Kids' tech skills go backwards thanks to tablets and smartmobes

Australian study finds lowest-ever digital literacy scores coincide with the iPad age

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The growing prevalence of smartphones and tablets in homes and schools may be retarding kids' development of IT skills, according to an Australian study.

The research in question was conducted by Australia's National Assessment Program (NAP_, a body that undertakes research of students' skills. Every three years, NAP assesses science literacy, civics and citizenship, and information and communication technology (ICT) literacy. The latter was tested in 2014 and results emerged this week.

Those tested were in what Australia calls Year 6 and Year 10. Year 6 is Australia's last year of Primary School and kids turn 12 during the school year. Year 10 kids typically turn 16 and complete their fourth year of High School along the way. 10,500 students participated in the online assessments, randomly selected from different schools around Australia.

Tasks that students were asked to complete included:

  • Use a blog and a comparative search engine to identify a venue for a sports picnic and to select sports equipment, then use tailored graphics software to produce invitations that included a map generated by using embedded mapping software;
  • Work with a scenario of three students forming a music band that has won a talent contest and been invited to enter an interstate competition. Tasks included to help the band by completing the online registration for the competition, promote the band’s next gig through social media and set up a crowd-funding web page to raise money;
  • A student is asked to set up a tablet computer to access the internet, install a number of applications on the tablet computer, set up one of the applications to collect weather data and use software to manage the data;
  • A scenario where a student is part of a design team creating an animated video about water safety around lakes and dams, which is aimed at upper primary school students, and for which the student is required to upload a file to a video website, adjust settings on a video website and use specific software to make a video.

The method used to score digital literacy is complex, but is consistent across the four cycles of testing. And as the table below shows, the 2014 result shows that Year 6 kids have descended below the digital literacy levels recorded in 2008 and Year 10 scores are at an all-time low.

Australian digital literacy 2005-2014

If you're reading this table of digital literacy results in Australia, you probably can't understand it

Why is Australia doing so badly?

The report's authors advance a theory that kids are now using mobile devices that require different skills and a different style of teaching.

Here's what the report's conclusion has to say:

Firstly, it is possible that changes in the teaching and learning with ICT have resulted in less emphasis being placed on the teaching of skills associated with ICT literacy.

Secondly, it is possible that the development of ICT literacy competencies has been taken for granted in Australia where the level of access to ICT in schooling is extremely high.

Thirdly, it is possible that the emergence of mobile computing technology devices has led to increased emphases in teaching and learning on different skills (such as those associated with online communication).

The report goes on to note studies of the prevalence of tablets in Australian schools, find it's on the rise and leading to a hypothesis that “ it is perhaps not so likely that the emphasis [on teaching ICT literacy] has been removed, but rather that it has shifted with the uptake of mobile technology devices.”

“It is possible that this shift in emphasis may have contributed to changes in ICT literacy achievement between 2011 and 2014.” The report also notes that the 2011 study took place mere months after the iPad's debut. Tablets have since become ubiquitous, while smartphones have become far more affordable and therefore find their way into more kids' hands.

Another likely reason for the poor performance was that Australia recognised its technologies curriculum needed an overhaul well before 2014. The nation therefore developed a new Digital Technologies Curriculum but delayed its implementation of for political reasons, as our Australian bureau has chronicled at length. The new and dedicated curriculum was due to be taught from 2014, so may not have made an impact on this study. But the fact remains that Australian schools worked with older curricula that may not have reflected modern technological realities before the 2014 study.

The study's gone down very badly in Australia, which has recently experienced an outbreak of bipartisan enthusiasm for all things STEM-and-startup. You can find the NAP report here (PDF) and a technical report here (PDF). ®


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