Digital literacy is important to the Netherlands’ curriculum but how do we overcome the challenges of teaching it? Aad van der Drift shares his advice.

The Netherlands is at the top of the EU list of countries with the highest percentages of inhabitants proficient in the use of the internet, computers and software. A survey conducted by National Statistics Netherlands (CBS) found that in 2021, almost 80 per cent of the Dutch population aged 16–74 will have basic or above basic overall digital skills, compared to an average of 54 per cent in the rest of Europe. 1

In the Netherlands, digital competence means the ability to use devices meaningfully. Although the population has a high level of digital skills, there will always be a need to upgrade young people’s skills to prepare them for an advancing digital future.

In 2012, the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW), warned of an emerging gap between the digitally literate and the digitally illiterate. At the time, KNAW was of the opinion that a digitally literate person is someone who can act and think in a digitally competent and digitally responsible manner. 2

Our education system

The Dutch education system consists of three levels: primary, secondary and higher education and attendance is compulsory from 5–16. However, most children start primary school at the age of four. Pre-primary (kindergarten) and primary education are offered together in one eight-grade school. Most pupils are around 12 years old when they start secondary school.

There is also what is known as ‘educational freedom’. This means schools have a great deal of autonomy. They can decide how they want to organise their education (as long as they offer all the content legally prescribed by the mandatory educational objectives) and can provide it according to their own views and principles. The government sets the legal requirements for education and the framework within which schools must operate. A school board is responsible for the school and for the quality of education, including the attainment of mandatory targets.

It’s important to note that when we talk about the curriculum in this article, it is not prescribed how to achieve it, as long as what is prescribed in the curricula is ultimately achieved.

What does digital literacy mean in Dutch education?

In 2014, ‘digital literacy’ was defined by the SLO (Netherland’s Institute for Curriculum Development) as a combination of four skills which are widely supported by education experts.

  • Basic ICT skills: This means understanding how different types of technology work and how to use them – as well as the capabilities and limitations.
  • Information literacy: The ability to identify and analyse an information need; then to locate, select, process and use relevant information.
  • Computational thinking: A digitally literate person can formulate problems so that a computer or other digital tool can be used to solve them. Here, people often talk about coding, although this is only one part of computational thinking.
  • Media literacy: The conscious, critical and active use of all available media – digital and analogue – to enhance quality of life and ensure that you can participate to the fullest in the world around you. 3

Although there was wide agreement on this broad definition of digital literacy and experts were convinced that it needed to be implemented urgently, implementation was far from complete and a long period of research followed. Between March 2018 and October 2019, digital literacy development teams got to work with support from academics, teacher training colleges, curriculum specialists, schools, trade unions and professional associations. They also gathered feedback from teachers, parents, students, civil society organisations and the business community.

The OECD published an analysis following an extensive study based on the interim results from May 2019.

The development teams identified six themes to consider for a digital literacy curriculum:

  1. Data and information
  2. Security and privacy in the digital world
  3. The operation and (creative) use of digital technologies
  4. Digital communication and collaboration
  5. Digital citizenship
  6. Digital economy

The next step is to formulate the core objectives. These will be ready very soon, so every school will know what is expected of it. It is striking that schools are not obliged to offer digital literacy as a subject, as long as the targets set by the ministry are met. Therefore, in the Netherlands there is a lot of thought given to offering digital literacy in context. This means trying to develop skills in individual subjects such as Dutch, English, German and geography that are directly linked to learning objectives.

What are the challenges of teaching digital literacy in Dutch education?

Digital literacy belongs in Dutch education, but its introduction needs space in the curriculum and, to be successful, it must be introduced carefully. Teachers and school management must be willing, able, and see the need for it.

A cautious approach means phasing in digital literacy so that the basics are in place. This also means that we need to keep an eye on new developments and keep in mind what education can mean for students.

We must also be careful not to get carried away with hypes (e.g., ChatGPT and Metaverse), otherwise before you know it, everything in digital literacy is ‘essential’.

To understand the digital world, you first need a solid foundation. The Ministry of Education will announce the core objectives this year and will require primary and secondary schools to start working on them.

It won’t be easy. There are concerns about having enough qualified teachers, and here, the shortage of Computer Science teachers is the highest of all school subjects. Moreover, not every teacher has the same level of ICT skills, and there is no guarantee that teachers will be able to teach the core objectives of their subject sufficiently well. Therefore, in-service training will be of great importance. Although it was recognised 11 years ago that students need the skills to thrive and develop in digital society, progress has been very slow. The current government wants to speed things up, but it remains to be seen how fast things will actually move in schools.

Author

  • Aad van der Drift

    After 37 years working as a geography and computer science teacher in Dutch education, Aad is now the secretary for the Professional Association for Computer Science and Digital Literacy i&i. He manages the association's website and PR and is directly involved in educational developments.
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