Schools and technology are a far cry from what they were just a couple of decades ago. Children of the 80s will remember the very first computer arriving in their classroom – big, solitary, and without many functions. The other main technology used for teaching was the photocopier, the overhead projector, and the sizeable TV wheeled into the classroom as a rare treat. Advance a few years and there were computer labs with dial-up internet.
These days, children are starting school as digital natives, already familiar with the workings of various devices that older generations only learnt to use in adulthood. Schools are equipped with smart boards, laptops, tablets and wifi connections in each classroom.
Schools now spend £900 million a year on educational technology, but the benefits are being reaped; for example, based on data from the last census, “the UK has a high literacy rate of over 99% among residents aged 15 and older. This is attributed to the universal public education provided to UK residents, both in primary and secondary schools.”
The rise of the internet in education
In the early 1970s, reading and writing were taught using traditional methods that revolved around decoding and encoding the alphabet. During the 80s, two key developments were taking place that would impact greatly on literacy education – the further integration and progression of literacy within the education system, and the emergence of the internet. As the public gained use of the world wide web in 1991, the world took a digital turn.
In the 21st century, literacy has been unequivocally linked to social and economic growth, and the internet is one of the things people say they couldn’t live without, along with food, water and air. Accessed via multiple devices countless times a day, it features in every part of life, including education.
The use of the internet in the classroom is a topic that creates much discussion. While some would say it offers a wider range of possibilities to pupils, others feel you can’t replace the skill of writing with a pen and reading and researching from books.
So, let’s delve a bit deeper into the discussion around whether the internet has helped or hindered literacy.
How the internet has helped literacy
The internet has opened up a whole host of new opportunities in literacy. No longer are books the only choice for research or reading for pleasure. Via the internet, children have many more opportunities to read and write for a range of purposes.
There is a strong link between motivation and progress when it comes to literacy. For some young people, a traditional book may not always be of interest to them, whereas reading about a topic from another source may be just what captures their attention. The internet offers this possibility. Digital reading can be in countless forms, including e-books, emails, blogs and apps, which can be differentiated, making them more accessible.
In order to create a true love of and enjoyment for reading, children need to be able to interact with – and have access to – real books
The key is finding in what form an individual child enjoys reading because, as long as there is enjoyment, there will be progress. According to the National Literacy Trust, “10-year-olds who enjoy reading have a reading age 1.3 years higher than peers who do not, rising to 2.1 years for 12-year-olds and 3.3 years for 14-year-olds.”
Furthermore, using the internet can support children to record their writing in creative ways. When we use newly acquired skills and information in different ways, we retain them better. Some students find it very difficult to get their ideas down in writing, because not only do they have to process their thoughts, they have to concentrate on their handwriting. Using an app or game to turn a writing activity into an interactive quiz or task may increase motivation and retention, and allows children to use their literacy skills to communicate with others.
Providing students with real life situations to use their skills gives their reading and writing a purpose, which increases motivation. Sue Dixon, founder of Thinking Child, sums this up in Literacy across the Curriculum: Making it real: “The moment a child realises that there is a real purpose for literacy, then motivation levels increase and the opportunity to teach specific literacy skills open up more naturally.”
In related news: The Data Literacy Project has introduced the first globally recognised certification for data literacy skills.
“The potential for data-informed decision-making across all roles and business functions is massive,” said Kevin Hanegan, chief learning officer at Qlik. “Data literacy has been proven to positively impact organisations’ enterprise value by up to 5%, so it is little surprise that this skillset is becoming highly valued.”
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How the internet has hindered literacy
Despite the many ways in which the internet can help literacy in the classroom, it can’t be denied that it can be a hindrance; if used to passively play games and watch videos, it will not have any advantageous effect on literacy.
Information is uploaded and changed on the internet at such a pace that it makes it incredibly challenging to monitor and moderate the content that young people are accessing. This raises the question of e-safety and whether teachers are always able to keep young people safe online. There are also concerns about young people relying on and accessing social media; if a child is spending too long on social media, it will be detrimental.
As previously noted, enjoyment of reading is a large contributing factor to making progress. Many argue that, in order to create a true love of and enjoyment for reading, children need to be able to interact with – and have access to – real books. With the wealth of information available online, young people are beginning to rely on the internet, but they still need to be taught to engage with print-based texts.
Introducing the internet and technologies into the classroom has been, and continues to be, a sharp learning curve for many teachers, requiring dedicated time for staff development. The nature of the ever-evolving internet has also resulted in a constant searching for something new or different. Teachers are spending many hours of their valuable time searching for and checking online material, which could be saved by using quality paper-based resources.
The reality of the internet and literacy
The evolution of literacy is not a new concept. From feather and ink to fountain pen to biro, from telegraph to letter to fax to email, literacy has never been static.
A key element of education is ensuring that students are ready to move onto the next stage of their lives, ultimately entering the world of work. In today’s digital world, literacy teaching without the internet no longer seems an option. The young people moving through the education system need to be able to read and write both on paper and in digital format in order to truly be prepared for the wider world. In order to achieve this, the internet and literacy have to come together in the classroom.
This article was updated on 14/06/19 to credit authorship to Catherine Sawkins, TTS Group