What is digital literacy and why does it matter?
What does the term “digital literacy” mean to you?
Ask a few educator colleagues what digital literacy means to them. You’ll likely hear a myriad of answers that differ from your own.
Although the meaning of digital literacy can vary greatly by source, even to the point of confusion, digital literacy encompasses 21st-century skills related to the effective and appropriate use of technology.
To keep things simple, let’s narrow the field to one definition. The American Library Association (ALA) defines digital literacy as “the ability to use information and communication technologies to find, evaluate, create, and communicate information, requiring both cognitive and technical skills.”
With this ALA digital literacy definition as a guiding light, it’s important to understand that even digital natives who know how to send a text and post to social media are not considered “digitally literate” by any means.
Digital literacy in education encompasses so much more. For example, students must have specific skills when reading online text that may contain embedded resources such as hyperlinks, audio clips, graphs, or charts that require students to make choices.
Students today are also being asked to create, collaborate, and share digital content and to do so responsibly. For these reasons, principals, school librarians, and teachers understand the importance of digital literacy skills for students and teaching digital literacy in the classroom.
Why reading online is not “digital literacy”
Students who use both cognitive and technical skills to find, evaluate, create, and communicate information are certainly on their way to becoming digitally literate, savvy consumers of digital content.
However, it’s important to note that simply reading online or subscribing to an eBook service does not a digitally literate student make.
Yes, students can gain reading growth from online reading because reading practice—time spent reading—is key to achievement for students at every level. However, reading a book online, in most cases, is not much different than reading a print book. It simply replaces words on a page with text on a screen. It may only require that students know how to turn pages online. Essential digital literacy skills, as you can imagine, go so much further.
Why is digital literacy so important?
School leaders, media specialists, and educators are focusing more and more on the benefits of digital literacy skills in schools because today’s students are looking to the Internet as a key source of information. Students who are digitally literate know how to find and consume digital content. They know how to create, communicate, and share digital content.
Students who are building digital literacy skills understand the basics of Internet safety such as creating strong passwords, understanding and using privacy settings, and knowing what to share or not on social media. They understand the perils of cyberbullying and seek to stop current bullies and prevent others from cyberbullying.
In today’s digital world, nearly every career requires digital communication at some point, so equipping students with the skills to effectively and responsibly find, evaluate, communicate, and share online content is key to their futures. But the benefits of teaching your students digital literacy skills begin in the classroom right now.
You’re likely already teaching digital literacy skills
As a school leader or educator in today’s digital world, chances are you’ve been teaching your students digital literacy basics and enhancing their skills all along, perhaps without even realizing it.
For example, do you talk to students about online safety, caution them to communicate responsibly? Do you teach them how to discern trustworthy sources and stress the importance of recognizing fake news versus real news? Do you discuss the consequences of what students share online, teach them to recognize and help stop cyberbullying?
If you answered “yes” to any of the above, you’re teaching digital literacy skills. All these lessons and tips teachers share represent digital literacy examples and stress the importance of digital literacy in the classroom.
Helping students build digital literacy skills encompasses so much that it’s often easier to break it down a bit. Hiller Spires, a professor of literacy and technology at North Carolina State University, breaks down digital literacy into three main buckets: Finding and consuming digital content; creating digital content; and communicating or sharing digital content.
Finding and consuming digital content
Students who are well on their way to becoming digitally literate ask important questions about the online content they encounter. Who created the message and why? Where is the message being distributed and which techniques are being used to attract attention? They learn to identify dubious claims and slanted viewpoints and to assess the accuracy of charts, graphics, and other data sources.
They also question the points of view, lifestyles, and values that may be represented, or missing, from the content. Part of effectively finding and consuming digital content focuses on how well students can discern facts from misinformation and determine trustworthy sources.
Creating digital content
Students who are gaining digital literacy skills learn to become responsible content creators in addition to content consumers. They move beyond finding, evaluating, and consuming digital content to creating it, including both writing in digital formats and creating other forms of media such as tweets, podcasts, videos, emails, and blogs.
Teachers today look for in-text tools that empower students to become effective creators of content, and as students learn to create, they also learn to question what others have created and shared.
Communicating or sharing digital content
Since digital writing is often meant to be shared, learning how to effectively collaborate and communicate ideas with others is a pillar of digital literacy.
Students don’t always think about the implications or potential consequences of what they share online. In your digital literacy lessons, discuss the consequences of what students share online. Help them understand that a digital footprint encompasses all the information that students either passively leave or actively share about themselves online, most notably social media sites.
The importance of diverse reading content
As teachers focus on teaching digital literacy skills in the classroom, access to diverse reading content is key to helping students gain these skills while also providing opportunities for personalization that lead to reading growth for students at all levels.
One way to boost access, personalization, and reading growth is through a student-centered digital library.
What makes a student-centered digital library different?
Today, as technology transforms what, how, and where students read, school leaders and educators are embracing the idea of giving students access to digital books. As noted, there’s so much more to consider than subscribing to an eBook service.
When looking to build students’ digital literacy skills, many educators focus on providing safe, age-appropriate online content that accelerates literacy growth while:
Providing all students greater access, equity, and ownership of their learning
Delivering real-time data on digital reading practice to move individuals and groups forward
A strong student-centered digital library helps students build digital literacy skills while also:
Ensuring digital titles are from respected publishers and that content includes titles that enable learners of diverse backgrounds to see their culture, race, and ethnicity represented
Providing content for a broad range of interest, grades, and reading levels in a variety of formats and genres including fiction, nonfiction, and graphic novels
Offering titles from well-known publishers in both English and Spanish
Maximizing student choice and engagement by allowing many students to read the same book simultaneously
Making every book available as a “class set,” meaning educators are no longer limited to the few titles with thirty or so copies
Because educators want to make the right choices, this Educator’s Guide to a Student-Centered Digital Library dives into how a digital library created just for students can give teachers the tools to build students’ digital literacy skills while also accelerating literacy growth in today’s digital world.
In it, you’ll discover how you can give your students unlimited 24/7 access to thousands of authentic digital books, anytime, anywhere—with reading and writing tools that foster collaboration and deep connections to the texts—to strengthen both traditional and digital literacy for all.
American Library Association (ALA) Digital Literacy Task Force (2013). ALA Task Force releases digital literacy recommendations. Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/news/press-releases/2013/06/ala-task-force-releases-digital-literacy-recommendations
Fingal, D. (2017). Infographic: Citizenship in the digital age. Retrieved from https://www.iste.org/explore/articleDetail?articleid=192
Spicer, B. (2017). Digital Literacy: The New Pillar of a Child’s Education? Retrieved from