What Is Digital Literacy (and How to Best Communicate It)?

, Staff Writer
Updated July 20, 2021
Digital Literacy infographic
    Digital Literacy infographic
    artvea / DigitalVision Vectors / Getty Images
    Used under Getty Images license

As a teacher in the modern world, it's important to weave the concept of digital literacy into the classroom, especially with any assignments that involve researching or reviewing online content. Since this applies to most assignments across all grade levels, digital literacy is an important topic at every level of education. Discover the digital literacy definition and find out how to effectively communicate the concept in the classroom.

What Is Digital Literacy?

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.”

Types of Digital Literacy

The ALA definition has several components, each of which is an important aspect of digital literacy.

  • find - find information online using technology devices and systems

  • evaluate - determine the validity of information encountered via technology

  • create - produce content that can be shared or published via technology

  • communicate - effectively convey information via a technology-mediated platform

Digital Literacy in Education

It’s impossible to separate digital literacy from the realities of day-to-day life, including school and other aspects of education.

  • students - From a very early age, usually before even starting school, children are exposed to online educational content. In school, they rely on the internet for just about everything. Not only are most textbooks digital, students also use the internet to do research, study and collaborate with classmates.
  • teachers - Teachers also rely heavily on the internet, using online resources provided by their school district and textbook publishers as well as to find activities, worksheets, videos and other supplemental materials for in-class instruction and homework assignments.
  • parents - In order to help their kids with homework, parents often rely on the internet or other digital resources to brush up their own knowledge of various subjects, as well as to find practice problems, worksheets, lesson plans, educational games and more.

Why Is Digital Literacy Important?

Beyond the fact that digital media permeates every aspect of education, it's also important to consider that students and adults alike are bombarded with information from online sources all the time. Before the internet, students would go to the library to look up facts via vetted sources. Now, every time someone turns on a television or logs into a computer or mobile device, there is an onslaught of information from a wide variety of sources.

  • In the digital age, everyone can produce and publish content, and anyone can come across it. With that in mind, it certainly makes sense that it's critical for people to know how to find, evaluate, create, and communicate information via technology.
  • Students and adults alike need to know how to filter through the massive amounts of information they may come across online. Everyone needs to develop and hone their ability to recognize fake news and to separate facts from persuasive, incorrect, skewed, or sensationalized information.
  • It's also important to educate students (and others) about the responsibility that goes along with creating content that will be communicated via digital platforms to help ensure that what they are contributing contains valuable information that is appropriate and will be beneficial to those who read and share it.

Teaching Key Digital Literacy Skills

Since digital literacy permeates every facet of daily life, it's a good idea for teachers at all grade levels (from preschool through college) to promote digital literacy in the classroom. Explore a few examples of ways to teach digital literacy and use them to help your students develop digital literacy skills.

Develop Critical Thinking Skills

Students must have critical thinking skills to be able to evaluate information that they find online. Incorporate digital content relevant to the subject matter you are teaching and lead discussions in which students apply critical analysis techniques to consider the accuracy, angle or credibility of information they find online, or that you provide.

  • Ask thought-provoking questions as you coach learners through applying reasoning skills to digital content, in a manner appropriate for their grade level and the subject you are teaching. Encourage them to use deductive reasoning to draw conclusions about whether a source is authoritative and/or authoritative.
  • Have students review real-world examples of digital content from the perspective of identifying observations vs. inferences, which will help them learn how to separate fact from opinion. Encourage them to consider if the information has put a persuasive or misleading spin.
  • For students in middle school or higher, work digital literacy into writing assignments. Provide students with a biased or slanted piece of information from a digital source and have them rewrite it so that it is purely factual, as a news story should be.

Build Digital Search Skills

Help students learn how to effectively research topics by including instruction on how to effectively search digital media for information. This will help students master the research skills they'll need in order to find information that will help them effectively write research papers or complete projects for their various classes.

  • Discuss the various search engines, best practices for searching and how to use initial search results to get a sense of other related topics or sources relevant to the subject matter.
  • Provide students with a topic to research and have them give a report in class in which they explain how they went about finding the information they needed.
  • Invite your school's librarian or media specialist to visit your class and provide hands-on instruction on how to most effectively or efficiently search the library's databases.

Recognize and Avoid Digital Plagiarism

Students need to know how to properly cite information they find online in order to exhibit digital literacy in their communication. When discussing research with students, clarify that information gleaned from digital sources requires proper attribution just the same as information from print sources. This will help ensure that students properly communicate sources found via digital sources.

  • Go over the various types of plagiarism so they realize that there is more to plagiarism than just copying from a book. Have students practice paraphrasing without plagiarising.
  • Show students examples of plagiarised content online and discuss the implications. Provide examples of writing that include different types of plagiarism. Challenge students to identify which ones include plagiarism and which do not.
  • Consider introducing middle school or older students to a plagiarism checker like Copyscape, so they have access to a tool they can use to help make sure they aren't inadvertently (or on purpose) plagiarizing content already published online.

Use Proper Online Safety Skills

It's not realistic to expect students to stay off social media entirely, so it's important to introduce them to the importance of staying safe from the time they first begin communicating via social networks or online communities. Teachers don't need to sound like the voice of doom, but should raise awareness of internet safety facts such as the importance of not oversharing personal details online and how to avoid identity theft.

  • Internet safety lesson plans should educate young students about the risks of misrepresenting their age or engaging with strangers online.
  • Lead a discussion about the types of information that students should avoid sharing online. For each idea the students share (or that you provide), ask learners to share their thoughts on how posting such information could put them or the people they care about at risk.
  • Help keep students safe by warning them about common things predators might say when trying to engage with them online. Consider providing students with a few examples of grooming phrases a predator might use, then discuss what to do if a student experiences something similar.

Manage Online Identity

Knowing how to effectively create and manage one's digital presence is an important aspect of digital literacy. It's important for students, especially tweens and teens, to know what a digital footprint is and how theirs will develop and stay with them throughout their lives. The best time for kids to start learning about this type of digital literacy is before they become active on social media, digital chat boards or other places where an online profile is required.

  • Ask students to share examples of the types of information they see people posting online. Ask questions about how this might impact the person who shares in the future, either positively or negatively, being sure to mention that college admissions representatives or employers might one day see it.
  • Consider sharing sample public profiles of influencers that students can relate to and ask students to evaluate how what the person posts now could impact them later in life. You could identify and bring some in, or ask students to share a media influencer that they really admire.
  • Lead students in a discussion about how they can take control of their online identity. Be sure to touch on setting up profiles for maximum privacy, but also mention that there is no way to make sure that any information shared digitally will remain solely with the intended receiver.

Literacy for a Digital World

As a teacher, you can directly impact whether or not your students develop digital literacy. Taking the time to effectively communicate digital literacy to students will help them become savvy consumers of digital content. It'll also prepare them to be responsible content producers if they publish online, participate in social media or otherwise engage in technology-mediated information sharing. Consider reviewing some examples of rhetoric before you get started. That way, various tools to persuade and motivate will be fresh on your mind as you encourage your students to become savvy consumers of technology-based information.