Danish youth education en route to digital literacy

Denmark invests massively in education and we pride ourselves on having a worldclass IT infrastructure. But at the same time our educational system and the libraries fail to examine the connection between information supply, learning and the new digital reality. A new strategy could be the first step in the right direction.

Once upon a time libraries were full of books. And there was a time when textbooks, blackboard and chalk in closed classrooms were the basis for all teaching. Digitisation has caused a historical breakaway that cannot easily be ignored. Immense volumes of information can be retrieved in minutes.

The classroom is wide open as soon as the portable or the iPad is switched on. The traditional monopoly of the correct knowledge enjoyed by teacher and textbook has been undermined. The good old verbalism or written form has been extended to include a large number of new media forms.

In this incalculable process of change which has hit the Danish upper secondary school (the gymnasium) and the rest of the educational sector, digital literacy is emerging more and more clearly as a necessity. Teaching and instruction have to be adapted so that
children and young people will be able to use relevant digital platforms and media effectively, critically, creatively and innovatively. It is an absolute must in preparing the young for the challenges that lie ahead not only during their higher education programmes, but also in their work life and their participation in a democratic societal process.

Think tank

Denmark prides herself on having a world-class IT infrastructure, but there is some way to go before also becoming world champions of a critical and innovative use of the enormous volume of information available.

Digital literacy is a continuation of the information literacy which over the past 10–20 years – with varying success – has been sought incorporated in many learning processes in Denmark. Seen from a Danish angle digital literacy is a continuation of the traditional aim for liberal education and study preparedness that form the basis for upper secondary education.

Among other things, the digital initiative in Denmark is to be strengthened via Denmark’s Electronic Research Library (DEFF) which in anchored in three ministries (culture, education and research). Apart from providing digital access as cheaply as possible to as many educational institutions as possible, DEFF considers it an essential task to help develop and underpin upper secondary education’s access to knowledge and use of informationcritical skills.

In spring 2011 DEFF therefore arranged a conference on ‘digital literacy  and study preparation’, where a productive dialogue between researchers, teachers and librarians was successfully established. It was decided to carry on this dialogue in Think tank for digital literacy in the upper secondary school, which so far has held three meetings from April to September 2012.With this think tank a broad platform has been created for the first time where all the important and relevant stakeholders within the area have been gathered together to share their thoughts on a common strategy.

Totality and interaction

In Denmark it would mean a reinforcement of digital literacy if a top-down strategy or central political guidelines for this were established by central  authority. But as the political focus is directed at the Folkeskole this is unrealistic. The think tank’s prepared strategy is therefore based on the bottom-up principle. It is the individual gymnasiums – and preferably networking between the schools – that have to kick off the development processes.

At the same time the development must be holistic, i.e. embrace the entire school culture and thereby include school management, teachers, librarians as well as students in an active interaction.

The digital technology, which incidentally today’s schools are well-supplied with, changes nothing in itself. It is the targeted competence development – both in terms of teacher and student – that presents the decisive challenge. Development of digital competences must be integrated in the academic and semi-academic course programmes. They must act as practical tools in the day-to-day work.

Various studies indicate that it is a great mistake to believe that presentday students can handle IT media and platforms just because they are ‘digital natives’. Critical, creative and selective competences have to be developed and trained in a targeted way and throughout
the entire upper secondary school.

The need therefore exists for a broad initiative in terms of advanced teacher training courses, and it must be tied to the general professional didactic development process. Collaboration between professional groups and networking between groups of schools will contribute significantly to expediting the process. It requires some prioritizations for which the individual school managements must assume responsibility.

The traditional gymnasium libraries and study centres must be transformed into the schools’ digital resource centres, and the professional librarians in the schools ought to be important  players in the digital competence development.

A great deal to be gained

It is going to be a long haul to transform the ambitions of the strategy into the reality of the classroom. But there is a great deal to be gained. There is probably a correlation between the ability to develop and express ideas and decode information and the results the students achieve. Digitally literate students are also less inclined to plagiarize, have a heightened source-critical approach and are better at exploiting analysis tools.

The strategy for digital literacy will be underpinned by a number of development processes and projects.Moreover, it is the ambition of the think tank to influence the educational political debate as well as highlighting the necessity of digital literacy. In this context it is essential that the organisations represented in the think tank actively support the follow-up work. It is precisely this organisational backing that can give impetus to the continued activity of the think tank.

Former member of the DEFF steering committee and former gymnasium lecturer
Head of communications and information services University Library of Southern Denmark