Digital Literacy: What Is It and Why Does it Matter?

Have you ever sat by a family in a restaurant and watched a young child get restless? Parents hand over the phone. Within seconds the child is absorbed with the device and the adults continue their dinner conversation. Even a baby will engage with the buttons and colors on a mobile phone as soon as they are old enough to hold one.

We often view today’s students as tech-savvy because they have been exposed to the Internet, mobile phones, and social networking since birth. It is true that kids today seem to have an instinct for picking up a device and being able to make it do what they want with very little instruction.

Kids seem to have instinctive confidence and ability to work with technology, but what they may lack is the foundational knowledge of how to use technologies effectively to produce work, communicate, and achieve their goals. This is where digital literacy becomes essential and why it is imperative that students develop these skills.

Digital literacy is frequently defined as the process of teaching and learning about the use of technology. I often think of it as giving students and teachers the skills they need to choose the right tool for the job. For example, rather than teaching students how to use a specific word processing program or presentation program such as Microsoft Word or PowerPoint, digital literacy means that we teach students that tools for word processing and presentations exist, that they have some common characteristics, and that they are very useful for writing and presenting reports, stories, journals, marketing materials, and other written communications that require longer content, media, and a clean layout.

Another example of digital literacy is helping students understand that there may be times when a text is an appropriate form of communication, but there are other times when a more formal communication, such as an actual phone call or an e-mail, may be the better choice. Students may scoff that e-mail is for “old people,” but e-mail continues to be used as a primary form of communication in business and industry - which leads me to believe students should know how to communicate in a professional manner using more formal tools for communication and understand why we use them. Texting “Dude, grade my paper,” to a teacher may be considered appropriate communication by a middle school student but that student is not going to last long in the world of work if he/she doesn’t understand how to choose the right tool for the different types of communication etiquette that occur at work or in post secondary education. The rapid pace of technological change and 24-7 connectivity to the workplace or school also means students require digital literacy skills to adapt rapidly to new technologies they encounter and develop the ability to evaluate the efficacy of apps and other tools to accomplish tasks.

Students in our K-12 system are not the only people who need digital literacy skills. You may know a person in your social circle who worked for years in an industry that did not require much in the way of digital literacy skills. The changes in our economy over the last few years suddenly forced thousands of these people into the job market. Many of them had a desperate need to learn how to navigate the Internet to find work and file for unemployment benefits. In addition, people join our society every day from other countries. They may come from countries where digital access is limited to a mobile phone or they may have had no exposure to technology at all. In their case, digital literacy is needed not only to find employment, seek citizenship, or apply for services, but also to engage with the local community. The average parent may have very little difficulty logging in to the school district portal to check their child’s grades, put money into the lunch account, or report their child absent for the day, but this might be overwhelming for a Somali immigrant family whose first language is not English and whose main exposure to technology has been a cell phone.

The good news is that there are a lot of people working on issues of digital literacy for both student and adult populations. Schools are deploying technology for learning at a rapid pace and can seek digital literacy resources through their school library media specialists, technology integrationists, and classroom teachers to help students develop digital literacy skills. There are loads of free, high quality curriculum resources available through organizations such as Common Sense Media that can help schools build digital literacy into their education program as well. No one needs to reinvent the wheel when it comes to teaching digital literacy skills.   

There are also programs for to help adults build digital literacy skills. In Minnesota, for example, several organizations joined together to develop the NorthStar Digital Literacy Project. Project partners developed online training modules that help adults build technology skills. The program includes an assessment that can be taken to gain a North Star Certification. It is hoped that this program will increase digital literacy for all citizens and also help adults seeking employment by serving as evidence of the existence of technology skills for employers. In addition, many public libraries offer free technology skills courses to help adults gain the skill sets they need to function in a connected society.

There is no doubt that digital literacy is an essential 21st century skill for everyone and it is not safe to assume that exposure to technology equates to the knowledge to use it effectively. What is happening with digital literacy in your neighborhood?