What is Digital Literacy?

Every educator is familiar with the concept of literacy—the ability to read and write. A person who is illiterate, who cannot read or write, will inevitably struggle to get along in society. It’s impossible to go on to higher education or get a high-paying job without the ability to read and write. Even daily tasks, like reading a newspaper or filling out job applications, are difficult for an illiterate person. 

In today’s world, literacy goes beyond just the basic ability to comprehend text. Today’s students will also need to master a new skill—digital literacy. Cornell University defines digital literacy as “the ability to find, evaluate, utilize, share, and create content using information technologies and the Internet.”

Digital literacy, by this definition, encompasses a wide range of skills, all of which are necessary to succeed in an increasingly digital world. As print mediums begin to die out, the ability to comprehend information found online becomes more and more important. Students who lack digital literacy skills may soon find themselves at just as much of a disadvantage as those who cannot read or write.

Because digital literacy is so important, educators are increasingly required to teach students digital literacy in the classroom. In many ways, this is similar to what educators have always done in teaching students to read and write. In other ways, however, digital literacy is a brand new skill.

Most students already use digital technology, such as tablets, smartphones, and computers, at home. Many students already know how to navigate the web, share images on social media, and do a Google search to find information. However, true digital literacy goes beyond these basic skills.

One of the most important components of digital literacy is the ability to not just find, but also to evaluate, information. This means finding the answer to a question or a bit of needed information and then judging whether the source is reliable. Educators can, and should, teach students how to tell whether information on the internet is true. The ability to weed out false information and find reliable sources is a key part of digital literacy and a crucial life skill in the 21st century.

Educators can start by teaching students how to find author information, dates of publication, and other information that can reveal whether an online source is reliable. Students should also learn to tell the difference between different types of websites. For example, a .com site may be less reliable than a .edu site. Understanding these differences is one example of digital literacy.

Learning how to locate information is just one part of digital literacy. Knowing how to share information is another. Students today are constantly warned about the dangers of posting inappropriate images or text online, but it’s still important for teachers to discuss. The ability to create and share online is considered a part of digital literacy and should be taught in schools.

Students should know how digital writing differs from traditional writing—for example, how to include images and links in writing. They should also have an understanding of what kind of audience they’re sharing with online. Just like a personal narrative essay differs from a research paper, a post on Facebook is different from an article for a website or blog.

As technology becomes a part of daily life, it’s more important than ever for educators to teach digital literacy. Whether they plan on going to college or not, students will need digital literacy to be successful in their personal and professional lives.

How can educators help their students navigate the digital world? Let us know what you think about digital literacy and education!

Matthew Lynch is the editor of The Edvocate, www.theedadvocate.org and The Tech Edvocate, www.thetechedvocate.org.