Digital, ‘Highly Connected’ Children: Implications for Education

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Prof. Edna Aphek

Ministry of Education

In the past decades tremendous digital-technological innovations have flooded our lives. The impact of these inventions on socialisation, ways of thinking, and modes of learning, is far reaching. The new digital technologies challenge many of our concepts and beliefs and make new demands on us as to understanding the new high-tech, digital culture .In order to do so one has to be skilled in digital literacy.

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According to Yoram Eshet-Alkalai, a scholar from the Tel- Hai College in Israel, the new digital literacy is penta componental. These five cognitive thinking strategies can help the perplexed:

  • Photo-visual literacy
  • Reproduction Literacy
  • Lateral Multi-directional Literacy
  • Information Literacy
  • Socio-Emotional Literacy

Let me elaborate on each of these components:

Photo-Visual Literacy

If we look for example at our computer desktop, at out car panel or at the cellular phone, we’ll see that they all give us iconic information. These  photo –visual signs serve as shortcuts  for action and do away with the mediation of the cognitive skill of deciphering and understanding the alphabetic symbols.The use of emotics e.g.; ? ;-),(-: and the shortened Internet writing such as b4b and cu,  all emphasise the tendency to break away from the traditional, alphabetic writing.

Reproduction Literacy

Reproduction Literacy could be likened to what John Kao (The Art and Discipline of Corporate Creativity, HarperBusiness,1996) calls jamming: ‘taking a topic, a question, an idea, disseminate it, break it, manipulate  it, and reassemble it…creating
something new.’

In the information world, an enormous amount of information and spiritual creations are ‘out there’ in cyberspace. Billions of pages carrying artistic work, articles, essays, music and graphics, can be accessed and made use of. We are therefore, faced with a new challenge  to use these existing spiritual treasures in innovative ways, thus creating new concepts and forms.

Lateral literacy
A strategy much needed for deciphering and navigating in the new digital literacy, is lateral- multi-directional thinking. This literacy marks a shift from the more structured, well planned traditional book-like literacy. Unlike the closely structured book environment in which the amount of information and the order of presenting the information are predefined, the net environment is open to rearrangement. Linear structures following sequential logic, give room to non-linear, hypertext, associative structures. On one hand, this loose structure fosters creativity and is open to new creations and interpretations, on the other hand the new open-ended exploratory environment is dynamic and even chaotic.
New cognitive skills are needed in order to navigate freely, yet mindfully among the many sites, and from site to site, while using the hypertext. The ability to focus, as well as integrative and summative skills are necessary in order to reconstruct knowledge out of huge chunks of information arrived at in an unstructured manner.

Information literacy

Another problem, we are faced with is that of reliability: how do we know that what we read, saw or heard comes from a reliable source? How do we evaluate the information gleaned?

Yoram Eshet suggests a cognitive tool in order to cope with this problem: Information Literacy: Trust nobody. This literacy acts as a filter: “It identifies false, irrelevant, or biased information, and avoids its penetration into the learner’s cognition…. without a good command of information literacy, how can one decide which, of the endless pieces of contradicting information found on the web, to believe? The fifth literacy advocated by Eshet Alkalai is the Socio- Emotional one.

Much of the work and information sharing done on the Internet is conducted in cooperative learning or any other form of information sharing: in chat rooms, online communities, groups and forums. Meeting of the other and Cooperative Learning necessitate socio-emotional abilities.

We came of age with the Internet. Early-adopting ,hyperconnected, always on: Call us Children of the Revolution,the first teens and tweens to grow up with the network…While other marvel at the digital future,we take it for granted . In the past,you put away childish things when you grew up . But our tools are taking over the adult world

Socio-emotional literacy

The socio-emotional literacy also has to do with the ability to tell right from wrong and good from bad: to know how to roam the web with discretion and to tell the sincere and honest person from the imposter; to spot disseminators of hatred and pedophiles, and to take precautions at the chat room and the instant messengers. This has to do with protecting oneself from the dangers of the digital, highly connected world and at the same time to guard the rights of the other by adhering to the rules of netiquette: the etiquette of the net.

I  would like to add two more literacies to the five literacies mentioned by Eshet. Moderation and Self- regulation Literacy

The new technologies have the power to carry us away. There is much talk about the addictive element of the Internet and the danger of information overload which might result in the IFS- Information Fatigue Syndrome (researched by Reuters). In order to avoid these dangers of addiction and of becoming datachoholics, we must learn and teach strategies for using the digital media with discretion and moderation.

Quality Assurance Literacy

This literacy is sort of ‘meta literacy’ as it is needed in all the other literacies. It entails first and foremost an awareness of the need and commitment for quality and excellence.

With the use of the new technologies at the tip of one’s fingers, new embellished creations can be relatively easily produced. The external beauty of PowerPoint presentations and websites might cover for the lack of quality of their content which though reliable, might be shallow. Technological mastery is no way equivalent to deep thorough thinking as many recent researches show: Miller and Almon (2003) in the USA, Fuchs and Al (2005) in Germany,  and Eshet and Hamburger (2005) in Israel. There is a dire need for quality assurance at a time when seemingly everything and anything goes.

The various literacies or strategies are interconnected and sometimes they even overlap. They function as guidelines to help us find our way in the maze of the digital-information world and to best use the immense options and possibilities this world has to offer. These literacies are needed outside the Digital Culture scene, but when it comes to the digital environment the mastery of these literacies becomes a must. Kids are great consumers of the digital media. Strangely enough they are the masters of the new  technologies.

Some Statistics

Before going into statistics it’s important to note that much of the data I am going to present comes from the American scene. However, these statistics might give us some indication as to the trends of media and especially internet usage by children and teens in other countries, especially the Western ones.  Kids are great consumers of the Digital media.

A study conducted by Knowledge Networks in 2003 “finds that a significant number of children have various media and entertainment devices in their bedrooms.” 61% of the kids who took the survey have a television set in their room 57%  said that most of their Internet access is done from their bedroom. 

Another research done by Nielsen from the end of 2003 shows that more than 2-in-10 Internet users during September 2003 were between the ages of 2 and 17.
A study from the same year run by the team, indicates that most teenagers and young adults in the US prefer surfing the Internet or watching television over reading for recreation. Here are the figures of the team, giving information about the number of hours teenagers spend on the various recreation activities.

Activity Hours per week
Internet surfing 16.7
Watching TV 13.6
Radio 12
Talking on phone 7.7
Reading books/magazines 6

A survey published in March 2003, conducted by Grunwald Associates (, found that 2 million American children have their own websites. The survey also predicts that the number of kids with personal sites is expected to rise to more than 6 million American children by 2005. The following table prepared by Grunwald Associates will give us some idea as to the ages of these young web masters.


Kids as Webmasters
Have Site Plan Site
Ages 6-8 4% 28%
Ages 9-12 9% 33%
Ages 3-17 15% 29%
Ages 6-17 10% 30%
Base: Kids 6-17 with home access
Source: Grunwald Associates

What influence do the Digital Media have on the wired kids?

I would like to present two opposing views as to the influence the electronic media might have on the Digital Born children. One view formulated in the eighties, is that of Neil Postman, an American philosopher. Postman deals mainly with the children of TV. Postman is wary of the new technologies. He fears that by adopting them too quickly we bring about the disappearance of childhood and destroy learning and logical-sequential thinking habits, structure and order.

The contrasting view is that of Don Tapscott, who comes from the business world. Tapscott’s view deals mainly with the children of the Internet . Tapscott believes that a new better order is emerging; he finds the Net children who master technology, to be inquisitive learners, responsible, tolerant and caring individuals.

Let’s take a closer look at Postman:

According to Postman, the world of electronic communication is a world without values, books and order. This is especially true of the world in which television reigns. Postman’s child is one who lost his childhood but never reached maturity. Postman describes a society in which children and adults watch the same movies and tele-romances (soap operas), listen to the same pop music, and play the same computer games.
The adults in such a society become more and more childish as they try to pursue the youth culture, whereas the children, to whom all the secrets of adulthood are revealed, especially  violence and sex, become, seemingly, mature. Seemingly, because they are mature externally but not emotionally.
As the differentiating line between the child and the adult blurs, concepts that distinguish the adult from the child, such as independence and responsibility, become unclear too. Postman describes a society at risk, living in a sinking world without books, without order; a chaotic meaningless world.

In his writings Postman describes children who live in a ‘twilight zone’ between illusion and reality. It is a world in which parents and teachers have lost much of their authority: Postman suggests that adults should gradually unfold the world of adulthood to their young ones. The content, the dosage and the timing should be determined by the adult, or else the very essence of childhood will disappear.

Another view of the New Child: Don Tapscott and the Net Generation

Postman places television at the center of our children’s life, and blames TV for many of the illnesses of today’s youngsters. Unlike Postman, Don Tapscott thinks of the new child as the computer-and-Internet child.
Tapscott points out that whereas the TV child maybe passive, computer-and-Internet children are active and creative.In his book Growing up Digital, Tapscott describes the highly connected N-Geners: These youngsters love to learn. They are curious, inquisitive, studious and responsible. Tapscott’s children tend to learn in unorthodox ways. These high-tech children don’t necessarily study the curricula written by adults. They take responsibility over themselves and their learning, are full of initiative, and are willing to give of their knowledge to others. According to Tapscott
these digital children are caring, outspoken and aspire to
improve reality.

The Internet has become the new country of immigration. From different parts of the globe, people are coming to the new land of unlimited possibilities in which sound, music; picture, animation and text are intertwined. In lands of immigration, the young ones are the first to integrate in the new society and to speak its language. Very often they teach their parents and even grandparents the language and customs of the new land.1
This is what is happening nowadays, as the highly-connected children build sites and teach older generations the language of the high-tech.

Tapscott characterises the N-Geners as tolerant, inquisitive and eager to learn. The Oracle company harnessed this inquisitive element, to the building of subject-matter-oriented Internet sites. The company initiated a competition, geared to schoolchildren, on Internet site-building. Students have
constructed more than 5,000 such sites for students, teachers and Netizens-citizens of the net.

The N-Geners are a caring and sharing generation. They often create new Internet sites for the common good. Jason Fernandez from Mumbai in
India built such a site ( Jason’s site gives
support to children with learning disabilities and their parents and teachers. The site (in ten languages!) contains thorough and valuable information on various types of  learning disabilities.
When I uploaded my article on Children of the Information Age on the Internet, Jason got in touch with me via e-mail. This alone might indicate the busy life and the involvement of the youngsters on the net. I asked Jason what prompted him to build his site. He said that he learnt from the founder of Apple about the power of the individual and that the site he, Jason, built is a manifestation of his own individual power.

Three youngsters with physical disabilities set up a site ( for other young people suffering from physical problems. This is how they explain why they took up this endeavor upon themselves:

We set this web site up for three reasons:

  • We feel the information available for young people with disabilities at the moment is too often written from an adult’s perspective.
  • Information tends to be based around one region rather than covering the country.
  • The information available assumes that every young person with a disability has a similar background.

Another characteristic of the young N-Geners is their emotional openness. There is nothing which is secret anymore, everything is read,
everything discussed, everything said. Postman would probably see this element as an indicator of the disappearance of childhood as secrets are divulged and children share and gather unscreened information on the Internet quite often without the mediating voice of the adult to  guide them.

These youngsters are not only direct and outspoken, but they are also well informed and involved in
political issues.

The N-Geners use the Net to express their opinions, independence and their protests against big companies and the controlling establishment. The new technologies also assist us in becoming technically independent. Many of the professions held in the past solely in the hands of adults, such as printing, publishing, graphic design and others, are now at the tip of the fingers of youngsters and anyone else possessing computer skills and the ability to build Websites.

The new land, the Internet, is a mega-publishing house. Unlike traditional publishing houses where a chosen group of people decides whether a poem, a story, an essay or an article are fit to print, or a work of art fit to display, on the Net such decisions are usually not made. Everyone, regardless of age, gender or education can publish their work. The children of the Net
eagerly upload their ideas and works to the Internet.

These independent, active, innovative youngsters are about to change, according to Tapscott, our ways of learning and working and our social structure.

Computer and Internet activities outside the Net

The children of the computer and the Internet are active offline as well. They are willing to give from their vast knowledge in computers to others in face-to-face meetings. Observing the computer-and-Internet children, one can’t help but realize that the old hierarchical structures of teachers-and-children and parents-and-children have disintegrated. In the new reality dictated in part by the new technologies we can’t expect the ‘highly-wired’ children to adhere anymore to the old rules of time and place. We, educators, can’t expect them to be satisfied with predetermined content material and subject matter. In this reality many of the concepts we teachers and educators grew up on are undergoing a major shift. The meanings of “difficult,” “easy,” “first,” “important,” “unimportant,” and “graded learning,” are changing. The teacher is accustomed to a certain order, to learning and teaching in installments. The teacher’s concepts are still based on adults’ knowledge and ideas as to what is easy and what is difficult to learn. Curricula and books are still written according to these notions.

Our N-Geners live, work and perform in a very different world which involves much doing. Their world is complex, ungraded, multi-age, interactive and dynamic. In this environment the youngsters decide for themselves what is easy and what is appropriate. The N-Geners learn and research   thoroughly that which they find interesting. They are the decision-makers as to pace, rate, content and the time element involved in the learning process.

This reversal of roles and ‘Power Shift’ presents us with a probortunity, i.e.; a problem which is really an opportunity, to re-define the purpose of education, and- to rethink our pedagogical beliefs and concepts; to reassess the theories we base our work on and whether they are appropriate to the Information Age. We have the probortunity and the responsibility to balance: to balance the photo-visual literacy with the alphabetic literacy, to balance the almost infinite accessibility to information with tools for screening and evaluating information.

We also have the moral responsibility to be less busy with covering specific subject matter and to be more concerned about guiding our digital youngsters morally and emotionally on their voyage into the socio-emotional virtual and non-virtual space.

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