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What Digital Literacy Looks Like in a Classroom

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If students are “glued” 24/7 to their mobile devices, why is it necessary for schools to teach digital literacy? Who should teach it? And wait … what does it even mean to be “digitally literate”?

If these are questions you’ve heard or asked, you aren’t alone. Many educators struggle to understand their evolving role in teaching and using technology in their classrooms. Most importantly, many of us wrestle with how technology is shifting the way kids learn.

The New York Department of Education defines digital literacy as “having the knowledge and ability to use a range of technology tools for varied purposes.” Digitally literate people are those who “can use technology strategically to find and evaluate information, connect and collaborate with others, produce and share original content, and use the Internet and technology tools to achieve many academic, professional, and personal goals.”

Most teachers recognize those skills as critical for 21st-century learning. But before teachers and students dive into using technology in class, we should discuss why a digital literacy curriculum is necessary.

The Myth of ‘Digital Natives’

Many adults think that because children have been immersed in a technology since a young age, they are naturally “literate” or skilled in using technology. Younger generations have been labeled “digital natives” while older generations are “digital immigrants.” Some research suggests this labeling is outright false—students are no more literate with devices than their so-called digital immigrant parents.

Creating a Digital Literacy Curriculum

Like traditional literacy, students and adults alike benefit from guidance, instruction, and practice. Educators should define essential skills and steps for helping students navigate their devices (and the unfettered world of the Internet). It’s also important to take appropriate steps toward digital literacy based on children’s stage of development. Common Sense Media has developed a scope and sequence curriculum to help teachers and districts formalize digital literacy instruction.

Teachers should also help students develop healthy habits and attitudes when using technology. Educators need to take an active role in helping them understand the benefits, dangers, and opportunities technology provides.

Taking Responsibility

Many school districts and government organizations are taking a proactive stance on devices in the hands of children and teens. Here are some examples of ways that school districts and even the federal government are addressing digital literacy:

  • In conjunction with their Bring Your Own Device Policy (BYOD), Hillsborough schools (Fla.) recently adopted a digital literacy curriculum for middle school and high school students.
  • Adams Five Star Schools (Colo.) has a formalized digital literacy plan.
  • The Obama administration has created a whole website to help teachers and schools collaborate on best practices in digital literacy.

In addition, Google has created multiple resources for students and teachers to best navigate the Internet. These tools include lessons on digital literacy and digital citizenship:

  • Understanding YouTube and Digital Citizenship: This curriculum includes teacher’s guides and lesson plans, including pre-made slides. It covers topics like online reputation, cyberbullying, and privacy.
  • Search Education: This page links Google’s lesson plans with activities for teachers who are looking to improve students’ search literacy.
  • Google A Day: Categorized by content area, these challenges help students practice how to narrow results from a Google search and find a specific piece of information.

Bringing Digital Literacy to the Classroom

My journey to embedding digital literacy in my classroom has been one of small steps, starts and stops, and lessons learned. I am passionate about helping my students understand powerful and transformative learning, but I am also hesitant to introduce a new tool or device before understanding how it will enhance learning.

Here are some ways I’ve incorporated technology to help students understand their devices and the importance of digital literacy:

Search Literacy

  • I've used Google A Day challenges to teach my students advanced search strategies. I’ve also printed out this infographic to remind students of the various strategies available when searching online.
  • In my freshman research unit, students are required to evaluate digital resources for bias. To demonstrate their understanding of different types of bias, they collaboratively create a classroom presentation.
  • To promote visual literacy and critical reading, I ask my students to read this article about debunking fake images online and watch this TED Talk: “How to Separate Fact from Fiction Online.” We then discuss strategies for evaluating information online before using it in our own writing.

Using Digital Tools

  • I ask students to evaluate this infographic on note-taking strategies, practice using various tools, and reflect on which strategies they believe work best for them.
  • To create powerful presentations using digital platforms, I ask students to watch this funny video clip about PowerPoint fails and view this presentation on how to avoid “Death by PowerPoint.” We also discuss strategies for using visual images and text to impact an audience.
  • Students in my Media Studies class analyzed their own demographics and associated stereotypes to understand targeted advertising and subconscious biases. To demonstrate their analysis, they created a mindmap using digital tools.

Social Media For Learning

As a prolific social media user, I’ve been thinking for more than a year about how to use social media tools with students to expand their learning opportunities. I wrote about that journey in a recent blog post that reflects (1) why social media in the classroom is so important, (2) how I requested parent permissions, and (3) the powerful learning experiences that resulted in just two months.

Here are three more resources that can help teachers understand how to bring social media into the classroom:

Protecting Students in a Digital World

There are a wide range of stories about the power of the digital world—for both good and harm. In danah boyd’s opinion piece titled “Let Kids Run Wild,” she argues that our society’s response to kids with devices has been fear-based and reactive. “Rather than helping teens develop strategies for negotiating public life and the potential risks of interacting with others, fearful parents have focused on tracking, monitoring and locking,” she writes. “These tactics don’t help teens develop the skills they need to manage complex social situations, assess risks, and get help when they’re in trouble.”

Replace “parents” with “schools” and it’s easy to see the obvious application. If instead of opportunities we see monsters, teachers and parents miss a chance to help children find their way in a digital world.

Your Turn

Take a look at your classroom, your school, and your district. Are you preparing students to use devices and technology successfully? Do you have a plan for the adults in your school to model strong digital citizenship?

If not, use the resources here to start the conversation with your colleagues, faculty, and community. Together we can improve digital literacy for all our students.

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