what is digital literacy

What is Digital Literacy and Why Your Students Absolutely Need It

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I found it incredibly interesting that when I started researching digital literacy I found many different definitions of it from many different reputable sources. It seems we all know what digital literacy is.  But we also have different perceptions of exactly what it includes in practice.

So what is digital literacy and why is it such a critical skill for your students to learn and exercise? The "short answer" is that digital literacy is the ability of your students to read, write, speak, and otherwise communicate using the many-varied and ever-changing technological devices and means in use today in the world.  And the reason your students need it so badly is because that is how the world around them works. If they don't understand these skills, they will be seriously hindered in their success in the world around them.  

what is digital literacy

In this article, I will unpack some different definitions of digital literacy and talk about several important aspects of it.  Then I will talk about some excellent ways that you can implement it into your classroom routine and instruction.  You can do this in ways that will allow your students to be ready for what the world has for them.

Some Good News

The good news is that the vast majority of kids worldwide are very adept at most forms of technology as soon as they get it into their hands.  As parents we are amazed and dismayed at the same time by this fact.

We tend to see this as a bad thing.  But actually, this is such an amazing advantage to helping our students/kids get out there and succeed in a world that is constantly changing.  So let's take a look at what this looks like in the classroom.  And we'll take a look at how to help your students capitalize on beefing up their digital literacy skills.

A Comparison of Various Definitions of Digital Literacy

As I was doing my research into what exactly digital literacy encompasses, I came across so many different definitions.  Here are some of the most authoritative ones:

  • Western Sydney University:  "Digital literacy means having the skills you need to live, learn, and work in a society where communication and access to information is increasingly through digital technologies like internet platforms, social media, and mobile devices."
  • American Library Association "Digital literacy is the ability to use information and communication technologies to find, evaluate, create, and communicate information, requiring both cognitive and technical skills."
  • The Oxford English Dictionary  splits the definition into two distinct parts:  "1.  The ability to read and write." and "2. Competence or knowledge in a specified area."  Funny note:  Their example sentence read, "Computer literacy is essential."

What I found very interesting here is that while the definitions themselves seemed to be quite different, they all did an amazing job of defining certain components.  So rather than feeling like there were so many different definitions, I felt more like the nuances in the definitions actually served to reinforce and tie together so many different aspects of a complex topic.  The truth is we cannot break the concept of digital literacy down into just a few words.

what is digital literacy

What is the Digital Divide and How Has it Hurt Digital Literacy?

The digital divide has actually always existed, just not in digital form.  The problem it describes is that there are some people that will learn the necessary skills and use them to find great success in the world.  And then there are those that will not have the resources or not bother to learn the skills and they will have great difficulty if not impossibility in finding success in life.

This is an unfortunate situation and one that is not easily solved.  As for the people who choose not to learn and develop digital literacy skills, there is nothing we can do.  We really cannot force people to do anything in life, nor should we try.  And we cannot always force people to see what the best thing is for them either.  We can guide them and assist them.  But ultimately what people choose to do is theirs to choose.

As for the people who are digitally illiterate because of lack of resources, there are solutions.  There is always a public library that is available to most people.  So even if they are not equipped in their home, they do have options.  Most schools worldwide are at least offering simple concepts in technological education.  And that can be enough to get motivated people started, even if they don't personally have the resources they need.

As teachers, it is pertinent that we are able to recognize those students that are at a disadvantage and help them along if they require and desire it.

What are the Elements of Digital Literacy?

There are 8 elements of digital literacy that cover all of the bases to safe and effective use of them in and out of school.  They are:

  • E-safety
  • Practical and functional skills
  • Creativity
  • Critical thinking and evaluation
  • The ability to find and select information
  • Effective communication
  • Collaboration
  • Cultural and social understanding.

Let's take a closer look at all of these.

Digital literacy skills

E-Safety

This element kind of goes without saying.  The digital world can be a very scary place.  Unfortunately, even though there are so many amazing resources online, there are also dangers lurking around.

Keeping your students and children safe from predators, criminal activity, or even just bad information is a difficult job.  There are tons of options for computer and internet safety.  None are foolproof--kids are very adept at getting around barriers!

But guidance in navigating the digital world out in the world is also necessary to keep our students and children safe.  Letting your students and children watch you while you are navigating the digital world is so incredibly helpful in teaching them and helping them acclimate to technology.

what is digital literacy

Practical and Functional Skills

This is probably the easiest element of digital literacy to teach/demonstrate in the classroom.  By modeling and showing students exactly how to use the equipment and navigate the internet, you are giving them skills that they will literally use every day for the rest of their lives.

Most of us take these skills for granted because we  have been around technology for some time now.  But some students do not have the same experience.  Some do not have technology in their homes.  And some students do have technology in their homes, but it is strictly limited by their parents.

So teaching it in a classroom setting allows you to demonstrate good skills without a lot of unwanted issues that can come up in the home.  Security is usually much tighter as to what internet activity can be performed.  And dangerous sites are filtered out.

This allows students to learn practical and functional digital literacy skills in a safe environment.  And it also cuts way down on the distractions!

Creativity

This is one of the best aspects of learning digital literacy.  You can take the imagination of your students and allow them to develop it into the most amazing projects.

Technology has advanced so fast that kids can almost dream up anything and watch it formulate online or through technology.  And activities and projects that promote these skills further enhance these kids' imaginations.  On a regular basis, teachers can tell you some story of something that happened in their class that astounded them.

And honestly, this is kind of one of my favorite parts about working with kids.  You just never know what is developing in their minds.  And in the earlier grades, many of them haven't learned to stifle that imagination into reality!

This component doesn't just encourage creativity electronically.  It will also develop their reading and writing skills as they formulate and further progress with the projects they are utilizing to learn.

Critical Thinking and Evaluation

The vast majority of middle school students are not well-versed in critical thinking or evaluation skills.

But that doesn't mean they can't develop it through classroom life.  There are several methods of learning that capitalize on learning to use critical thinking and evaluation skills for learning in the classroom, as well as throughout life.

This may be one of the most important elements of learning digital literacy.  Because it isn't just learning digital literacy--it is learning how to function in all aspects of life.

Problem-based learning is a perfect classroom method to promote learning these types of skills in a real-world sort of way.

Another great teaching method to use would be inquiry based learning.  But really, any method of teaching that includes strong student participation will work well for this sort of learning.  And the majority of teaching these days doesn't necessarily consist of the teacher standing in front of the room talking at her students.

And it is this shift in modern education that allows for a much deeper level of practical education.

what is digital literacy

The Ability to Find and Select Information

This is a great way for students to learn to research anything in the world that they need to learn about.  It doesn't even matter what project they are working on.  It can be academic or fun.  And as a teacher, you can make these projects literally anything you want them to do or that they want to do that you approve.

Walking your students through the process rather than talking to them about it is the best education there could be.  It allows the students to immediately reinforce what they are learning because they are experiencing it as they are learning.

It won't take much practice in finding and selecting the information they find relevant to their studies/project when they learn the best ways and resources to do it.  And you will be showing them valuable research skills that they will use the rest of their lives!

Effective Communication

Just about every job that you will have consists of being able to communicate well.  From creating a stellar resume to filling out an application correctly, then communicating well through the interview, all forms of communication are critical in the job world.

Then once you get the job, you must communicate well throughout your work days.  That includes reports, communications with colleagues, customers, or literally anybody that you come into contact with (in person or online) throughout your time on the job.

This doesn't change at home or at school.  Proper communication is a critical skill in literally every aspect of life.  And we need to learn to do it well to be successful in any measure.

I have learned over the years that teaching communication skills is infinitely more effective when taught through living it and discussing it with students/children in the everyday activities of life more than by trying to teach its concepts.

Learning the concepts is one thing--living them is a very different thing.

Collaboration

There is no better time for students to learn collaboration skills than in the earlier school years.

There will be so much less fuss about working with people that have different mindsets and skill sets than they do.  And they'll learn to see that as a strength rather than a weakness as projects are being worked out.

When teachers plan and execute technology related projects that allow students to collaborate with one another, they can also group students in ways that promote a better learning environment.  By partnering students that are more experience in digital skills with students that have had little exposure, you are adding a layer of help in getting all of the students on the same page.

One of the advantages I have seen in this method is that sometimes students could explain concepts better to each other than I could to them directly.  Something about a generation gap maybe?

And honestly, the vast majority of kids catch on so fast to technology today. That means that it doesn't take much for them to outpace us in the technical learning curve.

Practically speaking, helping your students to get a good handle on collaboration now sets them up so perfectly for the world they will be working in sooner than later.  What a valuable life skill to learn early!

Cultural and Social Understanding

I discovered that learning digital literacy skills is an amazing way to impart cultural and social understanding.  There are so many great ways to do this.

One of the best ways I found was to assign projects that caused the students to have to research how different cultures tackle things differently.  For example, in science class, we could research and discuss how different power supplies are in different parts of the world.  Just the act of plugging in an appliance or computer is very different depending on what country you live in.

These are great ways for students to see how different the world can be.  And while my example was regarding a physical aspect of technology, you can expand this to include cultural differences even more so.  Because life is so varied, you have literally zero limitations in teaching these great concepts.

And the side benefit of your students learning these things?  They are learning how to work with very different lifestyles.  It is being communicated to them as one of the great things in life. Cultures and traditions make life exciting and fresh and always new.  Showing your students what a great part of life this is will only serve to make their own life richer as they get older and their world expands its borders.

Putting It All Together

Putting all of these elements into practice will very nicely equip your students to function well in a digitally literate society. In fact, it will prepare them for a very well-rounded life outside of the classroom.

This is what education should really be focused on--way more than academics.  And while most teachers do this on a day to day basis, it can be very tricky to intentionally implement on a day to day basis.  Many of these come about by allowing the classroom to function like real life rather than a place to sit and learn facts.

And fortunately, many teachers and administrators have caught on to this fact!

what is digital literacy

The Need for Digital Literacy in Society

As technology continues to advance in society, citizens need to continue to learn in order to keep up with it.  There are now several digital skills that are considered basic to function in the work world, academic world, and virtually anywhere you go in the world these days.

Some examples are as follows:

  • Fast food chains now have kiosks that you can order and pay for your meal at.
  • The need for equipment in your car to pass through toll roads throughout America and be charged accordingly.
  • Scanning and paying for your own items in your local grocery store.
  • Accessing a computerized queueing systems that put you in the right place in line based on the information you put in.  I have seen these most at military hospitals and pharmacies.
  • Learning how to access and evaluate digital content in a responsible and ethical way to know if it is truthful and appropriate.
  • Learning how to access digital content that will allow you to research and learn skills that can help you in your future hobby or career.

There are so many more examples.  Digital skills are needed in almost every place we go in public now.

What the Experts are Saying Regarding Digital Literacy

There are many experts in the field that have made reference to how much the digital age has impacted our society, even down to the family level.  Here are a few examples:

  • Louis Rossetto, founder and former editor-in-chief of Wired magazine:  “Digital technology is so broad today as to encompass almost everything. No product is made today, no person moves today, nothing is collected, analyzed or communicated without some ‘digital technology’ being an integral part of it. That, in itself, speaks to the overwhelming ‘value’ of digital technology. It is so useful that in short order it has become an integral part of all of our lives."
  • Mike Liebhold, senior researcher and distinguished fellow at the Institute for the Future, wrote, “Almost every member of my family regularly uses the internet to inform or improve aspects of their well-being: diet, fitness, health, social interaction with family and friends in person and online, education, entertainment, employment, commerce, finance and civic engagement.”
  • Dewayne Hendricks, CEO of Tetherless Access, said, “Living a digital life has made it possible to be self-sustaining financially. I spend a great deal of my day online, and being hyperconnected makes it possible to find all the things I need to have a decent quality of life. The type of life I’m leading now would not have been possible 30 years ago. I take comfort in the fact that I’ve had a hand in shaping a part of this thriving digital Web.”
  • Jordan LaBouff, associate professor of psychology at the University of Maine, commented, “There are so many ways, from allowing me to stay connected to my family and other relationships while I travel for work and research, to being able to translate or navigate on the fly in difficult cross-cultural situations. The one that springs to mind is actually my wife’s work experience. Two years ago, due in part to the challenges of living with multiple chronic health conditions, my wife left her successful job as a cell technologist at a local hospital to pursue digital journalism. It has allowed her to work from home and write for a large public audience about research surrounding bipolar disorder. This digital environment provides her employment, and her writing supports thousands of people every week who read her research (that she accesses digitally) and writing and who get social support and well-being tips from it. It’s a remarkable way the digital world has improved our physical one.”

There are literally thousands of statements like this that have been made regarding how much life has improved because of digital literacy throughout all of life.  This is an amazing testimony to the potential that our students will have to make the world what they need it to be for them.  And starting them off on this journey in the middle school grades (or even younger) is such an incredible head start.

 

Conclusion

I read a scary thought a while ago that said as people become more savvy in digital literacy skills that they will be much more successful in the world around them.  But on the flip side, those that are not able to keep up with digital literacy skills will continue to fall behind and the result will be comparable to those who cannot read or write in today's world.  Thus, we need to be making sure that we and those in our care are doing all they can to be digitally literate!

This article is the culmination of much research on the topic of what exactly digital literacy is and  how it plays out in the classroom.  We have such an amazing opportunity to prepare our students for the world to come.  And our students have an amazing opportunity to shape their own future like never before.  Let's all take this and run with it!  How has digital literacy changed your world?  Feel free to share in the comments below!

Sources:

Pew Research:  Stories from Experts About the Impact of Digital Life

If you liked this article, I think you will also really like these related articles:

The Impact of Technology on Literature

Why Technology in the Classroom is Necessary

How Students Feel About Educational Technology

What Are Emerging Technologies in Education?

Technology Finds You'll Love for Your Classroom

Creative Ways to Integrate Technology into Lesson Plans

Relevant Articles Regarding Technology in the Classroom

Perfect Virtual Field Trips


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Comments 91

  1. It is so interesting to me how much things have changed and keep on changing with how we communicate. I had not ever heard the term digital literacy before but it makes complete sense that it is absolutely essential students have access to resources to learn how to be successful in this day and age. It’s wild to think how much things have really changed since we had “computer class” that included practicing our typing skills and little else!

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      So true, Tessa. My first computer courses were before there was an internet! It is such a different world now.

  2. It’s not only kids that need this. I feel like my mom could use an entire course in digital literacy. I just can’t comprehend when people don’t know how to navigate the ins and outs of the web.

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      You are so right, Blanca! I think it may be trickier trying to teach the older generation, though. But it would be so worth it!

  3. You are so right there is no better time for digital literature that now. It’s one of the only ways kids can learn at the moment. This is extremely insightful.

  4. Being in a software company that also offers training for the use of each application, I must agree with hands on instruction over just mere concepts. For us, they must go hand in hand. The use of technology must be practical. I hope that the kids of today, appreciate how much their lives are better in terms of research and collaboration nowadays. Most especially that teachers such as yourself are doing everything that you can to make learning easier as well as fun for them.

  5. There’s no doubt that the internet and technology is a wonderful thing. Kids can explore various ideas and parts of the world from the safety of their home. But e-safety is still a massive thing and there are predators everywhere!

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      It is scary how easily predators can still reach kids today. They are always a step ahead in the technology realm. Nothing beats personal supervision. And honestly, most kids love when their parents take a sincere interest.

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  6. There is a dark side to the digital age and we do need to be cautious of that. On the upside, kids today can surpass many limitation we had as youth learning with literally everything at their fingertips.

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      You are so right about all of those things! We have to weigh out the good and the bad and make it work. It isn’t going anywhere, so we need to make the best of it. And there are some great aspects to it to embrace! Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  7. I feel like I struggle with this. I’m of the age where I love certain digital things but new digital things scare me. It took me forever to feel comfortable going to self-serve kiosks even though as an introvert I think they’re wonderful.

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      I have always been that way about anything new. The funny thing is, for the first time in my life I am not so intimidated by everything like I used to be. I’m not sure if it is because I’m just getting older, or because I am finally emerging from a very long fog. Maybe both! Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  8. We are moving to digitalization, still a big portion of the world is not digitatilized, Love to read and understand how we are accepting changes in our learning and teaching methodologies. The article is very helpful for understanding the definition of Digital Literacy, and elements of digital literacy. Thanks for sharing this good information.

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      1. Your work on teaching methodologies are more appriciatebale, It can be implemented globally, the teacher can get help for these articles.

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  9. this is very helpful.making use of the advancement of technology for the benefits of our kids. it’s just that we only need to protect them. since the world wide web is dangerous if not properly used. 🙂

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  10. Yup, my kids spend most of their time online. They need to work on typing skills though. I think digital literacy is important for all ages. Heck, I could use a refresher course!

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      Haha, I am always telling my kids that they would love working on their computers even more if they learned how to type. I took typing in college many years ago. It was life-changing then. And it was before computers were household items.

  11. They were talking about this on Ryan and kelly this morning. It’s more important than ever for kids to know all the different avenues of learning.

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  12. Coming from a software company, I do see the need for advancement in learning and keeping up with the updates that come per year. We believe in training to maximize the use of each application. And yes concepts and hands-on instruction should come hand in hand.

  13. This was so interesting I have a friend who is a teacher and they where explaining how much of the learning was done online before the everything was happening. Things have changed a bit since I was in school and when asked if they teach them much about it before hand they told me they already no most of it but I think this post proves there is so much more and should be taught first.

  14. It’s crazy how things are changing in the education system! When I was at school, we had one computer room where we just played games on it, but now my brother is having touch typing and coding lessons!

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  15. Now in this modern age technology is getting advanced day by day many things which are just looks like a dream for us in past is now the reality.

  16. Digital literacy is imperative, especially in 2020. Also, good point on e-safety and noting that there are unkind people out there that are lurking around.

  17. As someone with a degree in cyber security, I’m SO glad safety was one of the first things I read about! Computer literacy is extremely important and relevant with today’s youth. Unfortunately, I feel as if safety gets overlooked far too often. I’m happy you mentioned it!
    This was a great read!

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      Thank you, Jamie. As a mom I see what a critical issue it is on literally a daily basis. Thank you for your kind words!

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  18. Wow! Such a thorough post. At first I chuckled to myself because I thought, if anything, the adults are the ones that will be getting digital literacy from the kids, but this raised a lot of viewpoints, like children without resources. It’s very difficult to get ahead these days without digital knowledge and I suspect will only get harder.

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      Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Jordan! You are right that it will only get harder for those that are disadvantaged unless they can find a way to curb their situation.

  19. Digital literacy is aboslutely key in this day and age. The days of being able to get by with no computer skills are over. Almost everything has gone digital, and our kids need to be able to navigate that digital world in all its formats.

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      Very true, Brianne. As technology progresses, it will be increasingly harder to function in the world without it.

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      That is very true, Ceci. It has gotten better for me over the years. I don’t sweat the small stuff anymore! And that gives us so much more freedom to do the more important things.

  20. Marie, I actually found this article quite interested because for some strange reason I was led to believe that children born in the digital age may not suffer from a lack of digital literacy because that is all they have come to know. I was of the opinion that the older generation are the ones who would suffer from this immensely.

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      I think on the surface it looks like you describe. But then when you start looking deeper, you see a different side. Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

  21. How would you teach digital literacy to preschool kids (age 3-5). It is very important to teach them young but it is necessary and what steps?

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      I would start with apps that are geared for their age but also productive and not just pure entertainment. But I would limit the time. Too much of a good thing is still bad. At age 3-5, though, kids are very much able to learn about letters, sounds, and numbers with simple functions. Plus they are able to start making connections with regard to social emotional awareness. There are some great apps available for all of these things. And I would definitely reinforce it with books.

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  22. I think you are covering something so extremely important. A lot of people want to avoid digital literacy, they just want to go back to the basics. But that is not the way the world is working. We need to make sure our kids are prepared!

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      You are exactly right, Jessie. We can’t ignore the direction the world is taking or we will be left behind. And the best thing we can do is prepare our kids appropriately.

  23. There has definitely been a digital divide here largely to access to reliable internet connections. While that sounds crazy to those living in bigger cities, there are many rural areas of our province that don’t have access to reliable connections like cable. This current situation has really brought that to light with parents struggling to provide the access their children need for online learning. There are many areas with no other options besides satellite internet and/or internet hubs from cell providers and these can come at a steep price. There are parents who have shared $600 bills for a single month of internet during lockdown due to the usage necessary for their kids education. I hope that discussion of these challenges will lead to a change, as the internet really is the way of the future!

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      These are heart-wrenching things to think about. I wonder if there are people in those parts of your province that can help bridge the gap as a sort of ministry or community help. It just takes a couple of people who have a passion to help out!

  24. The digital world has evolved so much and we definitely needs to be prepared and educated on how to efficiently use it. Thanks for sharing such a great and informative post.

  25. Given how fast the pace of new developments in the digital world are occurring, it must be a real challenge to keep up with the best curriculum to teach students. It is just a never-ending battle to try to keep pace, knowing that what you are teaching now will be superseded in under a year. But that is just the way it is right now and we must all stay open to continual change in order to be successful in this competitive world.

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      That is somewhat true, but fortunately things progress as an evolution and not a complete change. As long as we evolve with it, it isn’t so painful. It’s sometimes quite a challenge, though! Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Nicole!

  26. You shared some great pointers here! One that resonated well with me was communication. It is definitely an important life skill to learn and I feel like too much technology can ruin a child’s ability to communicate effectively. I personally didn’t develop the skill until college when I took a Communications course and was forced to do it. My professor made me feel so comfortable speaking publicly and I still thank her today for it!

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      That’s awesome, Candace! In spite of the fact that I have done so much public speaking, I still never get that comfortable with it. Your Youtube videos are an amazing testimony to how comfortable and well-trained you are in speaking to the public! Kudos to your professor, but you’ve got some natural talent that definitely shines through! Thank you for sharing your thoughts with me!

  27. I always tell my kids that even when they’re stuck at home, they should at least learn something new every day. Even a quick skim at a dictionary is already a learning experience.

  28. Great list of resources! Especially all of the different types of dictionaries that are available to students. Sending this to one of my girlfriends who is a virtual tutor.

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  29. I think Face-to-Face communication, human touch and interaction is still very important. Yet given the current situation, thanks a lot for the great list of resources and there’s no way we are stopping kids from studying even they are at home – Knycx Journeying

  30. Digital literacy is super important for kids moving higher up in school and then eventually work. It’s also the key for them in getting all the other “life admin” tasks done effectively outside of school!

  31. This is such an important topic. We have a serious digital divide here in our town! Currently students are using the library parking lot to gain wifi access.

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      I have heard about that in other locations, too. I do hope we can get back to some semblance of normal soon. This has been a long, crazy time.

  32. When I was in college the internet helped me a great deal,but I never had this much information when I was in high school,but I had a big phone,it makes me realize that none of my teachers ever told about the importance of this type of learning.

  33. I’m not crazy about the way we are letting technology take place of people. My son’s eyesight has become very poor due to having to use devices at school, and it is only getting worse. I’m not opposed to it, I just would prefer a more even balance.

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      I agree, balance is critically important. I hope you and your son are able to figure out a way to help his eyesight. It’s really important to make sure that his eyesight is protected before significant damage is done! Although, I’m sure you already know that. Because you’re talking about it!

  34. Your post is very informative. With what is going on with the world and parents resorting to home schooling, digital literacy is a great tool. I agree with everything you pointed out here.

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  35. Digital literacy is very important in this day and age. I thing one of the more important part is “critical thinking and evaluation because children should always be aware.

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  36. I think that digital literacy is important because it’s part of our lives now and the more our children learn about it the more they will be resourceful in this digital era.

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  37. Such an important subject. I’m glad you bringing this up. I think digital literacy is very important. I’m glad to see in my kids school they teach children a lot about e-safety and internet. We live in digital era and knowing how to use tools like internet and smart devices are the same as knowing how to read and write.

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      You are exactly right, Natalie. Studies are now showing that people who are not knowledgeable in digital skills have the same disadvantages as those that cannot read and write and will not be able to make their way through the world successfully.

  38. I can see the importance of digital literacy more than ever before. I know many adults need to be abreast of this too!

  39. This is efficient nowadays. We need to teach students and ourselves to be more engage in this medium of learning

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