So 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.
One 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.
However, 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.
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This is a really clear explanation of how and why digital literacy can and must be integrated into education at K12. We have similar issues in the UK, one of the main barriers is the lack of digital skills amongst teaching staff who don’t take risks for the fear of students knowing more than they do. There is also an equipment scarcity issue in many schools, meaning that digital technology is often used once in a blue moon and therefore isn’t planned into the fabric of the learning experience, but tacked on as an added extra. Substitution strategies then follow, and the equipment isn’t used well.
I have written about how to bridge the gap to a device per child situation which is where education is heading on my site: https://teachwithtechnology.net/introduce-digital-education-school/
Thank you for your comments! What I find the primary concern has to do with the fact that we (in the US) are so high stakes test driven that faculty have become risk averse. After all, even if their students perform poorly on a test they can say “I followed established curriculum.” However, if they branch out and there are struggles (there usually are with a new program or project) then they face serious consequences, including losing a position. It’s detrimental to the growth of education.
Thank you for sharing your resources, I will be sure to check them out!
Is there really such a thing as the CRAAP test? Did no one think through that acrostic?
Yes, the CRAAP test is real (it’s linked above). I believe that the acronym was intentionally chosen. I can tell you, that my students never forget it.
Do you have a school policy that the teachers have to adhere to when using this new technologies?
We find that our existing policies on behavior and expectation are sufficient.
Hi Jennifer ,
I agree with you in how important digital literacy is. I feel proud and am excited to be part of a high school English department that is focused on teaching diglit skills. We are using forums and blogs. And our expository writing classes are creating documentaries, also. When we use forums we often will do so with all the American Lit classes or all the Expository Writing classes. Lowering those walls within our school is exciting. But we’d like to find English classes in other districts who would be willing to discuss topics using forums. If any of your district’s English teachers are interested, perhaps you could have them contact me. Thanks.
Wow Diane, that is awesome! I know that my English Department (we’re an Independent School) is not quite there yet. Still, I hope someone on here will contact you and set that up. I would love to see how it develops!
Smart post, Jen. Including a professional who advocates for responsible social media use was well placed. I shared this article on digital citizenship with my tech director.
Thanks Matt! I hope that you find it helpful.
Wow Keith! That is amazing and impressive. Thank you for sharing your journey!
I love this article. You are preaching to the choir. Without a doubt there should be integration. All too often Digital Citizenship or Digital Literacy become their classes/subjects – sort of out there on their own island. Students feel like they are getting preached to and that Digital Citizenship is only about Cyber-Bulling.
Thanks for writing a very well thought out piece!
Thank you Tom for your kind words. You are right, it’s time to incorporate this into the whole curriculum, not just a separate entity.
Stimulating.I believe that in countries where teaching resources are limited digital access plays a vital empowerment role.I would especially relate global citizenship study as a point in case.So much rancour has been built up through self infested curricula that digital technology can help overcome the ignorance that creeps into the minds of students.Schools must have a digital policy that benefits both the teacher and the taught.Thank you for sharing such invaluable info.
A very good article that raises some very important issues. While many just assume those that have grown up with the internet know how to use it effectively, it is a terrible misconception. Further, many people are self taught to use the internet, and have only the most rudimentary skill to use the internet effectively as a research and learning tool. There are many great methods to teach internet/web literacy. The CRAAP method looks good. My favorite is REAL, from Alan November, which I use extensively when teaching about web literacy. Raising awareness about the quality of information across the internet, and how to validate information is a skill. It is not intuitive or should be left to chance. Looking at a URL offers clues, but not always. e.g. many mistakenly believe a .org site is reliable because it is a charity or non-profit. Nothing further from the truth. A great example of a .org site is martinlutherking.org. Looks like a legit site, but is anything but a valid source of info.
There are many other examples of bogus sites that appear real, and some are very crafty. Web literacy is a modern day skill, but many teachers lack the knowledge. The most dangerous part is that many ‘think they know’, but have no idea about what they don’t know. I can open minds in less than a two hour presentation. The first step to treatment is admitting the condition. Schools need to recognize this and take action.
Social media is another area loaded with landmines. Few understand the long term ramifications. And on and on….there is too much to put into and elevator pitch here, but the conclusion should be that schools must take an active role in developing students’ web literacy skills.
Thank you Mark! You raise some valid and pertinent points. You are absolutely right that we make far too many assumptions about “Digital Natives” (not a term I subscribe to). Knowing how to download an app or post a tweet does not automatically translate to effective and deep use. As educators, that is where our responsibility lies. Just as knowing how to read doesn’t automatically translate to understanding how to read *deeply*, being able to Google doesn’t mean being able to search effectively.
Great post! There are two things that jumped out at me. 1) “We should teach research skills in the context of existing subject matter.” So many of our students because their brains are still developing can’t dovetail what they learn in a specific class and apply it to other classes or their individual life experience. This is why we need to put skills within their personal experience. It asssits them to connect the dots in their learning even if they are not there developmentally. 2) “Digital Literacy” is a skill that teaches students how to deal with the glut of content.” It is amazing to me how fast information has multiplied and is readily available for those who seek it. We need to teach our students how to synthesize, evaluate and then create something that is uniquely there own. Isn’t this a skills that is important in today’s business world?
Thank you Sister for your comments and you are absolutely right! These are “real world skills” and “business skills”!!
Thank you! A good article that highlights the importance of digital literacy skills that teachers need to have or are expected to have today. Are there any case studies or other articles specifically about digital literacy skills for tutors that anyone could recommend?
Great article and a strong support for technology specialists like yourself to work collaboratively with teachers and librarians to infuse thus instruction in everyday learning . Just finished my MLIS and am so excited to try to reach out to teachers to work and support them in stepping out into this sometimes overwhelming digital arena!
Great article and all valid arguments, but I feel that your readers are missing out on a wonderful resource when you neglect to mention the school librarian. Your description of digital literacy – “effectively and critically navigate, evaluate, and create information” – describes exactly what certified librarians are trained to teach students to do. This works best when teachers and librarians collaborate to design, teach, and assess assignments which integrate technology in a natural way. Thank you!
You are right Nicole. Librarians are an invaluable resource here!