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.
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.
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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 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:
- Practical and functional skills
- Critical thinking and evaluation
- The ability to find and select information
- Effective communication
- Cultural and social understanding.
Let's take a closer look at all of these.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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!