It has become a cliché that what has become the older generation but was once the baby boomer generation is a lot less digital savvy than their children and certainly less than their grandchildren. There is, of course, a lot of truth there but the digital world is so vast it would be nearly impossible for anyone other than a committed professional to be expert in every facet of it.
It is best to look at savviness in the digital world as the new form of literacy: digital literacy. It doesn’t supersede reading literacy or calculating literacy; it’s a third form of literacy: the ability to smoothly add functional skills through the digital formats.
Everyone Needs a Teacher
Just as we don’t assume that kids will pick up reading on their own or will be able to learn to make simple everyday computations on their own, we shouldn’t assume that kids today can pick up the skills in the digital world on their own. Even learning to play online games shouldn’t be left to the learner’s own resources at first. The classroom is the best venue for a tutorial, far superior to the playground.
Need for Balance
The digital world is too big and deep to just throw kids into it without some sort of “flotation device”. We need to develop digital “training wheels” to help the kids get started. These digital “training wheels’ are also what adults old enough to be grandparents need to get themselves comfortably immersed in the digital world.
Wait! Hold On! Stop!
The very first problem any beginner has is that the digital world races forward so fast it’s extremely hard to keep up. When we learn to read, we know all of the words we will use for years until we finally come across a word we don’t know. We need to learn to read unusual constructs but we already know the word we are learning to read. Reading is a smooth transition from language which we acquire without formal learning.
When we learn basic arithmetic, we start from a less comfortable point. We almost never learn to calculate before school. But the numbers we use in school never change their essence. When we learn the numbers 1-10, we can control them forever. We come to know instinctively that an answer we arrived at “can’t be right”.
The digital world is full of terms we don’t know, acronyms we can’t fathom, and functions that we had no idea existed. Just as high level language or math is far beyond the skill level of first graders, the vast digital world is too big to take in all at once.
Learning through Experience
Whether the learner is young or just a wee bit old, it’s important that they have a peer group with which to interact online. For both young and old, a safe digital location is a must. The classroom itself is the best forum for young people to learn how to navigate the digital world. Adults need controlled guidance to go step by step into the unseen.
We forget what learning is like and what learning was like for us when we were young but learning to use the internet and digital software is no different. It’s just a whole lot bigger.
When we learned to swim we had a pool and floats on our arms. Our swimming teacher, who most often was mom or dad, stayed close to us because they knew that water can be as dangerous as it can be fun. When we learned to ride a bike without training wheels, our instructor, mom and dad again, stood nearby to hug us when we fell. The sidewalk was just the immovable platform. We never imagined that the sidewalk could morph into something else.
When we learned to order food in a restaurant, it was by observing the adults who had taken us there. Restaurants and menus change but the process of ordering doesn’t. Even when the platform changed from a server taking your order as you sat with menu in hand to the server taking your menu at a digital console, the process from the customer’s point of view didn’t really change.
The open-face burger with dressing on the side became the fast food burger of choice please hold the mayo. Nothing dramatic had changed. Just keep in mind that if you never had seen an adult order for you, you would have no idea how to do it the first time.
Keep it Simple
New learners need to start from the simplest platform or digital application. The term application has already become the ubiquitous app. We can teach students how to visualize the concept of an app by showing them one or two basic apps on their phones or tablets.
The app store is like a book store, music store, or shoe store but it may be best to describe it as a vast candy store. In a candy store, we have only so much money to spend so we have to prioritize. Most apps are free but take up space on the device so here too we have to prioritize.
But just as in the candy store, we can sample one delectable this week and another next week, in the app store we can sample any app we like and remove it to make way for the next one if we wish or need to.
By getting learners to imagine the digital world as composed of elements we already do understand, we can remove the uncertainty and low self-confidence elements.
Most young people are already digital savvy by the time they learn to read. Most adults are overwhelmed by the digital world until they learn in a small step by small step fashion how to swim in it instead of feeling like they’re drowning in it.
As for school kids, teaching digital skills is today as important as teaching reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic. For older people who have felt intimidated by this huge new world, learning to conceive of the digital components as functionally the same as what they already know is the first big step they need to gain the skill to swim in the digital world on their own.