Teaching Digital Literacy to 21st Century Students

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digital literacy

For today’s students, a curriculum that includes cursive writing and penmanship has all but disappeared. Gone are the days of long, hand written papers or pen pals who write and send letters, gasp, via the US Postal Service. Today, laptops, tablets, cell phones, email, eReaders, and social media reign supreme. While these devices have brought a tremendous amount of value to schools and learners of every age, the digital world is one with its own set of rules and risks. Furthermore, for students to get the most out of technology and the benefits it offers, they need to know how to use it to process, deliver and receive digital information most effectively. Digital literacy for today’s students is crucial.

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For the students of the 21st century, who have grown up with cell phones, tablets and computers, that means teaching them how to become responsible digital citizens, how to navigate and interact on digital channels safely and responsibly, and how to take the plethora of information available on the web and narrow it down to what is most reliable and relevant.

Digital Citizenship

Digital citizenship is widely defined as the appropriate and responsible use of technology. Vicki Davis, teacher and author, discussed in an Edutopia article, the “9 key P’s” of digital citizenship that she teaches her students. The 9 P’s are:

  • Passwords – Includes teaching students how to create secure passwords and systems/apps for creating and remembering passwords.
  • Privacy – Teaching students how to protect sensitive information such as address, phone numbers etc. What should and should not be posted on social media and how hackers can use this information.
  • Personal Information – Teaching students what is appropriate to share online and via what mediums.
  • Photographs – Includes teaching students about geotagging, facial recognition software, and general safety precautions around photo posting.
  • Property – Teaching students to understand copyright laws and property rights for online assets.
  • Permission – How to site work and content taken from online sources.
  • Protection – Understanding viruses, cyber threats, phishing, cyber bullying etc.
  • Professionalism – Teaching students to be aware and professional in a globally connected arena.
  • Personal Brand – Ensuring students understand the digital tattoo and how to create their digital brand

The key to effectively teaching the 9 P’s and ensuring your students understand and practice digital citizenship is to make it a seamless, core part of your curriculum and to model ethical digital behavior. Weave discussions and elements of digital citizenship into any conversation or lesson that involves technology, so students can see the relevance of digital citizenship.

The website digizen offers loads of information, resources, tools and games on digital citizenship for parents, teachers and students.

Search Engines and Research

According to an article in Inside Higher Ed on the ERIAL project, a series of studies conducted at three Illinois universities, “when it comes to finding and evaluating sources in the Internet age, students are downright lousy.” The study attempted to debunk the myth of the digital native claiming that although students today may have grown up with technology they don’t necessarily know how to best use it.

“They [students] were basically clueless about the logic underlying how the search engine organizes and displays its results. Consequently, the students did not know how to build a search that would return good sources. (For instance, limiting a search to news articles, or querying specific databases such as Google Book Search or Google Scholar.)

Duke and Asher said they were surprised by ‘the extent to which students appeared to lack even some of the most basic information literacy skills that we assumed they would have mastered in high school.’ Even students who were high achievers in high school suffered from these deficiencies, Asher told Inside Higher Ed in an interview.

In other words: Today’s college students might have grown up with the language of the information age, but they do not necessarily know the grammar.
‘I think it really exploded this myth of the ‘digital native,’ ” Asher said. “Just because you’ve grown up searching things in Google doesn’t mean you know how to use Google as a good research tool,’” reported Inside Higher Ed.

This finding underscores the importance of teaching digital literacy in schools at the K-12 level. Students who are unable to effectively use search engines, which is today’s form of research, will be unprepared for the demands of higher education and the workforce.

The CRAAP Test

Not only do students need to know how to find information but they need to know how to evaluate it. Anybody can write a blog or create a website and the plethora of information available online can be overwhelming. That’s why it is so important to teach students how to critically evaluate websites their sources and the content found on them. The CRAAP test is one method that teachers can use to help students learn how to evaluate digital content. The CRAPP method looks at 5 main criteria: Currency (timeliness), Relevance (importance), Authority (source), Accuracy (reliability), Purpose (reason).

Digital Tools

For teachers looking to integrate digital literacy into their curriculum, it is important to start with a plan that includes defining the required skills you expect your students to have mastered by the completion of the year or semester and determining what type of content is best for your class level. Teachers need to ensure that they are directing their digital lesson curriculum appropriately towards the student’s level of development.

There are a number of teaching and learning tools around digital literacy that teachers should explore as they develop their strategy and lesson plans. Some of these tools include:

At the University of San Diego we offer a 100% online Master of Education degree with four options for specialization including Literacy and Digital Learning. To learn more about our nationally accredited program, visit our program page.


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