Digital literacy

All over the world, education systems are undergoing significant change. With globalization and advancement in Information Technology, education is no longer about “LITERACY” as defined in the past such as ability to read, write and understand general concepts but about “DIGITAL LITERACY” as defined as the ability to access, use, and understand science and technology concepts.

In the past, elementary and high school educations were focused on the development of “fundamental knowledge” and college was designed to provide “special knowledge”. Today elementary and high school education are focusing on develop foundation in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) and college is designed to provide “career-oriented” skills. The trend is also moving toward the standardization of education system across all countries. With globalization, geographical and national boundaries do not matter anymore. With “Digital literacy”, education materials will be available on line and presented in multi-media (Pictures, videos, short films) instead of lectures, where students can access to them from anywhere and at anytime. For example, Khan's academy is a multimedia education website with over twenty million students from all over the world accesses it on a daily basis. If you do not do well in high school or do not have a good foundation and want to catch up in certain basic areas such as Math, Physics, Science etc. This is an excellent website to go to:

There are several Massive Online Open Courses (MOOC) for college students such as Udacity, edX, and Coursera etc. with thousands courses in almost every topics, taught by top professors from world class universities where any student can enroll, learn without paying anything.

This new “Digital Literate” trend is disrupting traditional education system and soon will be adapted by many countries, especially developing countries where the education system is too slow to change. According to a news report, MOOC is very effective in educate the whole world and develop a new generation of “Digital global citizen” with hundred million people access and taken courses on a daily basic.

However, some people begin to worry that by having an “equal education for all”, in the near future, students do not compete with their peers in the same country but they will have to compete with people from all over the world and having a better education in a particular country will no longer be an advantage. Many politicians begin to ask the question: “Why do we want to educate everybody? Why give away the best education to people who do not even pay?” The debate is still going on but in the mean time, the main beneficiary is the software industry where companies like Google, Microsoft, and Facebook are considered hiring people who complete a number of courses from MOOC. A software industry manager said: “We need highly skilled workers, if current education system cannot develop enough skilled workers for us; we have to hire them from somewhere. It does not matter about degree anymore, there are so many degreed people without skills, what we need is skilled workers to grow our industry.”

That type of statement is raising fears among college and university administrations. Some schools begin to change and focus more on preparing students for a career in the global job market. Because students begin to select schools that are specializing in specific areas rather than a general knowledge, many universities are consolidated and focus on few areas that they can excel. For example, university that specializes in business will attract students who want to work in business area. University that focuses more on technology will attract students who want to work for the technology industry. To take advantage of this new trend, many universities are changing their training more on job market' s demand and build a close collaboration with industries instead of being independent as in the past.

This has created a debate among academicians about the role of education. Many professors strongly protest the change as they believe education must be general not focuses on meeting industry's needs. A professor said: “If students want to find job, they should go to vocational schools, not university.” However with a high number of unemployed college graduates, many students do not want to learn general knowledge anymore. In past few years, the numbers of student enrolled in “General” state universities have declined steadily but the numbers of student enrolled in private universities have increased significantly. A student explains: “Even private university is more expensive than state university but because of their specialization and well connected to the industry, most of their graduates always get good jobs when graduates from state universities are having difficulty in finding jobs. Private universities often have better training programs, better professors, and better relationships with industries. As students, we make decision based on our future opportunities, we may have to pay more but we get better job offers.”

Another advantage of private university is a majority of them are using “Active learning” method instead of traditional lecturing. Students are encouraged to contribute to learning process through participation in different activities. Students explore and discover certain knowledge through a set of scenario activities, or cases studies where they can get “real life” experience on solving problems. By understand roles, responsibilities during simulated role playing activities and class discussion the school can make the learning process more interactive and productive. In universities, role of professor is also changing from that of a “source of knowledge” authority to a facilitator for students in “learning by doing” environment. By having these needed skills, private school graduates are often get better offered than state schools.

Today technology has brought a new revolution to the field of education. The success story of MOOC is a significant example of educate people from all over the world. Everyone from professionals to housewives can continue to learn whatever they like through the schools' websites. I have talk to several professors who taught in MOOC and they told me that they are excited to educate students from Africa, South East Asia, and Pacific islands. However, the highest number of students enrolled is from India and China with hundred million students attending class on daily basis. The advantage of this online education is it has so many various topics that people can access and learn anything, anytime of their own convenience.

Today, the entire education system is changing and changing very fast. However, I believe that traditional methods of teaching and learning are still important. Every student must learn the fundamental to build a strong foundation then with the integration of technology, they can access and learn new things as lifelong learning is necessary in this time and age. We need to adopt change as it happens, because this is the only way to remain connected to the world of knowledge, but we also need to preserve our own tradition and culture. There are many things that online education cannot teach and students can only learn in a classroom environment with real teachers such as loyalty, respect, filial, and ethics. I believe there is a place for traditional education and a place for massive on line education and it is important to understand both the advantages and disadvantages to make the right decision.


  • Blogs of Prof. John Vu, Carnegie Mellon University

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