October 4, 2020

DRAWing away from the curriculum of the past

A primary revelation in this pandemic-era world is the importance of digital readiness. While the pandemic is disrupting socio-economic activities, it is fortunately also happening at a time of rapid digitalisation, allowing economic players to respond and adapt to the situation accordingly. Swathes of the world are now operating largely online, allowing functional continuity as much as is possible, without personal interaction. However, differences in digital readiness across and within countries are hindering the ability of large segments of the world to co-opt and harness digital technology to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic. 

This inequality in digital readiness is reflected in Nigeria’s education sector, where learning was disrupted for almost 40 million learners nationwide. The digital infrastructure divide in Nigeria paints a bleak picture for the prospect of distance learning. With only about 40 percent of Nigeria having access to the internet, and 50 percent of the population having limited/no access to the electricity grid, the current prospects of digital technology for education during this crisis are slim. Beyond the infrastructure shortcomings, however, another problem threatens distance learning even more: The digital divide is more than just an infrastructure divide—it is also a literacy divide.

Digital Literacy

The nature and scope of digital literacy are so nuanced and complex that the term ‘digital literacy’, defies fixity and definition. For simplicity, in this article, I will use a definition provided by the American Library Association; ‘the ability to use information and communication technologies to find, evaluate, create, and communicate information, requiring both cognitive and technical skills’. In reality, it is a lot more complex, but the underlying fact is that at the most basic level, a digitally literate person is equipped with the digital-age skills required to effectively use technology and achieve valued output through it. This involves being able to connect to, safely navigate through, and benefit from internet services and applications. More functionally, it involves acquiring the skills that students and job seekers need to secure jobs and meet the needs of the modern digital economy. Investments in infrastructure development is crucial, but it is not a silver bullet; without a comprehensive effort to improve digital literacy through basic education, Nigerians (especially the disadvantaged and vulnerable) will be unable to fully leverage the potential of these investments. 

Current Basic Education Framework

The main goal of education is to prepare students for the demands of work and social life by equipping them with the skills to understand and address the core challenges/themes of the modern era. This means providing the skills and knowledge for students to solve the challenges of, and thrive in the age (time) they live in. 

Unfortunately, the basic education curriculum in Nigeria is not designed to provide students with the skills and knowledge in this modern digital economy. The traditional foundation of Nigeria’s basic education system consists of Reading, Writing and Arithmetic, colloquially known as the 3Rs. This foundation can be traced back to the 19th century, when the early Christian missionaries brought Western education into Nigeria (around 1843). This basic foundation was pertinent to developing the skilled workforce required by the industrial revolution. It was sewn into the fabric of Nigeria’s education system, and at the time, it was pertinent to us too. However, two centuries later, the skills-demand of the world has changed, and this change must be reflected in the foundation of our education system; as the skills-demand of the world is evolving, so should our education system. The current curriculum served well for the needs of the past, but the skills they offer will soon become obsolete. 

Technology is taking a greater role in our lives and everyday functioning, and digital literacy is becoming increasingly crucial to success. A student today needs to be able to do more than read, write and do basic arithmetic; they need to be equipped with skills that enable them to take on the challenges of the digital revolution, much like the 3Rs did for students of the industrial-age. Current conversations about incorporating digital learning into classrooms revolve around changing how teaching is done, with different recommendations for how to embrace and utilize technology for teaching and learning. However, to meet the demands of the digital economy, it requires changing not just how we teach, but also what we teach. Students need to be equipped with the skills to become both users and creators of technology. 

DRAW: A new framework

The pandemic presents a case for overhauling the basic education curriculum with the aim of adequately preparing the current and next generation of students. The entire 3Rs terminology is obsolete, and should itself evolve too. As a replacement, I propose DRAW: digital literacy, reading, arithmetic, and writing. 

  • DRAW incorporates digital literacy into the very core of Nigeria’s basic education, and emphasizes it as the channel through which the other three tenets of the curriculum will thrive. It retains the foundation of the 3Rs because, though digital tools are important, they will not be the only tools that students need. Incorporating digital literacy blends the arts and humanities with science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, ensuring that all students are digitally equipped at the most basic level. 
  • As a word, DRAW immediately recognizes the importance of engendering an education system that sparks creativity (the highest order of learning) and problem-solving, and equips students to understand and express their knowledge in different ways. It provides equal weighting to the knowledge in the arts, humanities, and STEM fields, because it prioritizes digital knowledge as an educational tool through which students across all disciplines can analyse, interpret, create and communicate their ideas. DRAW ensures that all students are digitally equipped at the most basic level, harnesses technology to amplify the creativity and capabilities of students across all subjects, and enhances career prospects across all sectors/fields.

The ideal DRAW curriculum will be both current and futuristic in its design, and will advance a vision for students’ success in the new global economy. The digital literacy competencies would involve developing, en-masse and from a young age, an understanding of the machines and technologies that make the digital age possible. It includes (a non-exhaustive list) areas such as coding, cyber security, machine learning, computational thinking, robotics, and interface design. It is important to note that incorporating digital literacy is not simply about learning technology or digital tools for the sake of it. It involves engaging with the traditional and well established methods of understanding the world, and developing new insights and methods of the digital world and its potential impact on traditional core subject knowledge.

The details of this particular framework will require an in-depth analysis of Nigeria’s industrial needs, strengths, weaknesses and opportunities, in order to identify how to build a framework that positions us to be competitive in the digital global economy. And on a more holistic level, it would also require an in depth analysis of the financial and teacher qualification requirements. But largely, it will entail synthesizing current global themes (e.g, environmental literacy, global awareness, entrepreneurial literacy, social and cultural issues), digital literacies, and key life and work skills (e.g leadership, productivity initiative, flexibility accountability), into the training on traditional subjects, in order to reflect the evolving nature of subject knowledge. This addresses the fact that students will require a different form of knowledge and set of skills than generations before, in order to develop expertise and competitiveness in even the traditional subject areas. Ultimately, to ensure the successful marriage of the different features, teaching methods must inspire creativity, foster collaboration, motivate critical thinking, and support communication. 

Why is Digital Literacy Important? COVID-19 and the Future of Work

Prior to this pandemic, the future of work was already changing, but the pandemic has accelerated both the pace, need and uptake of technology. It has thrust us further into a digitized world, expediting the transition to the digital age by stimulating both the demand and supply-side of digital technology. Current adaptation strategies being incorporated to ensure continuity in the world of work, schooling, health and governance, are likely to persist even after economies world-wide have successfully reopened and start to recover. Intentional effort needs to be placed on preparing current and future students to succeed in this changing landscape. With the current curriculum, the average Nigerian student is ill-equipped to embrace and meet the demands of such a digitized world, so it is pertinent that we draw away from the curriculum of the past. 

On a national level, if we want to create a workforce that will be engaged and competitive in the digital economy, equal emphasis needs to be placed on developing skills as is on infrastructure. A key strategy will involve developing the skills to not just use technology, but also create innovative technology that can be used. On an individual level, in the post-COVID world, the phrase ‘leave no one behind’ will take on a different meaning in education. When students are not able to learn the skills they need to thrive in the new digitized economy, it creates a cohort of people who are unable to fully access and utilize digital services, are ill-equipped to meet the skills-demand of the world economy, are constantly steps behind the competition, and are caught in a pervasive web of incapability. 

This article was first published on Brooking Institute