Photo by Parasher Baruah

Most people today can get by with a peripheral engagement with digital technologies. In the future, however, all children who pass through the formal system of schooling would benefit from training that makes them discerning consumers and critical prosumers of digital technologies, gives wings to their creative imagination, and prompts them to grow into producers of ICT. This article proposes the objectives, content and context of a future-ready digital literacy curriculum for children

Over the last three decades, information and communication technologies (ICTs) have become increasingly diverse. Almost no field of human endeavour has been left untouched by ICTs. The infusion of ICTs in everyday applications has made it imperative to address universal participation. Digital inclusion is no more, perhaps, a matter of choice.

It would be appropriate to redefine inclusion before we proceed further. A dictionary meaning would be “the idea that everyone should be able to use the same facilities, take part in the same activities, and enjoy the same experiences, including people who have a disability or other disadvantage” (https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/inclusion). Digital exclusion, the opposite of digital inclusion, presupposes the denial, for various reasons, of the facility, experience, or benefit of digital technologies. At a trivial level, it is easy to see how such exclusions can come about. Inability to afford a device or absence of connectivity will automatically exclude people. At a deeper level, however, exclusion can occur even if access to devices is ensured.

Inclusion would require that users of ICTs have the awareness and capabilities to negotiate the environment, and seek and obtain the same benefits as everyone else. It is in the latter context that this article proposes a reimagining of an ICT curriculum that is future-safe.

A digital survival kit

In order to list the essential information and skills required to survive in the digital space, one needs to understand how ICT has begun to influence day-to-day living and how people have begun to respond to it. How does the pervasive environment of ICT prompt its use across the population?

Let us examine the use of automatic teller machines (ATMs) as an example of digital infusion. Most people use the ATM by its book definition—to access money in their bank accounts. They are unlikely to explore the other menu options that the ATM offers. Their understanding of how the system operates, or the security concerns associated with passwords, for example, remains limited. Any attempt to get in a little deeper would only be in response to a situation that perhaps denies them the service of drawing money—an incorrect PIN message, for instance. People are most likely to seek help from someone else, solve the immediate problem, and get on with their lives. If you can get by without facing up to it, why bother. People have always followed this principle when faced with new learning. You access a doctor when you are ill; general knowledge of diet, common remedies, hygiene … is best left to others to worry about.

Now consider the infusion of the smart mobile phone. Almost everyone attempts to possess one. What do they seek? The mobile telephone part of the device is the most important function; notice how many people are quite content with the entry-level mobile device with a keypad. Even saving and creating a contacts list or managing missed calls is a relatively higher-level activity. Of course, one notices an age-related ordering of use here. Younger people are quite comfortable with virtual keyboards, navigating between apps, aware of the intricacies of a particular app. Again, this is limited to the few apps they care about and which perhaps satisfy their immediate aspirations. The social media buffs seek and master a particular skill set, while the YouTube chasers master a different skill set. Updating apps, setting and consciously allowing particular permissions, are really higher-order activities. Rarely do you find people migrating to the level of upgrading the operating system—they are more likely to switch to newer devices.

Any attempt to seek more information about technologies is limited to the curious few. Again, within this group would be those who see an immediate livelihood option—notice the mushrooming of local mobile shops that vend recharge coupons, screen protectors, earphones and so on. Quiz the shopkeeper and you will soon see him consulting someone else to help with your query. A small minority would seek out and pursue courses in say repair and management of mobile devices or mobile towers or the development of mobile apps. An even smaller group of people would concern themselves with say, the sociological or ethical questions of digital media.

The foregoing analysis is more an attempt to understand how people interact with the pressures of learning. Universally, perhaps, people settle into a cognitively convenient level of interaction, taking only that much risk. People naturally tend to order themselves into a hierarchy, a pyramid. At the base are the large numbers who seek and manage with a minimum information load. The relatively fewer leaders would be clustered at the top. Between these two extremes, however, are the large number of people who would seek learning, livelihood options, and participation in the digital space. Even within this group, there would be discernible layers, consisting of people who have paused or stopped their upward movement, due to a host of reasons—capabilities, interests, affordance, availability of opportunities, socioeconomic compulsions, restricted geographical mobility, and so on. It is this large population in the middle that most concerns us while articulating a curriculum for digital inclusion. In addition, the curriculum should be designed to cater to multiple exit points, feeding the career aspirations of all—from a data entry operator or local entrepreneur vending ICT devices to those functioning at the cutting edge of technology.

The case for inclusion

At the base of the pyramid, inclusion would first require an ability to access and use an appropriate device, keeping in mind affordance, convenience of use, the least learning curve, and most importantly, the satisfaction of an immediate need. Notice how the mobile phone caught on where the personal computer did not, how WhatsApp and Telegram overtook email or SMS, how the camera on the mobile phone superseded the digital camera. The fact that a lot of attention has been given to interfaces, features and the design of applications, making them accessible, has had a large role to play in making the device popular. Again, market compulsions would prompt translation of the interface into various Indian languages, reaching out to larger and larger numbers of the non-English-speaking population. And there would always be a friendly neighbourhood hack who would function as the tutor in need.

Many of the applications of ICT could still be negotiated with peripheral engagement. Not everyone would be required to word-process or put up a slide show, but remembering passwords, dealing with online processes or day-to-day interaction with machines, or even plastic money, would require a level of awareness hitherto not expected. We may also have to deal with information overloads and the capability to select from the surfeit. With security and safety concerns growing by the day, leaning on mediators will also be a risky option. Hence, everyone would have to acquire a level of understanding and engagement with digital technology. We could define this as a digital literacy that everyone would need to possess. And as we argued earlier, help and support for such learning is perhaps easier to come by, whereas a formal curriculum for the middle rungs of the pyramid could safely be for higher-order interactions in the digital space. What would be the objectives, content, and context of such a curriculum?

The broad goal of such a curriculum would be to prepare youth for a more intense engagement with ICT, helping them with their career choices, and harnessing their creative potential to further expand the applications of ICT themselves. Computers have been around in schools for a long time now, almost three decades in the case of some early adopters. What have schools attempted to achieve through these interventions? Given a chance, how would they re-imagine this programme?

Box 1: Learning from early models of ICT infusion in schools

The pioneers of ICT infusion in education are the large, privately-run schools. Demand from informed parents and economic feasibility appear to have played a significant role. The economic model followed is to distribute the cost of the programme among students. Such schools have also been able to frequently refresh hardware, expand the infrastructure, and adapt to newer technologies. The larger school system—smaller, privately-run schools or those run by governments—do not have the size or the finances to adopt a similar model for establishing ICT infrastructure. Further, the larger privately-run schools have a social advantage. Students rarely drop out and schools have all the time to roll out a systematic curriculum.

On the ICT curriculum front, these pioneering efforts have not had the benefit of a prescribed curriculum. Initial understanding of what constitutes meaningful ICT education hovered around the limited hardware and software available then. Consequently, it was restricted by the viewpoint that “computers are difficult to learn, mastering its operations is the first milestone to be crossed, and people need to be trained to use computers.” In hindsight, this appears to have been a disastrous beginning, and unfortunately, this mindset continues to prevail. Not only is this assumption extremely wasteful of human resources, money and effort, but also counter-intuitive to the infusion of ICT in education. For instance, the most important actor in the ICT curriculum rollout will be the teacher. And a teacher convinced of her own abilities in leveraging ICT both professionally and personally will go a long way in successfully reaching out to and nurturing students. Mostly, however, teacher-training programmes in ICT have set trivial benchmarks (celebration of their efforts at making slide presentations, for instance) and at the same time do not provide free access and exploration, nor lay a premium on teacher innovations in the use of ICT. How can we gloat over a three-year-old swiping through a tablet seeking out a game or a song, or celebrate a 10-year-old putting together a mobile app, calling them whiz kids, and believe at the same time that teachers ought to be trained?

To be fair, the efforts at establishing an ICT programme have been successful in exciting the interest of a large number of students, who have gone on to pursue higher learning in the subject and initiate or benefit from the diverse opportunities that ICT made possible. Linking this success to the prevalent ICT programme and continuing with it would deny us opportunities for a broad-based curriculum, which takes note of present-day possibilities in ICT and prepares all students to participate in it.

It is worth noting that all early attempts and much of the recent ones are but experiments to fit office computers to classroom use. Neither the devices, nor the arrangements, nor the choice of software applications emerge from a desire to understand and support classroom activities (the BBC microcomputers or the Sugar desktop driving the One Laptop Per Child device being notable exceptions). The negative impact this has had on teacher initiative and teacher agency is enormous. No doubt, all large-scale analyses of the impact of ICT in Education have failed to show gains (see for instance, Students, Computers and Learning: Making the Connection, PISA, OECD Publishing, 2015). ICT literacy, or to a limited extent, computer literacy, can be defined as Level Zero of the ICT in Education programme. And just as one can take driving lessons for a week, obtain a learner’s license and get behind the wheel, easing into traffic, a limited encounter with a computing environment is adequate to declare oneself literate. In the early days of ICT in Education, the objectives of an ICT curriculum appeared far simpler. With the advent of projectors, interactive boards, networks, and internet connectivity, aspirations have also increased. Present-day expectations are for a broader introduction to the technology, ICT-integrated teaching-learning of subjects, and computing. ICTs span a variety of fields—programming, data (its input, representation, and analysis), graphics and animation, audio and video, web and mobile applications, and various other secondary applications based on these. The equipment and devices, interconnections and networks also lead to a variety of topics. Each of these nurtures an interest and excitement among students, providing avenues for their creative pursuits and building in them essential capabilities for the future. The syllabus should gradually build on each of the branches, indicating possible directions in which students can specialise. Each branch can potentially lead to a higher learning opportunity, a vocational course and a career. Designed spirally, it can provide for early exits and multiple entries, equipping students who may not have a fair chance to complete.

Box 2: The curricula for ICT in Education, NCERT, 2013

In 2013, the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) placed before the Central Advisory Board of Education (CABE) a document titled Curricula for ICT in Education. Duly approved by CABE, this curricula is now being offered to the states to adapt in their school systems.

The curriculum for ICT in education, the document claims, is a step towards realising the goals of the National Policy of ICT in School Education and the National Curriculum Framework. It has factored in the rapid evolution of technologies and the ground realities of Indian school systems. For the teacher, it is an initiation into the educational possibilities of technology, learning to make the right choices of hardware, software and ICT interactions, and more importantly, growing to become a critical user of ICT. For the student, it is an initiation into creativity and problem-solving, and an introduction to the world of information and technologies that could also shape career pursuits.

An ICT curriculum that is future-proof should focus on developing skills that will enable students to: a) function as discerning members of an increasingly digital society; b) access various tools and applications for learning and skill development; c) operate a variety of hardware and software independently, troubleshooting common problems; d) use ICT equipment carefully; e) create a variety of digital products using appropriate tools and applications and saving, storing and managing digital resources; and finally, f) practice safe, legal and ethical use of ICTs.

The syllabus for such a programme has to span a wide variety of topics, leading to a diverse set of options for students, culminating perhaps in avenues for higher learning and career options. It would require an introduction to programming to help students appreciate the capabilities of the computing environment, particularly for imagination and creative expression. Rather than prematurely introducing and restricting itself to higher-order programming languages, the curricula begins with Turtle/Logo, weaving its way through Scratch, scripting within software applications, and culminating in web and mobile app development, database programming and programming languages.

The curriculum would require an introduction to data input, processing, representation and analysis. A fresh perspective introduced by the NCERT curricula treats text, numbers, graphic and even audio-visual artefacts as data. Input of text in local languages, a separation of input and formatting of text and images, its composition as multi-page documents, tables, graphic displays; processing of numbers as tables, spreadsheets, databases and as graphs; processing of images, audio and video as digital stories.

The introduction to graphics begins with a paint application, enabling students to play with colours, brushes, and the digital canvas; weaves through vector and raster graphic applications; introduces animation, three-dimensional space and modelling. The introduction to audio and video builds on this appreciation to teach audio-visual communication.

The introduction to the web enables students to ease themselves gradually into the possibilities of the web, helping them connect with the world outside, and introduces them to online interactions—communication, forums and social media—helping them appreciate the diverse possibilities of the connected world. This also provides opportunities for introducing cyber security and safe ICT as well as copyright and plagiarism.

All these are subsumed under the definition of computing. Traditionally, computing meant calculating, and that was indeed among the first applications of computers. Today, not just programming, but every application described above is as rich and can be pursued as rigorously. Computing rightly expands to accommodating all applications requiring computing power and should form the core of any ICT curriculum.

Such an approach naturally requires a fresh look at infrastructure—both hardware and software. On the equipment front, a typical computer lab has to be enhanced to include recording devices, cameras, internet and network connectivity. Rapid change in hardware technology has spawned a variety of devices, adding to the difficulty of making choices. The NCERT curriculum rightly aims at a generic, hardware-independent programme. To that extent, any device that can provide opportunities to students to compute and experience ICT in its full glory would suffice. On the software front, only an operating system and an office package no longer suffice. In fact, NCERT even released a custom distribution with over 50 different software packages, highlighting the need for a wide exposure to the various applications of ICT.

Obviously, such a distribution can only be economically feasible with Free and Open Source Software (FOSS). While the debate over proprietary or FOSS degenerates very often into a political issue, with vendors colouring their pitch to safeguard their interests and prompting well-meaning decision-makers to make ill-informed choices, the argument for FOSS can be quite straightforward. The large variety of software being introduced is an essential component of not only the course, but also the worldview the curriculum seeks to expose students to. No one can have a quarrel with a demonstration that ICT can do many wonderful things. If affordance was not an issue, and if such a variety of software was indeed available readily, a completely proprietary environment would have been just as good. This is not the case, and more often, it prompts the unethical and illegal practice of software piracy. FOSS also enables customisation, particularly in local languages. This would require large-scale participation of different language groups across various fields and the effort would be a good demonstration of community participation in the education of its children.

Conclusion

ICTs have excited enormous interest across the world, and the wide variety of products and applications being imagined are in themselves testimony to the immense potential of ICTs. The popularity of the medium and its usefulness to people across all sections of society will, to a large extent, sustain the demand for access and connectivity. The efforts being made to make the technology more affordable and more accessible are also proof of its market potential. ICTs are also likely to emerge as the largest employer, and with their ability to span a very wide range of skill sets, accommodate people at all levels of preparation.

The typical consumer who is likely to be at the bottom of the ICT users pyramid need not form the focus of the digital inclusion debate, as it is very likely that access, market forces and the usefulness of the technology itself are together capable of helping the person cross over. Digital inclusion, therefore, should be seen as an opportunity to equip children who pass through the formal system of schooling with capabilities that would make them discerning consumers and critical prosumers of digital technologies. It should excite them and give wings to their creative imagination, prompting them to grow into producers of ICT. An adequately broad, future-proof education will also help them proactively participate and create for themselves a safe and secure digital world.

Rajaram S Sharma headed NCERT’s Central Institute of Educational Technology, leading explorations of appropriate applications of ICT in education, including radio and television, audio and video, web and interactive multimedia applications. He was closely associated with the conceptualisation and development of the National Repository of Open Education Resources (http://nroer.gov.in), an ICT in Education curriculum (http://ictcurriculum.gov.in), the ePathshala mobile interface and the Swayam MOOC initiative. Over a three-decade career in education, he has been a teacher, teacher educator, trainer and researcher, exploring active methods of learning, helping children become independent learners, enhancing teachers’ competency and capacity for innovation, and helping school systems explore appropriate ICTs to reach out and bridge divides