Digital literacy is a term that encompasses the practical skills, knowledge and behaviors people need to effectively use various digital devices, which today includes many networked devices like computers, smartphones and tablets. The OECD and the European Commission prefer the term “digital competence”, which adds in problem-solving skills.
It’s worth remembering that Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web as a memory-saving tool. Early internet pages had complicated addresses, so Berners-Lee created a simple to use, visual system of indexing, that combined internet-accessible digital content with hypertext capabilities. That’s the web.
Web 1.0 enabled people to find and create digital content on websites, and cross-link information from different sources. Using websites like Geocities, people could create webpages for personal or professional use easily and quickly, and often for free. But, for the most part, people were passive consumers of information.
Web 2.0 expanded what could be done. People are now actively encouraged to contribute to a website’s knowledgebase and crosslinking though comments, votes, reviews, like buttons, hashtags, etc.
This has led to things being easier to find and share, and sometimes to productive discussions and debates. With web-enabled mobile devices, sites like Facebook and Twitter have even turned citizens into amateur reporters on the ground as events unfold around them. The web has become an active, ever-changing digital space where people constantly contribute and change the character of what is available.
It used to be important to know things – now it is important to know how to find things. Back in the 90s, most people probably had dozens of telephone numbers memorized, so they didn’t have to carry around their phone address book. Today, we just need to know where we put our contacts icon on our mobile phone screen – the phone does the remembering for us. In much the same way, the web is becoming the place where humans put their knowledge, and all we need to know how to do is remember how to access that knowledge whenever we want or need it.
This is part of what digital literacy is. But it’s also much more than that.
Digital Literacy Skills
To successfully use the vast amount of information that is now available to anyone with a web connection, people have to be able to:
- Access – Locate and understand information
- Analyze – Evaluate the quality and credibility of content by considering who created the content, what their perspective is, and why they created it
- Create – Use text, images and sound to make new content and tools in many different forms
- Reflect – Behave in the connected environment in a responsible and ethical manner
- Act – Share and create knowledge, and solve problems (working alone or with others) as a member of the community-at-large
Another digital skill that has emerged with the advent of Web 2.0 is that of remixing. This is taking existing content, and changing it by adding, removing, altering or combining it with other content to make something new. For example, Korean singer Psy made a video for the 2012 song “Gangnam Style”, which inspired countless parody videos, flash and dance mobs, and more. Much of modern music uses samples from other musical work to create a new song. Part of the skill of remix is to understand the copyright implications of using parts of someone else’s work.
People also need to be able understand the larger social and emotional aspects to the online community, and act according to correct principles of behavior. This means no stealing content (and understanding how different types of copyright work), no spamming, no trolling, and no bullying.
Your school is probably already thinking about digital literacy, and using some of these ideas in Common Core and STEM programs. But you can go further, leveraging existing technology you already have to help ensure that today’s children become the digitally literate leaders of tomorrow.
Students Are the Stars
Any educator knows that nothing teaches better than actual hands-on practice. Your school probably has computers and a website, and may also have social media pages and digital signage. Most kids have smartphones these days, or even their own tablets. So, you already have things you can use to get students involved and learning digital literacy by doing things in real digital environments.
Content curation is simply gathering together content around a common theme or interest, or set of interests, and presenting it to people. In addition to finding content, student curators can also rate the content (or allow others to rate it), and add tags or hashtags to help people fine-tune their experience when looking at what’s been curated. There are many free or free-to-try curation websites out there. Some let you make projects like online magazines or newspapers – like Scoop.it and Paper.li; while others are mainly visual – such as Pinterest, Juxtapost, List.ly and Pearltrees. Some, likeStorify, go one further and allow curation combined with storytelling. And then there’s Facebook.
It’s easy to create a Facebook Page or Group. Have students curate an events listing for things happening in and around the school that others might find interesting. Show them how to find out about local events, and how to verify that information. They can then share that information on a Facebook page or group created just for this purpose, so the whole student body, as well as faculty and parents, can see what their kids might be interested in doing. (This can also be a great project for student clubs and athletics teams.)
The curators – this could be a small team or a whole class – learn how to search reliable sites for events, think about what sort of information their audience might need (like where, when and how much something is; how late it goes, whether there’s parking, and so on). They should then search on Facebook to see if there’s already a Facebook event for it. Sharing a pre-existing event on their own page will boost their traffic and the number of likes their page gets, and writing a short blurb “above the fold” in a standardized style before it goes on their page’s wall gives valuable writing practice.
Students who have admin privileges will get important experience in considering many of the areas that digital literacy touches on, as well as managing a team. They’ll have to set standards for verifying information, house writing style and formats, a process for creating posts themselves (for things that don’t already have an event created), monitoring the discussion tab to make sure no one spams them, or uses it as a platform for bullying, responding to comments and much more.
When creating original posts, they’ll also have to take into consideration things like copyright on images used. Or maybe they have access to some software that will allow them to remix images in a way that is consistent with current legal standards of “fair use”. So, their Facebook page could also be a showcase for student digital art.
A fairly straightforward thing like a curated events listing on Facebook gets students out in the digital world, interacting with actual content, and ties the digital literacy skills they learn to real-world events using a platform that’s popular with their age group.
Presentations for Everybody
Teaching students the ins and outs of making good, concise presentations using a simple software tool like PowerPoint can give them experience they will use their whole lives. It’s where content and design meet, making sure the minimum verbiage has the maximum impact, laid out in a way that reinforces the content’s message. It’s really just a more complicated version of show-and-tell, but they’ll quickly see that, because you can show more, you can tell more.
Preparing presentations lets students use their digital literacy skills to find content, verify it, and present it in a new digital formal. Finished presentations can be given to the whole class. Really excellent ones can be exported as a video file to put on your school’s website, social media page or digital signage system, so everyone can see the best work. And during the creation process, students have to search for the information they wish to present, give credit where credit’s due, find images available under a Creative Commons license (or create their own), think about how their work will be received, and many other steps that help them become 21st century citizens in an information- and content-rich world.
Remix the World
Kids can be really creative. Why not unleash that with contests and activities that encourages them to go out, get content and then remix it to make it their own? This works especially well with videos, audio and images. It’s a good way to reinforce the legal and ethical considerations digital literacy discusses, plus gets students thinking about a topic many adults are now talking about – just what is “original content” in the modern age?
You could assign a theme (Shakespeare, US history, or the holiday season), or give students a specific work to alter (a picture of the Statue of Liberty). Or, they could have to research the top viral videos of the year and make their own variations of it. For schools with the right software, students could learn about music sampling and then create some tunes of their own using samples from other work.
Again, you can feature the best, most interesting work on your digital signs, or on your websites or social media pages. This puts the student work right out into the general digital world, where it can take on a life of its own, and inspire more digital interactions.
Kids today are already online – a lot. With a little preparation and guidance, you can easily encourage today’s K-12 students to start thinking seriously about the impact they have in the online world, and the digital footprint they leave to help them become the digital citizens of tomorrow.