Why 'Internet Literacy' Is Likely to Be Prized in the Future
A new survey identified digital skills people will need by 2020.
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Many kids today grow up Googling their homework questions and sleeping with their cellphones under their pillows. But to thrive in our increasingly wired world, they will need to become increasingly adept at “Internet literacy” and social media, and be able to maintain a fine balance between swiftly gathering information and thinking critically about it, according to a new survey.
Communication researchers Janna Anderson and Lee Rainie published their results and the pages of responses they received Feb. 29, through the Pew Internet & American Life Project. The question of skills for the year 2020 was part of a larger report about how growing up in a digital environment affects the thinking of today’s youth. Some experts were optimistic about new technologies' effects on young people; some were pessimistic. Either way, most agreed that people of all ages could benefit from more training and practice for a future where people do much of their learning and working online.
At the most basic level, people will need to know how to search for information quickly and intelligently, many experts said. Swiftly identifying reputable sources among search results will be a newly important skill, Jonathan Grudin, principal researcher at Microsoft and one of the people surveyed, said. Before the Internet, information was harder to find, but also better vetted, he said. Now people need to know how to do their own vetting.
The Pew Internet report called this skill "Internet literacy" and, just like traditional literacy, Internet literacy is both simple and powerful. Though the term implies it should be something kids learn throughout school, it will be difficult to teach, as technologies change rapidly. "It's a moving target," said Anderson, who is based in Elon University in North Carolina. Several experts in the report warned that school curriculums and workplaces don't have digital literacy programs in place, but need them.
Several computer scientists are working on writing programs that can provide some automatic help, by reading Twitter streams and gathering social media data for users. People will still need to develop their own Internet literacy, however, because programs can't perfectly match the questions people have in mind when they're searching, Anderson told InnovationNewsDaily.
Beyond literacy, experts are divided about whether society will prize faster information-gathering or slower critical analysis in the future. Grudin thinks slower analysis won't be as important in the future. "The ability to read one thing and think about it for hours will not be of no consequence," he told the survey, "but it will be of far less consequence for most people."
Others experts believe that in a speedy, information-rich world, people will especially prize those who can slow down and analyze. People will need to do both, several experts said. But the Internet already "encourages feral information gathering," said Patrick Tucker, deputy editor of The Futurist magazine, so that won't be as difficult for people to learn. Instead, they'll need to practice focus and analysis.
Many experts believe the sharing nature of the Internet will help people become more aware of their global neighbors and solve problems in worldwide teams. Even being addicted to Facebook or Twitter might have its payoffs. All that tweeting, checking in and status updating may translate into social media-enabled worldwide collaboration in the future.
As people share knowledge, they'll value sharing resources and benefits, too, said Gina Maranto, a science journalist and ecosystem science professor at the University of Miami. People will gain "an awareness that there must be a balance between individual rights and social goods," Maranto said. "You can't really be isolated anymore," survey leader Anderson said. Connected people will work more toward the social good, she thinks.
Though many experts think people will need fundamentally new skills for the future, many also believe that schools and workplaces are lagging in teaching students and employees to best use digital tools. While many people gain digital literacy and more complex digital skills over time simply by using the Internet, not everyone is capable of learning on his or her own. In the sharing spirit of the Internet, it's time to share the knowledge, Anderson said. "Those of us who are good at sailing at that sea have to teach everyone else how to operate safely and wisely in the digital environment."