Expert Viewpoint

The Role Educators Must Play in Building Digital Literacy & How to Start in the Classroom

The digital world continues to rapidly evolve, creating opportunities for users to continually learn innovative technologies. Beginning in elementary school and extending to middle and high school across all content areas, educators play dual digital roles as both learners and teachers. Educators are learning and practicing new technologies while teaching students how to use those same technologies.

As teacher-learners, educators carry the weight of countering mis- and disinformation that is rampant across digital spaces. By exposing students to a diverse body of accurate and credible digital sources, educators prepare students to engage in digital spaces with a sense of criticality: analysis, synthesis, evaluation, and creation.

In this double role, educators continue to learn about digital spaces and their literacies while teaching students how to consume and produce content that has an authentic and often responsive audience.

Yet exposure to credible sources is just the beginning of the work to be done.

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Educators can begin teaching digital savviness as early as elementary school, reading and deconstructing credible, high-value sources that provide high-quality information. To prepare students to be thoughtful and critical digital consumers of information, educators can tap into resources from organizations like the News Literacy Project, a nonpartisan nonprofit which provides resources and programs for educators to teach students how to be smart consumers of news and information.

Exposure to engaging content is necessary, but not sufficient to equip bourgeoning digital nomads with the tools they need to navigate the rapidly changing and expanding digital landscape. In preparing students to examine digital sources with a sense of criticality through careful questioning, analysis, comparison, and evaluation, educators can teach through an inquiry-based lens.

How to Teach Digital Literacy Using an Inquiry-Based Lens

Students can be taught to engage with digital information beginning by posing questions before and while reading:

  • What do I already know or believe about the topic?
  • What does this text tell me?
  • How does this text add to or challenge my existing beliefs?
  • How extensive is the research used to support the author’s claims?
  • What might be another perspective on this topic?

In this manner, students can practice assessing a source’s perspective, credibility, and bias. For example, students can examine the language and tone in a digital source to determine the perspective of the author or creators. Students can be taught to look for evidence of credibility: the publisher, the date of publication, the type of source (e.g., tweet vs blog vs peer reviewed article).

Students also should be taught to research the author: What has the author written about in the past? What clues exist that tell us something about the author’s beliefs?

Another helpful resource for students is Checkology, the News Literacy Project’s (free-to-use) platform for students in grades 6–12, designed to teach students how to identify misinformation. Students can engage with sources of dubious credibility to learn how to identify and deconstruct them.

Every day, students participate in a community of digital writers and content creators. Students use applications like TikTok, Instagram, and Twitter to produce millions of images, videos, and text for real audiences on an ongoing basis. Students research finely focused topics, conduct interviews, write, revise, edit, and produce podcasts that are heard by audiences around the world.

As producers and creators, educators should consider the landscape of digital production, including writing. Complex and multifaceted, digital writing involves bringing new tools into the writing process to create a range of products. What might this look like?

How to Easily Use Digital Content Creation in the Classroom to Instill Digital Literacy

Beginning in elementary school, teachers can embed the technical aspects of digital writing (e.g., typing, saving, hyperlinking) in their day-to-day instructional practices. Students can spend time reading topics presented in different spaces.

Consider this example focused on climate change: Students can examine a variety of content on climate change and examine variations on effectiveness for audiences in different digital and print spaces. Students can be asked about the differences between tweets, a government report with hyperlinks, a blog post, and a TikTok video on climate change. Then, students could determine the message(s) they want to relay about climate change, determine the audience they would like to target, and write or create a digital message for that audience.

Some students are already engaged in the work of inquiry, research, and digital creation. Students can use digital literacies to deepen and expand their analog writing skills, creating pieces that are interactive and dynamic, encouraging active participation from the reader.

Students who practice these skills will learn to produce content — including writing — that is purposeful, communal, and communicative. Educators may imagine boldly, brainstorm brightly, and innovate steadily on crafting purposeful digital writing tasks that require collaboration, a diverse body of research, and an emphasis on creating meaningful products. Classroom teachers can lead the charge by moving beyond paper-and-pencil tasks and into unique digital spaces where students can demonstrate their knowledge and grow a dynamic set of digital literacy skills.

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.