Governments in the region need to do more to promote digital creativity and innovation in children, a new UNESCO report reveals.

ICT is an essential part of education today, but countries in the region often lack the data to show how often children use computers in school, for instance. This hampers efforts to design effective policies that support children as they pick up digital skills.

“Education systems should try to meet basic requirements of access and support and train teachers to be able to foster digital creativity and innovation,” notes Jian Xi Teng, Programme Officer for the Section for Educational Innovation and Skills Development / ICT in Education at UNESCO Bangkok.

The needs of digital kids

The report, launched today and titled Digital Kids Asia-Pacific: Insights into Children’s Digital Citizenship, reveals that the highest competency among kids in the four surveyed countries was Digital Safety and Resilience. This shows that current interventions may be “overly focused” on digital safety concerns.

“This provides data-driven advice that Education Ministries may need to shift their focus from safety concerns to focus more on empowering children to foster their digital creativity,” Teng explains. The other facets of the framework are Digital Literacy, Digital Participation and Agency, and Digital Emotional Intelligence.

This comparative survey collected data on children’s knowledge, attitudes and behaviour towards being a digital citizen, which will provide evidence on how children interact with the internet in school or at home. The current data on children’s access to computers in schools is “relatively weak”, making it harder for policymakers to design interventions and boost digital literacy.

Teng notes that an education Master Plan can be useful for countries to improve on digital creativity and innovation. With these, governments can develop national connectivity projects that holistically include programmes at schools and education institutes. “Promoting creativity and innovation in schools can also be part of broader changes to give time and opportunities for students to design, create and innovate to solve problems they see in their community or country,” he explains.

Improving digital access

The insights also reveal that significant percentages of students in all four countries did not have access to the Internet at school: 18.6 percent in Republic of Korea, 24.3 percent in Vietnam, 24.1 in Fiji, and 37.4 percent in Bangladesh. But students generally had more access to the Internet at home, likely due to extremely high smartphone penetration. This helps policymakers see the importance of “equity in quality of access to ICT”, says Teng.

It is important to note that the developed countries did not necessarily do better in all the five competencies. Korean children scored the highest in every competency except for Digital Participation and Agency. “Their responses to civic engagement in the digital space were the lowest of all, and so were their responses to questions about interacting, sharing and collaborating,” Teng points out. The report helps to highlight areas that the developed countries may want to develop further.

Parents and teachers both have big parts to play in children’s digital citizenship. The report findings can enable governments to “identify and update relevant parts of professional standards for teachers” so that they can continue to upgrade their teaching, Teng says. And parents “may need support through targeted campaigns with relevant and easy-to-understand information”, he adds.

Other key findings include the fact that Bangladesh has the greatest digital divide in access. Forty percent of surveyed children had not used any kind of digital devices by age 14. In South Korea, the number is only 3 percent. “One important tip is that policy-makers in ministries should seek to understand the actual situation on the ground,” Teng says. He adds that UNESCO supported Bhutan’s development of their Education Blueprint 2014-2024, which involved nationwide consultations.

And girls outperformed boys in all five domains, which goes against commonly held assumptions. Here, UNESCO recommends the creation of more scholarships specifically for girls and women in STEM. “We need to embrace the holistic aspects of digital citizenship competencies that can attract girls to STEM areas,” Teng says, while moving away from a narrow and conventional definition of digital competencies as single-aspect hard skills.

Technology permeates our lives, and for our children, it is an integral part of how they access information, exchange ideas, and learn. It is therefore imperative that education policies need to take into account how children themselves interface with technology.

Learn more about the report here.