Expert Viewpoint

Teaching Digital Literacy is a 21st Century Imperative & This is Why

The reliance on digital resources in instructional spaces has been a topic of increasing importance for decades. Long before the pandemic, students were using digital resources academically and socially to connect with others, build community, conduct research, consume, and create media. The necessity of remote learning during the pandemic further accelerated the need to use digital resources for both learning and communication.

Clearly, students need to know how to responsibly use the vast and ever-expanding trove of digital resources at their disposal.

But what does it mean to be digitally literate, and what role can digital resources play instructionally to advance students’ academic needs? This two-part series will explore this topic and offer guidance to educators on growing students into interactive citizens of the world.

What Exactly is Digital Literacy & How Does it Matter for Education?

Defining digital literacy is so complex that in 2020, a group of researchers analyzed digital literacy studies from the past 50 years to examine conceptual convergence around the idea of digital literacy. They concluded that the concept is associated with many different terms that can be divided into two perspectives: “skills-competences for the use of technology” and “teaching-learning and its strategies.”

In classrooms, digital literacy enables students to access information in new ways and then communicate what has been learned with others, giving students a more prominent voice in the world around them.

First, though, students need to be taught how to use the various technologies to benefit fully from available digital tools. Digital texts are often dynamic and fluid, including hyperlinks to other sources that may be visual or auditory, and blending sources together to add meaning for the reader. Students should be guided to navigate these new text types and replicate the techniques in their own creative production efforts.

Why is Digital Literacy Imperative for Students?

Inherent to being able to actively learn via technology is the ability to tap into the plethora of sources of information available on the internet, allowing students a sense of agency in the selection of materials they use.

Not only are there sources with written content such as news articles, online research journals, classic literature, poetry, and blogs, but also video sources such as vlogs, TikTok, and YouTube. Audio sources like podcasts or audio files are also prominently featured, as are many social media sites. Many sources are multimedia with a mixture of text, audio, and video.

The Role Educators Must Play in Building Digital Literacy – and How to Start

In part 2 of their series, NWEA education leaders explain ways that teachers can easily add digital literacy elements to existing instruction and assignments so they emphasize collaboration and critical thinking — while also instilling digital literacy skills and teaching students how to be responsible citizens of our digital world. Read More.

Having such a diverse body of resources to select from motivates students to actively explore the various resources, using their creativity to harness the most effective and appealing sources to further their learning.

But with access and self-selection comes the obvious issue of being able to sort through voluminous amounts of information to decide what is credible and what students should or should not rely upon to build their understanding of the world and then communicate that to others.

Students must be able to critically evaluate what is being said and who is saying it, understanding that just because information is published on the internet, it may not be a reliable, credible, or accurate source of information.

The brew of accurate information, misinformation, and disinformation in digital spaces results in an urgent and crucial need for educators to teach students how to examine reasoning, how to look for unsupported claims, and how to separate fact from opinion — beginning in earlier grade levels and continuing through later grade levels with checking for logical fallacies.

To effectively be able to identify fallacies in digital materials, students will also need to use evaluative thinking to assess the credibility of the source.

Fallacies are often the result of bias: The creator of the digital material may have a clear purpose for development that then slants the perspective presented. For example, a website created to tout the benefits of wind power may only show the positive impacts (e.g., unlimited resource, extremely low greenhouse gas emissions) rather than potential negative impacts (e.g., threat to local species, blight on the landscape) leaving students with only one side of the issue.

Students should be guided to investigate the purpose of the website and to then verify not only the information presented but also any possible missing information, such as opposing views, to form their own evidence-based viewpoint. Students are then able to work on expressing their stance on issues, whether through in-person discussions, social media posts, or writing, to be more connected to the global community.

The process of deciding which sources to use and vetting them for credibility and bias presents opportunities for collaboration with peers, even when students are in a remote learning environment. Discussion and debate with others can lead to deeper understanding of an issue and can teach students to consider the importance of other perspectives — a much-needed skill in a diverse society.

Finally, as members of the digital community, students bear responsibility for producing credible content as opposed to perpetuating misinformation online.

But digital literacy is important for more tangible reasons, too: Digital literacy has material outcomes for job prospects after high school or college, as it has become more prominent in jobs that traditionally haven’t required such skills. The onus is on our education system to ensure students are employable when they graduate, and now more than ever, digital literacy is a foundational skill for building future careers.

About the Authors

Miah Daughtery, Ed.D., is Vice President of Teaching & Learning Advocacy, Literacy at NWEA, where she spends her days figuring out how to get kids more excited about reading and writing.

Laura B. Hansen is Director of Teaching and Learning Solutions at NWEA, where she focuses on understanding and fostering the relationships between teaching, learning, and assessment to promote literacy for all students.