7 Ways to Teach Digital Literacy

(This article was last updated in February 2020)

Digital literacy is a hot topic these days, and we’ve previously written about the importance of it for today’s students and what teachers need to know about helping them use technology effectively to enhance modern communication.

But although the need for digital literacy is clear, actually teaching and using technology in educational settings can still be a bit of a puzzle. Of course, most students are already comfortable using a wide range of digital tools, but this doesn’t necessarily mean they know how to use these same tools for learning purposes.

Inclusion facilitator Dr. Kristin Bertolero from the New Jersey Coalition for Inclusive Education (NJCIE) frequently works with educators who need guidance on how to instruct students in various forms of digital literacy. She notes that because technology is not intuitive and must be learned and practiced, there’s a lot of trial and error on the way to mastery.

“It’s easier [for teachers] to use pre-made pencil and paper resources that they know will meet the requirements of the assignment and earn a good grade,” says Bertolero.

“But exposure to technology, opportunities for problem solving, and trial and error are what make someone an expert in technology. If we can get students developing these skills at a young age, they’ll continue to learn as the field progresses and their career opportunities will increase astronomically.”

She points out that technology shouldn’t be viewed as a substitute for traditional learning activities, because although this might keep students engaged, it doesn’t help them develop 21st century problem solving skills. Instead, students should be given opportunities to use technology to solve problems and be creative. Then, because of their love of learning and being challenged, using technology in their field will become an obvious continuation of their passion.

“Even if your students don’t go into the technology industries, being able to use it and continue their own self-directed learning can benefit them in ways we cannot presently foresee,” she says.

Unfortunately, because digital literacy is still one of those buzzwords that tend to get thrown around without specifics, it can be difficult to envision what it actually means to be digitally literate. With this in mind, we’ve rounded up some examples of what digital literacy in education looks like.

1. Emphasise the importance of critical thinking

The majority of media we consume today comes from online sources, some of which are more credible than others. Of course, the fact that so much information is readily available to anyone with an internet connection is a decidedly positive thing. But it also means that today’s students are more susceptible to subliminal messages, misinformation, and fake news.

With this in mind, a huge part of teaching digital literacy is helping students become critical consumers of information. Start by encouraging students to ask questions and then find answers by going straight to the source and checking for objectivity.

2. Use social media for learning and collaborating

Today’s students are already active on social media, and in many cases they may already be more adept at using it than their teachers. So the focus shouldn’t be on introducing students to the ins and outs of social media, but on demonstrating how it can be used in an educational context.

For example, Pinterest boards can be used for providing and receiving feedback during group projects, Twitter can be used create polls for research purposes or find expert sources, and Facebook or LinkedIn groups can be used to connect and collaborate with their peers.

3. Provide guidance on how to avoid plagiarism

Although the Internet hasn’t necessarily made plagiarism easier, it has changed the way it happens, and students may now be at risk of plagiarising even without meaning to. A  study published in the journal Higher Education, found that many students don’t understand plagiarism, but they do want more information on what it is and how to avoid it.

For example, students often ‘borrow’ ideas or use phrases they find online without properly citing the original work, and are later surprised to learn that this constitutes plagiarism. So another important aspect of becoming digitally literate is learning how to avoid plagiarism by taking good notes, using citations and quotes, and properly supporting a discussion with references.

4. Teach students to manage their online identity

Regardless of whether we consciously manage it or not, we all leave a digital footprint and have an online identity. Students who have grown up using social media are more likely to take it for granted that their data is stored online, and as a result, may not give as much thought to safeguarding their privacy by managing their privacy settings, reading privacy policies, and being as respectful in their online interactions as they would be in person.

But in the same way that not managing an online identity can have negative implications, taking steps to build a positive one can be hugely beneficial to students’ career prospects. With this in mind, learning how to safeguard privacy online but also how to share the right information and content are important aspects of a well-rounded digital literacy education.

5. Help students manage digital distractions

Digital tools and online resources have made learning more effective in many ways, but they’ve also brought new distractions with them. Research shows that many of us struggle with digital distraction, which can make us feel distant and drained, and even reduce our enjoyment of experiences. Juggling multiple media streams can also lead students to multi-task, which isn’t a good thing considering that research shows that students who multi-task tend to have lower grades.

So the ability to manage distractions while utilising digital tools for learning and professional purposes is another digital literacy skill that shouldn’t be overlooked. Some examples of distraction-management strategies include taking tech breaks throughout the day, muting notifications while studying, using productivity tools, and setting goals around technology use.

7. Provide authentic contexts for practice

Another important part of teaching digital literacy is finding ways for students to practice using technology in ways that mirror its real world uses, whether this means giving students opportunities to practice building their own websites and apps, or respectfully engage in online discussions.

For example, when teaching students about the important of managing their online identity, you could have them research themselves online to find out what a potential employer would see. You could follow this up with a discussion about their findings, and have them list some of the things they were proud of as well as some of the things they’d like to change.

7. Guide students out of their comfort zone

We all have a comfort zone when it comes to technology, but if we want students to become innovative and well-rounded users of technology, it’s important to guide them out of their comfort zone whenever possible. Of course, this will mean something different for each student.

For example, some students may already be adept at communicating in short and distinct paragraphs and hashtags on Twitter or Instagram, so moving out of their comfort zone might mean sharing their opinion through a more in-depth blog post. In other cases, students might already have experience with blogging, in which case they might be interested in trying something a bit more out-of-the-box such as video journals or podcasts.

Whatever the case may be, giving students more freedom of choice and encouraging them to use technology in new and creative ways is one of the best ways to help them hit the ground running once they enter the workforce.

What does digital literacy mean to you and what are some of the ways you’re currently working to help your students develop their skills in this area? Leave a comment and let us know.


Marianne Stenger is a London-based freelance writer and journalist with extensive experience covering all things learning and development. She’s particularly interested in the psychology of learning and how technology is changing the way we learn. Her articles have been featured by the likes of ABC Education, The Huffington Post, Lifehacker, and Psych Central. Follow her on Twitter @MarianneStenger.

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