Transforming the Way We Learn: Why Digital Literacy is So Important

“…digital literacy is less about tools and more about thinking.”

When we talk about language literacy, we are discussing much more than the basic ability to recognize words on a page. True literacy extends beyond the ability to read and encompasses the skills needed to gain meaning and knowledge from the written word, to think critically, and to write clearly.

Likewise, digital literacy is more than simply knowing how to use digital tools. It is the ability to locate, organize, understand, evaluate, and analyze information using digital technology. It’s also about knowing what to share and who to share it with.

In other words, it is less about tools and more about thinking. This quote from the NMC 2012 Horizon Report on K12 education exemplifies the importance of not only teaching kids how to use technology, but how to think and evaluate.

Skills based on using digital tools are important, but they are also short-lived since the tools and platforms available to us change so quickly. As soon as we master one social network or online tool, a new one emerges. Anyone who’s seen a baby use an iPad like a pro can attest to the fact that kids figure out how to use new technology amazingly fast. But they still need to be taught other important skills surrounding how to use that technology effectively.

In fact, though we refer to modern kids as digital natives, the idea that young people are more inherently digitally literate is false. While they are more skilled at using new technology to simply locate information, studies have shown that they generally lack the ability to evaluate and think critically about what they find and don’t know how to problem solve using technology.

In a short video, Nicky Hockly of The Consultants-E explains that while technical skills are a part of digital literacy, the social practices surrounding our use of technology are just as important. She goes on to explain a theory that breaks digital literacy down into four different categories:

  • Language- print and texting as well as visual, multimedia, and coding literacies.
  • Information- search, tagging, and critical thinking/filtering literacies fall into this category
  • Connections-social skills and networking, collaboration, digital safety, and intercultural awareness.
  • (Re)design- remix literacy, encompassing all of the above literacies, but also including an awareness of copyright, fair use and the legal issues surrounding remixes and mashups.

So how can teachers and parents teach kids all they need to be truly digitally literate? Luckily, there are tons of free online resources available for teaching the necessary skills. Check out the list below for resources related to each of the 4 literacy areas identified above.

Language: The language aspect of digital literacy includes digital writing, coding, as well as creating visuals and multimedia using digital tools. Check out this Learning Liftoff post for a number of resources for getting kids started in the world of programming and multimedia content creation. This great post from Common Sense Media has more ideas to help kids be responsible online content creators. This literacy also involves knowing how to use the language of the Internet, including when and where it’s OK, and when it’s not. Remind kids that while internet slang and abbreviations are fine in an IM to a friend or on Twitter, they have no place in an essay. Likewise, a chat with a friend should be written differently than an email to a teacher.

Information: Google has an excellent free curriculum for teaching students of all levels how to find and evaluate information online. It includes videos, examples, and activities for refining search skills. The Google A Day challenge is one activity available that teaches important search skills, and is a lot of fun too! This post from Mindshift also offers a nice overview of teaching kids how to use the most effective search terms to find what they need.

Connections: While it is important to be aware of kids’ online activity, there’s more to keeping kids safe than monitoring them. This quote from the NY Times says it best: “The best way to protect children online is to discuss the issues and teach them how to help themselves. Ultimately, surveillance is no replacement for digital literacy.” Check out our blog post about Keeping Kids Safe Online for a ton of ideas and resources for teaching kids the important skills they need to stay safe.

Re(design): It’s not uncommon for the digital generation to create and share remixes or mashups of existing video, audio, graphics, or text. Creating this content can be fun, and even educational, but it’s important that kids understand what’s OK to share and what isn’t. Copyright law and fair use are tough even for adults to understand, but there are many resources available online that can help. If your child enjoys creating mashups, take a look at some of these links with him or her. This animated video created by Youtube explains copyright in a fun and kid-friendly way. For teens, Teaching Copyright offers a full high-school curriculum based on this topic, as well as resources, articles, and a helpful list of sources for public domain and Creative Commons content.

By teaching kids to be truly digitally literate, we can keep them safe online, while helping to ensure their success in this digital world we live in. If you’d like to learn more, we will be covering some of these topics, including search skills, digital apps and tools, and digital citizenship in our new series of parent workshops, Clearing the Noise: Understanding the Internet and Its Tools. I hope you can join us!


This series has ended. Click the link to view each recording.

1. Understanding the Internet and Its Tools: Detangling the Web

2. Diffusing the Noise: A Look at Internet Tools like Google Drive, Feed Readers, and Social Media Dashboards

3. Say Cheese! Tools to Help You Discover the Mobile Photographer in You

4. Hey! I Can See You! The Art of Using Video Tools Like Skype and Google Hangouts

5. Yes, There IS an App for That! A Look at All the Latest Cool Mobile Apps

6. Digital Citizenship: Internet Safety for You and Your Family

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