaining economic benefits of some kind.

The proliferation of fake news during the COVID-19 crisis has highlighted how important digital literacy is. People with access to digital services and the Internet and with knowledge on how to corroborate news or how to look for alternative information sources that are less likely to have been manipulated and are not misleading.

Person using a laptop computer.

Approaches towards promoting digital literacy vary in depth and scale. In Spain, organizations such as Fundación Esplai offer programs intented to improve the so-called “E-inclusion”, meaning computing skills and even coding to anybody who needs it, but focusing on young people in particular. At council level, cities such as Barcelona are also offering their own courses focused on digital literacy.

The amount of digital literacy projects around the world, both public and private, is staggering. And some of them are specifically aimed at educators. That is the case of US Digital Literacy, an initiative managed by teachers, for teachers. Its aim is simple but important: to provide the tools and resources needed by fellow educators to improve their teaching skills in the digital age. Something of the utmost importance given that today’s children are digital natives.

The fourth pillar of education

Digital literacy may be considered the fourth pillar of education. In fact, it is so important today that the UNESCO includes it in its own definition of education: “Beyond its conventional concept as a set of reading, writing and counting skills, literacy is now understood as a means of identification, understanding, interpretation, creation, and communication in an increasingly digital, text-mediated, information-rich and fast-changing world”.

Being digitally competent firstly enables the privacy and security of people browsing and using their personal data via the Internet. Secondly, it guarantees that the internet is used in a correct, transparent and ethical manner, preventing cases of discrimination and possible offenses.

It also enables everyone to take part equally in the opportunities offered in the digital world. From accessing jobs to improving their education or taking part in community life. In other worlds, it strengthens democracy and guarantees inclusion.

Images | hj barraza, Glenn Carstens-Peters