digital-literacy-250So how are we doing on the push to teach “digital literacy” across the K12 school spectrum? From my perspective as a school-based technology coach and history teacher, I’d say not as well as we might wish – in part because our traditional approach to curriculum and instruction wants to sort everything into its place.

Digital literacy is defined as “the ability to effectively and critically navigate, evaluate, and create information using a range of digital technologies.” Many educational and business professional cite is as a critical 21st century skill. Even so, many schools have struggled to adapt it into their curriculum.

This is often because most institutions already have rigorous, established curricula with little wiggle room – and this is especially true in schools subject to state and federal testing. Content becomes king. However, there are ways that schools can adapt these skills into existing structures – integrating them into their current pedagogical framework.

Evaluating online content is a research skill

Administrators often tell me they cannot meet new digital literacy requirements because they cannot add a “digital literacy” course or requirement. Here’s the other way: the need for students to “critically navigate and evaluate” online content is better viewed as an extension of research skills. Just as we don’t teach a class called “research,” we do not need to teach “evaluating online content” as a separate course or unit of study. We should teach research skills in the context of existing subject matter.

For example, when my students do research in US History, they are not only allowed but encouraged to use online content. However, when using internet material (as opposed to a peer reviewed article or an academic book), they need to include further evaluation of the content.

CRAAPtest-visualOne of my favorite tools to use in doing this is the CRAAP test developed by the University of California at Chico. This method requires students to evaluate a source based on its Currency, Relevance, Authority, Accuracy, and Purpose. In fact, this method could easily be applied to “traditional” sources as well. (Here’s a public source handout.)

With the rise of academics who write blogs and use social media (such as Twitter and Facebook), and given the wealth of self-published content generally, pertinent information is now moving away from traditional forms. A student in science can learn a great deal from Neil Degrass Tyson’s Podcast; in fact, it’s likely a more accessible medium for young students than his published articles. Additionally, students need to know what online content they can reproduce and how to credit it properly (digital ethics).

The problem students face in the new world is no longer access to information, but rather how to deal with the glut of content that confronts them when they google a research topic. If we want them to effectively navigate online material (as 21st century learners), then research now needs to include not only “traditional” methods and materials, but digital ones as well. We need to ensure that they know how to evaluate a website, a blog post, a tweet, a Facebook entry. These evaluative skills transfer cross curricularly and prepare students for the broader world of online communication.

Engaging online is a modern communication skill

Engaging in effective discourse and debate is a necessary skill that many of us learned in school via class discussions, group activities, classroom debates, in class presentations, etc. Being able to effectively communicate is a requirement to success in many facets of life (academia, business, personal life, etc).

In our emerging digital world, a new medium of exchange has developed: online engagement, especially via social media. Effectively engaging online requires a myriad of skills that we strive to foster in school – effective written communication, brevity and civility. These components are often highlighted in Digital Citizenship programs, but in tradition-bound K12 education, we often deride social media as trite or ineffective.

Brian-MuseHowever, social media use has quickly grown in professional and academic realms. I recently had a conversation with a friend from my high school days, Brian Muse. Brian is a successful attorney with a practice focused on the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act). The primary focus of our conversation was the role that social media plays in Brian’s practice.

Even I (an avid proponent of the power of online engagement) was surprised at how much value Brian and his peers put on social media. In addition to maintaining an active Twitter account (with the full encouragement of his firm), he also writes a blog on relevant ADA law.

Brian told me that social media, especially Twitter, is an effective tool for legal professionals in several ways: networking, branding, and research. As an attorney in a dynamic field, it’s his job to predict where the law is going; Twitter serves as an effective crowdsourcing medium for him to take the pulse of labor law. His online presence and engagement (through his blog and Twitter account) allows him to share his knowledge with others and has led to several referrals from attorneys or chambers of commerce.

Speaking both a professional and a parent, Brian told me: “Any child that graduates high school with these skills will have such a leg up in this business world.”

Just as we anticipate that the traditional communication skills we teach children as part of our established curriculum will translate to a broader skill set, so will their ability to engage with people safely and effectively online. Likewise, just as we do not need to establish a separate curriculum or class for “digital literacy,” we can incorporate updated 21st century communication skills across our established curricular models.

Students need to create. Projects become digital.

If you are familiar with the revised Bloom’s Taxonomy, then you know that creation is at the highest order of learning. Teachers recognize this; it’s why we give students various projects and assignments: a science experiment, a research essay, a model UN debate, etc. With new technologies, students have the ability to create dynamic, multi-media projects quickly and easily. By combining these tools with a sophisticated topic, we can engage students in new and creative ways.

For example, my history students make documentaries for class. This project requires that they perform sophisticated research (using both traditional and digital resources), incorporate a variety of media (images, video, sound, etc), they must write, and then they present/peer review in class. This modernized research project addresses all of the elements of digital literacy in my classroom yet doesn’t require additional in or out of class time to implement. It is an effective way to engage my students in effective, 21st century learning.

One reason that teachers are often hesitant to adopt new technologies or give students digitally enhanced assignments is because they themselves are unfamiliar with the available tools – and suppose that giving a “Movie Project” requires that they teach about movie making software. I try to encourage my faculty to “let go.” Tell the students what the final project should look like (such as a video) and then tell them to pick the venue that works best for them to create a finished project.

New technology is easy to use/navigate and with YouTube and online blogs, students can easily teach themselves how to use them. Now this doesn’t mean that faculty should not learn these new tools. In fact, I often challenge my faculty to use MovieMaker for their laptops or iMovie on their iPads to create a video of anything they want (their children, a pet, a favorite sports team).

Not only do they discover how easy it is to use the software, they see how quickly they can overcome any hurdles they encounter in the process. In fact, I often tout creative problem solving as important skill for students to develop – projects like this help them to develop those skills.

Digital Literacy: An everyday dimension of learning

Digital Literacy is a crucial skill that we as educators must foster and encourage in our classrooms (and administrators must support in the broader curriculum). I hope that these examples have helped to demonstrate how 21st century skills do not require additional class time or new course development. They often do require some tweaking of our established curricula.

I strongly encourage administrators to provide robust professional development and learning time for their staff and faculty. Your teachers can integrate digital literacy into everyday learning, provided you share the resources and support they need to shift a traditional curriculum to a more innovative one. If you do, our students will be better digital citizens and curators of online content; a necessary skill for success in the 21st century and a valuable contribution to civil society.

About the author
Jennifer Carey is Director of Academic Technology at the Ransom Everglades School in Coconut Grove, Florida. "I am a lover of new technologies and their ability to share knowledge." She blogs at Indiana Jen and you can find her on Twitter @teacherjencarey