After five fascinating years, we are closing our doors. Here are some things we’ve learnt…

Since 2017, we at The Digital Life Skills Company CIC have been researching and teaching Digital Information Literacy (DIL) skills to children, young people and – more recently – adults.

Through interactive workshops and webinars we’ve shown pupils, parents, adult learners and teachers how to search, question and critically evaluate what they find online, to help make sense of the vast and confusing digital information universe.

The need for these skills has never been greater. Misinformation is more pervasive and convincing than ever before. The online environment has become alarmingly polarising, fuelling fear and fury, dividing communities and triggering real-world violence.

The algorithms which determine what we see online prioritise the most ‘engaging’ content – and that is often highly emotive, sensationalised or divisive. The well-documented echo chamber effect means that we see posts from like-minded people, which reinforce our existing views and biases.

So, algorithms serve up content that makes us feel angry, afraid or upset and the echo chamber fuels our sense of righteousness. Together, these two factors affect our ability to take a balanced view or relate to differing perspectives. Friends fall out. Communities turn against each other.

Unlike print media, digital content can be personalised to match an individual’s beliefs, needs and desires. Online, each person experiences their own reality with their own ‘facts’ – in extreme cases, any form of disagreement may be seen as a threat.

There are no two ways about it, the internet shapes our beliefs, world views and behaviour. It can create a distorted view of reality, fuelling polarisation, ‘culture wars’ and societal fragmentation.

Young people – the so-called ‘digital natives’ – can feel overwhelmed by the volume of information, confused about how to navigate it and helpless from overexposure to negative news. Yet we aren’t teaching them how to sift through these unregulated, often unmoderated, streams of pictures, videos and words.

We know our workshops helped. Participants reported feeling more confident and appreciative of practical checking techniques. Teachers have consistently told us that pupils are better able to navigate the online world, less likely to be misled and that the newfound skills have helped with schoolwork.

The need is clear, the benefits are apparent. So why are we closing? Unfortunately, there simply isn’t enough demand from schools for Digital Information Literacy (DIL) training.

While it’s broadly accepted that children and young people need to learn how to make sense of what they see online, the National Curriculum doesn’t adequately reflect this.

Many teachers recognise that we really *should* be teaching these skills, but they can’t find sufficient time because they aren’t on the curriculum.

Some schools have recognised the issues and are attempting to address them – for instance, with an assembly on ‘fake news’ or a PSHE lesson about online hate. However, we strongly believe that the odd lesson here and there is insufficient to address the magnitude of the challenge.

There is no clear place to teach DIL within the current school curriculum. Misinformation is affecting popular understanding of history (holocaust denial, lost causers), science (antivax, Covid denial) and geography (climate change, flat earthers), but DIL doesn’t sit neatly into the structure of the curriculum. There are applications in English, science and humanities too, yet there still isn’t one single subject where these skills can be conveniently embedded.

There is no plan for developing DIL in schools. Government has been slow to understand the need at policy-making or strategy level, so there continues to be little support for schools to do more.

The Department for Education guidance does expect schools (primary and secondary) to teach pupils how to be ‘discerning consumers of information online’ as part of Teaching Online Safety in Schools. However this is only guidance.

In addition DIL is not part of Initial Teacher Training or CPD, so how are teachers expected to understand and teach this complex, fast-evolving topic? They need training, support and quality resources.

Digital Information Literacy is not internet safety. It is not computing or media studies or citizenship. It is not a peripheral subject to be tucked away in an enrichment period or drop-down day. We contend that it is a fundamental skill for learning – like reading, writing and maths – and needs to be addressed urgently.

Timetables are packed, school budgets insufficient and teachers overburdened. New initiatives are unlikely to be adopted unless grounded in the National Curriculum or required by Ofsted. Schools are already required to do too much and teachers are stretched too thinly. With squeezed budgets, those that do broach the subject may rely on low-cost resources so out of date as to be misleading.

Many existing approaches are potentially misleading and/or dangerous. Digital Information Literacy is a slippery and moving target. Outdated techniques can themselves be misleading. For example, a lesson on ‘fake news’ can leave pupils thinking that ‘you can’t trust anything online’; a media studies lesson on agendas and bias can lead to a generalised cynicism and mistrust of all media.

Uninformed scepticism is dangerous. It makes children think that all information sources are equally (in)valid, leaving a vacuum which can all-too-easily be filled with conspiracy theories and other mistaken beliefs.

Instead, we need to pre-arm children with the practical skills and contextual knowledge to accurately evaluate what they see online. (See 12 habits every family should adopt for more on this).

Without DIL skills, disadvantaged groups will become further disadvantaged. As information consumption shifts online, those with poor digital information literacy skills will be further disadvantaged. We know those with poor reading and writing are less able to access reliable information online, and more likely to rely on video and image-led media such as TikTok and YouTube. This leaves them more vulnerable to misleading information or harmful rumours. As adults they will be less able to access services, take up employment opportunities or thrive in the workplace.

Digital inclusion is not just about the availability of technology. In a world where information is readily available, it is also about knowing where to look, the skills to interpret what’s available and the knowledge to put those pieces into context.

Those with lower levels of education, poorer access to technology, support and expertise may be harder to reach, but they will also benefit the most from increased training and support.

This all paints a rather gloomy picture. But while awareness of the need for DIL for all ages is growing, it is clear to us that radical action is needed.

Making sense in a divided, digital world: what needs to be done.

1) Start young

The age at which children are going online, unsupervised, is getting younger. Classes of primary school children are routinely taken on tours of the local library, yet their dominant source of information throughout their lives will be the internet. Children (and their parents) should be introduced to age-appropriate, reliable information sources and practical checking techniques – alongside learning to read and write.

2) Train teachers, librarians, parents and learners of all ages

Digital Information Literacy is a complex and constantly evolving subject. Techniques that worked 5 years ago no longer apply and many approaches are so outdated as to be misleading (see the misinformation myths every school needs to bust). Teachers need to be trained and kept updated in a way that supports rather than adding to their workload. Librarians need supplementary training that deals specifically with the digital information landscape. Parents need guidance to support their children at home.

3) Integrate DIL into the National Curriculum from Key Stage 1

A clear framework with consistent guiding principles should be incorporated into the National Curriculum from Key Stage 1, when many children will already be using the internet autonomously. These guiding principles would be underpinned by age-appropriate techniques which would become increasingly sophisticated as pupils get older.

This would enable schools to develop a shared language with practices and activities which could be applied across the curriculum.

4) Create resources that can be dropped into a variety of subjects

Ideally, DIL should not be taught as a stand-alone subject – it is a core skill for learning, rather than an ‘extra’ subject. Skills should be built across the curriculum so that pupils know how to search and critically evaluate information in any subject area from science to history.

Schools should be provided with up-to-date, subject specific and key-stage appropriate resources – created by DIL experts. This would enable them to incorporate these skills into their specialisms without adding to their workload.

5) Move from internet safety to information skills

The children and teens we’ve worked with are tired of being warned to ‘be careful’ online. They don’t want yet another internet safety lesson telling them how dangerous and untrustworthy the internet is. They want informed support and expert advice on how to navigate their online lives, with practical skills to deal with issues that arise.

Digital Information Literacy is where we can start with all this. With the right skills, they can find useful information and support on almost any issue, when they need it. They can deal with misleading or harmful information. They can become better at learning.

6) Use real-world case studies

Children are fascinated by real-life stories. They provide social currency and are more relevant and memorable than dramatised or theoretical scenarios. This is particularly the case for a subject concerned with the matter of truth. So it’s best to avoid fictional examples which don’t have the same power to connect to children’s daily lives and use compelling, current case-studies for real impact.

7) Teach children how to use the internet – by using the internet

Children and teens increasingly find out about the world via search engines and social media. They are more likely to trust answers generated by search engines or voice assistants than turn to broadcast media. Yet many of the schools we’ve worked with adopt an ‘avoidance’ strategy – banning or restricting access to the internet and social media in the classroom and recommending that young people refer instead to books or print media.

This is a missed opportunity. We need to show children how to use search engines effectively and consult the wider web to check what shows up in their feeds.

8) Use the media that matters to them

Children and teens tend to consider themselves way more digitally savvy than the adults in their lives, yet they don’t critically evaluate what they see online.

There is too much emphasis on media that simply isn’t relevant to children and teens – for instance few read newspapers, browse websites or use Facebook. It is vital to ground teaching in the media children and teens consume, because they won’t necessarily make the connection between that printed advert used in a lesson and the memes, TikToks and YouTube videos that they devour…

So although we are hanging up our hats at the Digital Life Skills Company, the need for Digital Information Literacy has never been greater. If you are a school or concerned parent you can access quality (free) resources and/or programmes from: Newswise, The Economist Educational Foundation and Be Internet Citizens. There are also a number of burgeoning networks doing excellent work in this space including CILIP, Ofcom Making Sense of Media and The National Literacy Trust. Further afield, but with plenty of relevant content and materials for us in the UK are CIVIX (Canada), Mediawise (US) and Checkology (US). Check out their programmes and – if you are interested in improving media literacy – they are also available at no cost.

Before we go, we’d like to leave you with a couple of must-read posts for parents and teachers – in fact for anyone who uses the internet. In The misinformation myths every school needs to bust we debunk the approaches to media literacy that no longer work, and in 12 habits every family should adopt we highlight some practical techniques that every child (and adult!) who gets information online really needs to know.

Read next…

The misinformation myths every school needs to bust

12 habits every family should adopt

Watch next…

Our co-founder, Shelley Metcalfe spoke recently at TEDx Macclesfield about the cost of careless clicks, how we are all part of the problem and what we can do about it. Watch the talk here.

[Photo thanks to Tim Mossholder via Pexels]