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What is Digital Literacy: A Complete Guide

  • 8 Min Read

Digital literacy is an essential, everyday skill required for modern life. But what is digital literacy and why does it benefit education?


Digital literacy is an essential skill for modern life. After all, we all rely on information technology every day and use our digital literacy skills to quickly access information. But what is digital literacy and how can it be developed through classroom education? Keep reading for our complete guide.

What is digital literacy?

Put simply, digital literacy is being able to use technology to find and share information. People need certain knowledge and skills if they are to use computers, the internet, email and other digital tools. Without these skills, they risk getting left behind in education, at work and even in their personal lives.

So much of what we do, and how we do it, relies on technology and that makes digital skills a big talking point. In industry, government and across education, policy and decision-makers continually assess if there is sufficient digital literacy within the population and how to pave the way for everyone to gain and maintain digital skills.

It is an important goal because digital literacy stands us in good stead to perform in jobs, continue learning, interact, and develop both professionally and personally.

Despite this, four out of 10 adults and every third person who works in Europe lack basic digital skills, according to the European Commission (EC). As part of ‘shaping Europe’s digital future’, the EC has set a target of 70 per cent of adults having basic digital skills by 2025. For school age education, the goal is to reduce the percentage of 13-14 year olds who underperform in computing and digital literacy from the 30 per cent it was in 2019 to 15 per cent in 2030.

That will take a concerted effort across education and adult learning, and a good understanding of what’s needed to develop digital skills. What’s clear is that learning should encompass both technical and cognitive skills development because people need to know how to access information digitally, and how to understand it. Digital literacy doesn’t stop there, though. Our world is now so much more connected that being online today means understanding cyber safety, viewing content critically and making decisions on its trustworthiness. Added to this, there are a range of personal responsibilities that come with sharing.

It is important, therefore, that learners develop the full range of digital skills and doing so also equips them for technology-based learning in the classroom. Students need the necessary skills to search for, interpret and evaluate information online if they are to take advantage of valuable sources to help them learn.

That’s because technology is now central to the way we learn. Students routinely use computers and smart devices both in and outside the classroom. What’s more, the learning platform centralises content and learning activities for a consistent and continuous learning experience regardless of where learning happens.

Technology is therefore prevalent in education as well as in the workplace. We see its use more and more in public services online too and of course, social platforms are a mainstay in people’s personal lives. For all these reasons and more, digital literacy in the classroom is essential.

What are the 4 principles of digital literacy?

According to TeachThought, there are four principles of digital literacy:

  • Comprehension

To be digitally literate means being able to extract meaning from information that is presented digitally.

  • Interdependence

One of the great benefits of digital information is that it can link to other resources. This article includes a range of relevant links where more information on the points raised can be found. Digital literates understand this interdependency and the connections between data, content and platforms.

  • Social Factors

The digital world intrinsically impacts culture and our social ecosystems. We have all heard about the impact of online ‘likes’ on self-esteem and wellbeing. Becoming digitally literate includes understanding the impact of creating communities online and building personal resilience and self-protection.

  • Curation

As students and others become more confident online, they will develop skills in curating content – discovering, sorting and storing content. This can be through online boards, video sharing platforms such as YouTube, or personal blogs.

Benefits of digital literacy in classroom education

Now that we’ve explored what digital literacy is, and its principles, let’s examine its benefits in classroom-based education. Digitally literate students can:

Access information

The internet broadens horizons, educates and informs. It is rich in multimedia with videos, tutorials, discussion forums and more, in addition to text and images. It is an unrivalled resource for students, so if they lack the skills to make use of it, they will miss out on what it has to offer.

Discern credibility

Online, students must always be judicious and critically analyse what they read to determine if it is credible, reliable, and appropriate. Being able to do this is a skill. Some of this comes from experience but students can be signposted on the way. They will need to understand what fake news is, the importance of questioning who is posting something and why, and the danger of false identities online.

Create digital content

Digital tools are as much about collaboration, communication, and interaction as they are about information. Students with strong digital skills can create their own content and share this through a range of platforms. This opens up the possibility to make new connections, professional and social, to enrich students’ lives and help them develop and grow.

Be responsible

Social media in particular has caused an explosion in the sharing of ideas and viewpoints. That puts power in the hands of every individual but, as we all know, with great power comes great responsibility. Acquiring digital literacy is as much about acquiring the capability to decide what, and what not, to share.

Protect themselves

Our digital identities hold information – where we live, when we were born, which companies we shop and bank with, what we earn and so on. This is valuable information to cybercriminals who will try and get hold of it so they can use it to their own ends. Often, the aim is to make money out of stolen information. Being digitally literate includes understanding the dangers that come with shared information and knowing the importance of taking mitigating measures to protect it.

How can students develop digital literacy in the classroom?

Clearly there are benefits to helping students achieve what is, after all, a life skill, so here are our top tips on developing digital literacy skills in the classroom:

Tip 1. Draw on expert resources

There are expert organisations out there providing guidance on a wide range of cyber issues including safety online, fake news, data privacy and protection, and cyberbullying. Draw on resources from responsible government, charity and educational bodies.

Tip 2. Encourage discussion

As we’ve explored, digital literacy depends on critical thinking as well as technical skills. Online, students will make judgement calls all the time about which content they should trust, what they should share and when something doesn’t look or feel right. Exploring different viewpoints and questioning opinions will help students develop those all-important enquiring minds.

Tip 3. Embrace the digital classroom

This is more than ‘learning by doing’, although using technology in the classroom will clearly help build digital skills. By switching between different media – video, online resources, social collaboration tools etc. – in the classroom students will become familiar with using digital tools to get things done. Outside the classroom, a consistent experience is guaranteed through the learning platform. Why not consider a flipped classroom approach? That way, students gain an understanding of a topic by watching a lecture or reading notes outside the classroom, freeing up valuable face-to-face time for questions, debates and to explore issues in more depth.

Examples of digital literacy

Students will use digital skills to further their learning in many ways, including:

  1. Searching for information online – a wealth of resources are just a few clicks away when students know how to search, scan, sort and evaluate information online. Now that the internet is so widely, and routinely, used by so many we take it for granted that information is so readily at hand. This makes teachings on plagiarism, sourcing and correct referencing even more important and, it’s fair to say, relatable for today’s learners
  2. Learning from others – peer learning is greatly enhanced for the digitally literate student. Think about the ways students can connect with each other – through social media, by watching instructional videos through streaming platforms, and by sharing their insights
  3. Building a portfolio – whether a student is already in the workplace or is building knowledge to start a career, they will need to own their own development. Maintaining a digital CV is likely to become second nature to digital natives. Through it, they will be able to bring to life what they can do through demonstrations of their skills. The future lies not with text-based, static CVs but with portable, rich eportfolios that show, rather than just tell, what someone can do
  4. Enhancing the learning experience – a learning platform can and should provide much more than a simple content repository. It engages and motivates the digitally literate student through video, audio, social collaboration and the means to test knowledge and practise acquired skills. Each learning journey is a personal one and this individuality should be catered for through a personalised experience.

The importance of digital literacy in higher education

Using technology to expand knowledge isn’t just a necessary skill for school students, digital literacy is also essential in higher education. It helps ensure consistent, rewarding student learning experiences and future employability.

Despite this, there will be challenges to overcome. For starters, tutors will be acutely aware that students have diverse backgrounds and therefore wide-ranging levels of digital literacy. Teaching staff too will be made up of technology enthusiasts, late adopters and everything in between. This can result in patchy technology use across an institution and that can mean students have an inconsistent learning experience.

That’s frustrating for academic staff too. After all, if they are unclear on the direction of the institution when it comes to technology, or if they lack support in integrating digital tools into teaching and learning, they may become dissatisfied and demotivated. Continuing professional development, with appropriate levels of training and technical support is essential to help staff through a digital transformation.

A clear and coherent digital strategy helps staff and students understand where things are now and where they are moving to. This needs to take an integrated approach, ‘digital’ cannot be a side issue to ‘mainstream’ teaching. In this, it helps to invite dialogue on the subject from all stakeholders. That means understanding how students use technology in their studies and what teaching staff and administrators hope technology will deliver. It’s important to show the benefits, such as time savings for tutors, that people may not have thought about.

Of course, enterprise is the other critical player here. What are employers’ expectations of digital literacy among graduates? Does the institution’s digital approach and ethos provide the framework to build these all-important employability skills in the future workforce? Time and space to connect with industry is important for the ongoing evolution of technology in education, as well as to maintain the relevance of course content.

The way ahead

Digital literacy is an everyday skill we have all come to rely on but it isn’t something we develop entirely by chance. It’s true that ‘digital natives’ build familiarity with technology alongside the familiarity they build with letters, numbers and social interactions. However, there is more to digital literacy in the classroom than facilitating the acquisition of technical skills.

Well-rounded digital literates approach the vast wealth of online information judiciously, exercising judgement and caution in consuming information and understanding the importance of protecting themselves and others online.

An inconsistent approach to technology use in the classroom can be confusing and demotivating to students and staff. Through a coherent digital strategy, with appropriate support, institutions equip themselves and their students for the future world of work.

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Table of Contents

  1. What is digital literacy?
  2. What are the 4 principles of digital literacy?
  3. Benefits of digital literacy in classroom education
  4. How can students develop digital literacy in the classroom?
  5. Examples of digital literacy
  6. The importance of digital literacy in higher education
  7. The way ahead