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As the pandemic has laid bare, we are in a revolution that is changing the way people communicate, collaborate, create and connect. Like prior turning points in history, this digital revolution has profound implications for all people, communities and institutions. 

In order to address these complex changes in our society, the IB has developed a new course in digital literacy. 

The Diploma Programme (DP) Digital Society course has been designed to approach changes in technology, media, ethics and policy through conceptual and contextual lenses. To get a better understanding of what this course aims to do, including how it is responding to the needs accelerated by the pandemic, the way it will address the topic of mental health, and what it can tell us about the general direction that IB is taking going forward, we spoke to Joel Adams. 

A former IB graduate and teacher, Joel is currently a Senior Curriculum manager at the IB and has been hard at work with his colleagues to design a course prepared to meet the moment we are living in. He shared a wealth of knowledge on the topic and got us excited about broadening our own role in the realm of digital literacy. Let’s dive in. 

It is clear that the demand for digital literacy education has been increasing for a while, but how has the pandemic emphasized the need for this type of course?

Indeed, the pandemic has amplified themes that were already in the process of changing. When we were beginning the process of creating this new course and embedding digital literacy into it, it was with the understanding that the skills and competencies we wanted to build were not just based on the ability to make and create in a digital environment, but to engage meaningfully with what it means to exist in this context. 

We began with the frank acknowledgment that, for many young people, Digital Society is the air they breathe. If Covid has done anything, it has sped up that process and kind of broke it out of pockets where it existed previously, such as an IT course, media course, or Digital Society type of course. The pandemic has made it apparent that it is everywhere and it needs to be everywhere. 

With digital developments moving so fast, it sometimes feels like the adults in the room are struggling to keep up. How does the course address this and what role do parents and educators play? 

If we look up and down the scale from young people to classrooms to organizations, the heart of digital literacy is the need to connect and collaborate and work with others. But another critical part of it is the ability to handle the maelstrom of misinformation out there in the world. We designed this course to help students answer questions like, “how do I organize, curate, and evaluate the information available to me?” and more importantly, “how can I make connections between the information that I’m curating and the things I want to do with that information?” 

One way parents and educators can help young people come to grips with this new world around us is by moving past the initial reaction of panic and fear. We live in a world of disinformation, competing platforms, and potentially toxic influences. To break through this, we need to engage young people directly in a transparent way that empowers them to do something. 

One of the ways we did this in the Digital Society course is by emphasizing that the best way for young people to learn the skills of responsible, citizen-oriented digital literacy is to make them agents and put them in charge. There is not a lot of prescribed content in the course. We built a framework and put the student at the center of this framework. We want to encourage teachers to partner with young people to help them put together the pieces of this framework so that they can start to design their own types of learning experiences. 

If there are some good general guidelines for parents and educators, it would be—do not bolster the panic and fear narratives. Trust young people and be willing to partner with them. As adults, we have a lot of anxiety that we have to be masters of every new technology or platform, and have to ensure its safety for young people. Yet, we can actually play a much more influential role if we are facilitators and partners rather than gatekeepers. Because at the end of the day, we are never going to be perfect gatekeepers. 

From a perspective of protecting their mental health and that of their peers, what do you think are the most important lessons young people need to learn when expressing themselves and interacting online?

From my perspective, it is even broader than mental health. Of course, there are sections within the course where students can make inquiries and explore issues around addiction, body image, identity—these real vital issues at the heart of what it means to be a young person.

But overall, we want to focus on the social and emotional health of young people in a world so mediated by technology. It was imperative for us not to always frame it as a negative. There is a balance of factors that play into how we interact with digital systems and technologies. Some of them can be quite empowering in terms of mental health or social and emotional health. These technologies have created new communities, new ways of expressing oneself, and even new ways of being human in a way that might not have been possible before. 

It has always been about equipping young people to be mindful consumers, users, and makers and to be able to build and explore critically. Some of these big platforms function on systems that we should be critical of, and we need to ask what they amplify and emphasize to make money. At the same time, it is not all negative. We are trying to help young people find a balance in a way in which they are the architects. Young people are some of the savviest consumers in the digital sphere, and we need to trust them to build and tell their own stories. 

Of course, you are placing a lot of trust in teachers to take your approach and implement it mindfully. What is the general framework?

The course is organized around a core set of “big ideas” – including disruption, identities, agency, and sustainability. We created a framework that put the learner at the center. We provided seven big topics like expression, identity, values, power. In addition, we layered on seven main contexts that we think are really important for exploring the world around us, contexts like—human knowledge, economic, political, health, social context. 

And in-between these topics and context are the fundamental elements of Digital Society—algorithms, AI, robotics, digital media, etc. Working within this framework, we tell students to connect the dots between the big ideas, contexts, and these core elements of Digital Society. 

And of course, there are countless permutations of how you can make these critical connections. It is up to the student to look out at real-world events, a new platform, or maybe something happening in their own lives and use these tools to create their own learning experience.

Of course, Digital Society does not mean the same thing to different and diverse populations. How will this course welcome and invite a discussion about these differences, divides, and perspectives?

Inquiry drives the course with personalized and adaptable concepts, content, and contexts. With the IB, we are in over 120 countries, and it is incredibly diverse. I have been in classrooms in state-funded schools where the conversation about computing and digital technologies is happening with paper and pencil, and I’ve been in schools where young people are given their own devices on the first day of classes. It is about creating a flexible framework that can be activated in meaningful ways in various contexts. It was a challenge to design, but I think we succeeded.

It seems that this reorientation towards student-guided learning and subject integration is becoming more central to how many educational professionals are planning curricula. Are these among the themes that will be central to the IB’s mission going forward?

From my perspective, a lot of the conversations that went into the design of this course are conversations that are happening across the world of education—and definitely in the IB. We want to show students how their skills in the classroom can be applied in the real world.  

For example, students who opt to prioritize Digital Society in their course load will have the opportunities to collaboratively explore various global challenges—sustainability, global wellbeing, diversity, human rights, governance—these big wicked problems of the world. They will be encouraged to look at them and ask questions like, what might be a digital intervention that is feasible, ethical, acceptable within this particular type of challenge?

I think that approach to collaboration and transdisciplinary global challenges is at the heart of the future of the IB. Digital Society has pushed it closer to the center of the conversation—and I think to communicate it meaningfully, we are realizing we need to reorient how we build and assess our courses towards the students. 

All educational organizations of the past have oriented courses towards teachers, institutions, and trying to hit specific requirements. With this course, we decided that the student is our primary user, and I think that perspective is also central to the future of the IB and education. 

If we go back to the beginning of the conversation and looking at what Covid did, we can note that it amplified that type of orientation of the student as the user. We now understand that education is not always defined by physical space in a school or a classroom. Classes are not always divided into neat little boxes—this approach just isn’t working. What we did in this course is provide a small keyhole into what comes next. 

We are always looking for ways to help students see how CAS relates to their academic efforts. It sounds like your approach to the digital literacy course will help illuminate this connection. 

We want to help young people feel empowered to shape and change the world around them in meaningful ways. This is a reason why the connections to CAS are vital in Digital Society. Often, in the IB, we relied on the magic of schools to make the connections between our courses and CAS, but I wanted to empower teachers to make that connection more explicit. So in the course, we say, “look, something that starts as an inquiry in this class could become a CAS Project. 

In fact, maybe it should.” We are always looking for ways to connect young people’s less formal learning experiences—i.e., everything that happens outside of the classroom (most of what happens) with what they study in class. I hope this course will bring these two realms together and make it easier for students to find their own unique and meaningful connections. 

Image Credits: Microsoft, Thomas Park and Compare Fibre via Unsplash. 

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