February 8, 2019

What does “digital literacy” mean?

Ask a few educator colleagues what the digital literacy definition means to them—and you’ll likely hear a myriad of answers that differ from your own. In fact, digital literacy’s meaning can vary greatly by source, even to the point of confusion.

When it comes down to it, digital literacy’s definition encompasses a wide range of 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) narrows digital literacy’s definition to:

“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’s meaning 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. Also, students today are also being asked to create, collaborate, and share digital content and to do so responsibly.

For these reasons, it’s critical that principals, school librarians, and teachers understand the importance of digital literacy skills for students, and the importance of teaching digital literacy in the classroom.

Why is digital literacy important?

Students who are building digital literacy skills:

  • Know how to find and consume digital content
  • Are able to create, communicate, and share digital content
  • Understand the basics of internet safety, such as:
    • Creating strong passwords
    • Using privacy settings
    • Knowing what to share or not on social media
  • Realize the perils of cyberbullying
  • 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.

What are some examples of digital literacy?

Students’ digital literacy needs will vary depending on their age and ability, from learning how to get to their favorite online learning game to understanding what it takes to create a great digital job resume.

Examples of digital literacy for early elementary students

Some examples of digital literacy for early elementary students might include:

  • Taking and making their own calls on a cell phone
  • Knowing how to send a text message
  • Practicing healthy posture while using electronics
  • Understanding how to navigate to learning games and activities
  • Knowing why they should never use any personal details, such as their name or date of birth, when creating accounts on websites
  • Always logging out of their personal accounts, especially if they are using a public Wi-Fi network
  • Having a grasp of basic techniques for staying safe online, including never sharing their personal contact information like phone number, address, or email
  • Understanding they should never buy anything online without permission, especially from ads

Examples of digital literacy for upper elementary students

Students in upper elementary school may be learning digital literacy skills, such as:

  • Gaining a deeper understanding of why it is important to practice online safety
  • More advanced online safety techniques
  • How to conduct an internet search
  • How to choose reliable information from a Google search
  • How to ethically use online resources
  • The dangers of online bullying and how to respond when they encounter a bullying scenario
  • The importance and how-to of creating strong passwords
  • Why they should respect the age requirements of social media networks and websites to avoid being exposed to harmful and misleading content

Examples of digital literacy for middle grade students

Examples of digital literacy for students in the middle grades may include:

  • Understanding how social media platforms work
  • Creating an online profile on a social media platform
  • Managing their own media diet in terms of what they are consuming and how much
  • Having an awareness of the impact of their interaction with social media
  • Cultivating a sensitivity around social media platforms and how these platforms can affect their lives and the lives of others
  • Evaluating the accuracy, perspective, credibility, and relevance of informational sources

Examples of digital literacy for high school students

High school students’ digital literacy skills might include:

  • Learning how to read the news and social media through a critical lens
  • Identifying fake news
  • Learning how to conduct extensive research from a wide variety of online sources
  • Formatting a digital resume
  • Make a personal website
  • Creating a digital portfolio

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 make a student digitally literate.

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 significantly different than reading a print book. It simply replaces words on a page with text on a screen, and it may only require that students know how to turn pages online.

Essential digital literacy skills, as you can imagine, go so much further.

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—perhaps without even realizing it.

For example, in class:

  • Do you talk to students about online safety and caution them to communicate responsibly?
  • Do you teach them how to discern trustworthy digital sources and recognize misinformation?
  • Do you discuss the consequences of what students share online?
  • Do you teach them how to recognize and help put an end to cyberbullying?

If you answered “yes” to any of the above, you’re already 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.

3 categories of digital literacy skills

Helping students to build digital literacy skills encompasses so much that it’s often easier to break it down into smaller bites. Hiller Spires, a professor of literacy and technology at North Carolina State University, categorizes digital literacy into three main “buckets:”

  1. Finding and consuming digital content
  2. Creating digital content
  3. Communicating or sharing digital content

#1: 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, such as:

  • Who created the message and why?
  • Where is the message being distributed?
  • 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.

#2: 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, in ways that include:

  • Writing in digital formats
  • Creating various forms of media, such as:
    • Tweets
    • Podcasts
    • Videos
    • Emails
    • Blogs

Teachers today should look for in-text tools that empower students to become effective creators of content. They should also help students learn to question what others have created and shared.

#3: Communicating or sharing digital content

Because 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. Help them to understand that their digital footprint encompasses all the information they either passively leave or actively share about themselves online—most notably on social media sites like:

  • Instagram
  • Twitter
  • Snapchat; and
  • Facebook

The importance of diverse reading content in teaching digital literacy

As teachers focus on teaching digital literacy skills in the classroom, access to diverse reading content is key to helping students gain these skills. Diversified reading content also provides countless opportunities for personalized learning 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?

As technology transforms what, how, and where students read, school leaders and educators are embracing the idea of giving students access to digital books. But as we mentioned earlier, there’s much more to consider than simply subscribing to an eBook service.

When seeking to build students’ digital literacy skills, many educators focus on safe, age-appropriate online content that accelerates literacy growth while also:

  • Providing all students with 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 their digital literacy skills while also:

  • Ensuring digital titles are from respected publishers and content includes titles that enable learners of diverse backgrounds to see their culture, race, and ethnicity represented
  • Providing content for a broad range of interests, 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

Learn more about the myON digital reading platform from Renaissance

Looking for high-interest digital books for your students, with embedded reading supports and robust scaffolds?

Look no further than the myON digital reading platform.

With myON, teachers can be sure that each student:

  • Can engage in frequent, high-quality reading practice
  • Has unlimited, 24/7 access to thousands of enhanced digital books and age-appropriate news articles
  • Has the tools they need to participate — whether they’re utilizing an in-person, remote, or blended learning environment

And teachers can easily create customizable projects and reports that enable them to nurture and monitor their students’ digital literacy growth. Learn more about getting started with myON.

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