Home > Blogs > Resetting the Bar for Digital Literacy in High School

Resetting the Bar for Digital Literacy in High School

With the commercial Internet having gotten underway in 1995-1996, today's generation of school-age children inarguably qualify as "digital natives" born into an increasingly networked and digital world. And yet teaching basic computer literacy in K-12 here in the USA is only starting to become a part of the standard curriculum. There's still a lot more work to do in this area, but signs of change are starting to accumulate. Read on to learn about a fascinating initiative courtesy of the Microsoft IT Academy.

I picked up on a blog post from the Microsoft IT Academy Blog entitled "Advanced Technology Training: Are Younger Students Up for the Challenge?" from guest blogger Katherine Schmit, a Business and Technology instructor from Kalama High School in Washington state. To stymie any suspense about the final verdict of her story, the answer to the question posed in the post's title is a resounding "YES!"

Here's the deal: working with instructors across the full range of departments and disciplines in her high school, Schmit kept hearing from instructors that they'd love to make assignments in their classes that required students to complete various kinds of "digital deliverables" -- such as PowerPoint presentations, videos, lengthy term papers with charts and tables, or complex spreadsheets -- but that they didn't have time to teach the skills necessary to create those deliverables, preferring instead to concentrate on teaching the concepts and tools needed to create the content involved.

The problem at the time (about 8 years ago) was that while the high school offered a so-called "Digitools" course that covered these topics (a basic Microsoft Office Suite curriculum including all the major Office elements -- Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, among others, including MovieMaker, which isn't an Office component but is widely available to students for making videos) -- that course was an elective, often taken by upperclass students, so teachers couldn't assume basic literacy and capability among the entire upperclass student body. What Kalama HS did, in response to these requests, was to make its Digitools course a requirement for all freshman, so that anyone in higher level classes (sophomore, junior, and senior) would be able to handle such assignments without undue difficulty.

Today, their students are not only tackling this curriculum in their freshman year, they are also taking advantage of the free Microsoft Office Specialist certs available through their IT Academy to earn MOS credentials at various levels (including more advanced Expert and Master levels) for PowerPoint, Word, OneNote, and Excel. For the 2013-2014 school year (now completed), Schmit reports the following statistics:

1. 57% of all freshman hold at least 3 certifications (up from 48% last year)
2. Up to 87% of freshmen earn certs in OneNote
3. Up to 79% earn certs in PowerPoint
4. Up to 67% earn certs in Word
5. Up to 49% earn certs in Excel (Numbers are up by more 10% over the previous year for items 2-5)

Schmit's intent in sharing these numbers she says, is not to brag about her students' accomplishments, but rather to inform other programs that her students have shown themselves not just capable of handling the work involved, but both interested and enthusiastic about doing so. As a result, her school district is "...implementing a technology plan for K-12 that is much more rigorous than anyone here has previously attempted...," including teaching keyboarding skills in the early grades, Moviemaker and the 3 core Office components (Word, Excel, PowerPoint) in elementary grades, starting MOS in middle school, and moving to Master level MOS credentials for high-school freshmen.

For the past two years, I've volunteered at my son's elementary school to help teach introductory programming and web design/development classes. The prescription that Schmit outlines in the preceding paragraph is what I and my fellow instructors (another volunteer who works in technical documentation for Oracle, and the school's lone full-time IT staffer who also teaches voluntarily off-hours and runs our school's Robotics Club) had already agreed was an important but missing ingredient in getting our students ready to tackle the subject matters we were trying to teach.

I'm not saying that Microsoft Office certification is a necessary outcome for such efforts (though it is no bad thing in and of itself, in a world where MS Office skills are an important workplace element for workers of all kinds and industry sectors). What I do believe is that Ms. Schmit is onto something important in increasing the injection of digital literacy into the K-12 student population, to help them tackle more interesting work while still in school, and to prepare them to continue in that path upon receipt of their diplomae. For some, this will mean more opportunities to use and develop those skills as they pursue degrees at various levels. For others, it will mean better preparation and skills to employ upon joining the workforce. I can't help but see this as both necessary and desirable, and only hope my readers concur.