This feature first appeared in the Fall 2022 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.
We live in an increasingly digital age where more and more aspects of our lives unfold — at least in part — electronically. Everything from work meetings to grocery shopping can now happen just as easily on a phone or computer as physically travelling to the office or grocery store. With increased digitization comes increased convenience, new possibilities for innovation, and increased risks.
The term "digital literacy" describes our ability to use and navigate this world of digital tools and computers. It involves not only our ability to type and use a mouse or touchscreen, but also skills that require more practice — like identifying which websites pose risks to our personal data, how to search for accurate information, and knowing what kind of information is wise or unwise to post on social media.
Why teach digital literacy?
As the digital world becomes more and more integrated with our everyday lives, digital literacy has become more and more crucial for everyone — especially for kids and teens. Gone are the days when teenage social blunders could happen in a vacuum and be quickly forgotten. Instead, phone cameras, social media, and website trackers capture, document, and even publish our activities almost constantly.
Digital literacy, however, does more than just keep us safe. Understanding how to use digital tools opens doors to the future in a multitude of ways. Software and hardware tools and processes that were once too expensive — or too specialized — for everyone except skilled professionals closed off access to industries.
These are now a fingertip away on a computer or smart phone — music production, video editing, game design, photography, and more. Learning to use computer hardware and software opens doors for creative expression and puts students on the fast track to exciting careers with excellent salaries.
It should come as no surprise that U.S. school boards and state legislatures are prioritizing digital literacy education earlier and earlier for students almost everywhere. The specifics of what that means vary a great deal from state to state — some want students to learn about computer hardware and how devices and tools are made, while others would prefer to focus on programming and digital problem-solving skills.
Everyone, however, recognizes the need for students to learn early how computers work and how to use software. With some fairly basic training, kids can build spreadsheets that analyze data, create eye-catching documents and slide shows, write simple computer programs, and more.
During a 2021 summer conference for teachers who use TestOut courses, we noticed a lot of middle school and junior high school teachers in attendance looking for something to teach courses on these subjects for their students. Finding age-appropriate tools and courses to teach digital literacy and basic IT skills was a challenge complicated by one of two problems:
Most of what's available is either too shallow and doesn't foster excitement or direct engagement, or it's too technical and complex for students to understand and master the material. That spurred our vision to create a new IT course.
Designed by teachers, for teachers We recruited three former high school teachers to our design team — including two with prior IT teaching experience — and looked at the wide variety of standards from different states across the country.
It quickly became apparent that we needed to create an exploratory course that would introduce students to many different technology topics. This would allow teachers in different districts to have coverage of the content they needed, while also allowing students to explore different IT topics and embrace a range of possible interests.
We wanted the material to be fun and accessible for younger students, but also address complex topics to give students authentic experiences. The students should learn technical vocabulary and concepts, which will prepare them for future learning, real-world troubleshooting, and eventual opportunities for mastery in academics or their careers.
The new course, Digital Literacy Pro, that we released this fall is a rigorous introduction to computers and IT designed for younger teens. Covering topics from keyboarding to computer hardware to business applications to programming, the course is designed to give students both an introduction to IT and an in-depth look at a variety of computing topics — all with hands-on practice.
Digital Literacy Pro helps students find their footing in the following subject areas:
• Computer Hardware
• Operating Systems and File Systems
• Word Processing
• E-mail and Databases
• Networks and Internet Technology
• The Internet, Social Media, and IoT
• Mobile Technology and Security
• Programming Fundamentals
• IT and Technology Careers
In addition to technical lessons and skill-building exercises, the course includes a chapter about Digital Citizenship that aims to help students navigate the sometimes-murky waters of what is acceptable and what is not in their online and digital behavior.
For example, what is the difference between copyright infringement and plagiarism? What can be done to combat cyberbullying? What kinds of cultural differences should we be aware of when communicating with global communities online? As students think about these and other issues, they will be better prepared to contribute in healthy and meaningful ways in digital spaces.
Not every classroom will need every topic in the TestOut Digital Literacy Pro course to meet their specific state standards, but the course should provide a wide enough range to meet the needs of most educators trying to help their students learn these invaluable skills for the future. And the wide range of topics will allow teachers to easily offer more to their accelerated or more invested students.
Turning IT curiosity into IT savvy
As much as was possible, TestOut Digital Literacy Pro was designed to be a collaborative, hands-on course. Engaging videos introduce topics. Students watch demonstrations of specific software tasks, and then they have a chance to try it on their own in a simulated lab environment — which means they don’t need individual software licenses or specific computer equipment.
This allows, for example, students using Chromebooks to practice moving files and creating folders in Microsoft Windows, formatting documents in Microsoft Word, and adding images to a presentation in Microsoft PowerPoint.
These simulated practice exercises aren’t just limited to software, however. Students will be able to practice using simulated hardware pieces to connect devices, create computer networks, or even upgrade computer components like video cards or RAM. This hands-on experience demystifies computers for students and will help them become more skilled creators in the classroom and eventual workplace.
Other courses from TestOut have offered similar introductory experiences for students, like the TestOut Office Pro or TestOut IT Fundamentals courses. Each of these courses focuses on preparing students for a certification, whether it's the Microsoft Office Specialist certifications or the CompTIA IT Fundamentals credential.
Digital Literacy Pro doesn't emphasize any one aspect of its content above the others. Instead, course content is tailored for a younger audience and the focus is on introducing and reinforcing skills and fundamental concepts tied to computers and the digital world.
The end result is a course that we’re proud of and think is a great starting place for young students to experience a wide variety of information technology topics and start developing skills with operating systems, common software, and so much more. As the need for digital literacy continues to grow in all of our daily personal, professional, and social lives, early and rich exposure to digital skills and concepts is becoming more and more critical for kids and teens.