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Understanding Digital Literacy

The growing use of technology in education is forcing us to rethink our definition of literacy. The Cambridge Dictionary defines literacy as the ability to read and write and as a basic skill or knowledge of a subject. However, technological advances are radically changing the way students access content, interact with content, and share it with others, requiring a whole set of skills beyond the traditional practices of reading and writing.

As the researchers Coiro, Knobel, Lankshear, and Leau explain in their 2008 book, Handbook of Research on New Literacies, as technology alters the literacy experience, students will have to be able to adapt to new technologies while at the same time learning how to learn effectively with these new technologies. This is forcing educators to develop new teaching approaches and to expand their understanding of what it means to be literate in the digital age.

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What Is Digital Literacy?

Like many new concepts in the education field, the term digital literacy is so wide-ranging that it can be confusing. Also, educators don’t agree on the use of this term, and often concepts such as Internet literacy and 21st century skills are used interchangeably with digital literacy, even though they don’t mean exactly the same thing.

A team from North Carolina State University, led by Hiller Spires, a professor of literacy and technology, has developed a very straightforward definition of digital literacy. They see it as having three different practices that learners are using repetitively:

  1. Finding and consuming digital content
  2. Creating digital content
  3. Sharing and communicating digital content

In order to do these practices effectively, learners must be able to critically evaluate the digital content they are viewing. If they are unable to do this, learners can become overwhelmed by the mass of digital content available, which may prevent them from making good use of the technology. Rather than identifying and exploring the digital content, the search process and technology become the focus. So knowing how to critically evaluate digital content at the same time you are locating, consuming, creating, and communicating it is key to digital literacy. Also, locating, consuming, creating and communicating digital content for educational purposes requires students to have specific skills and knowledge.

What Skills Do Students Need To Be Digitally Literate?

As mentioned earlier, with the continuing advances in educational technology, students are going to be in an ongoing process of learning new technologies and how to apply them to their learning. However, there are some basic skill sets related to the three practices that Spires’ team outlined that must be taught to students no matter what technology a student uses.

Researching in an Online Environment

Students must be prepared for researching in an online environment. They must be taught skills that are critical to finding and using digital content. These include:

  • Domain name knowledge
  • Working knowledge of how to use search engines and browsers
  • How to use punctuation to get better search results
  • Understanding how Google creates its search lists
  • General knowledge of available digital resources that have been curated by reliable sources, such as the Smithsonian and History Channel digital databases.
  • Knowing how to find who is publishing particular site content

Evaluating Online Information

Students need to learn how to evaluate the reliability and veracity of the information they find online. They need to be able to answer the following questions:

  • Is the site legitimate, or is it a hoax?
  • Is the author an expert or a non-expert?
  • Is the information current or dated?
  • Is the data neutral or biased?

Reading Online Information

Digital text that is read through the Internet is interactive. It can contain hyperlinks, audio clips, images, interactive buttons, share features, and comments. This forces readers to interact with the text differently than they would with a book or journal. As readers review the information, they have to decide how they want to explore the information and how deep they want to go. Students have to learn how to navigate this interactivity effectively and get the information they need efficiently without getting lost.

Creating and Communicating Digital Content

Creating digital content is a big part of digital literacy. Unlike traditional writing, which is more of a personal activity, digital content is created with the sense of being shared. Students can now use a variety of digital writing tools that are easy to use, participatory and collaborative, and facilitate creating online communities. This includes social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter that require the student to understand and use information from many sources and in multiple formats. Students can also use tools like YouTube, SlideShare, and podcasts to create video and audio and share it.

Learning Appropriate Online Behavior

Students also need to learn that there is a responsibility that comes with using digital tools to create things and share them with the world. They need to learn how to be good digital citizens and what constitutes appropriate online behavior in relation to:

  • Cyber bullying
  • Legality of online material used
  • Privacy and safety while traveling the digital world

Where do we go from here?

As technology continues to evolve, a student’s ability to create, share, and understand meaning and knowledge in a digital world will become more critical, not only for their success in education but in all aspects of their life. No matter how you define digital literacy or what you call it, education technology will continue to change pedagogy and learning and impact how students learn and respond to content. We will all need to be able to adapt to this changing environment and develop skills to navigate it effectively. And digital learning affects the development of products for the education market. There are opportunities for publishers to build “how-to” strategies for the best use of technology as well as best practices in using technology to develop responsible digital citizens.


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