Digital Literacy: The New Pillar of a Child’s Education?

I was recently scanning my Instagram feed when a post from a colleague, Kristin Ziemke, stopped my fingers dead in their tracks…

Whoa. The Instagram post was part of Kristin’s effort to spread awareness during Media Literacy Week. After I picked my jaw up off the ground, I jumped right into the supporting research, eventually landing on a recent report from the Technology in Early Childhood Center at the Erikson Institute. I encourage all readers of this blog post to explore the report as well as the robust amount of resources provided. I’m going to focus on one segment of the report and how it pertains to young learners:

“Grasping the full potential the digital world holds for early learning is a process that leads from exploration to discovery, and along the way, it is important to never stop asking questions about the information we are reading online, what digital media can help accomplish, why it is being used, and what we can make with technology.”

I feel the above statement should accompany every school’s technology integration plan. It really does a great job encapsulating the role technology plays in our students’ lives and the larger picture of what proper implementation looks like. But here’s the thing: many school districts don’t have such a plan, or the visionary leadership to guide the plan. My own wonderful state of Illinois, for example, no longer requires districts to create and implement a technology plan.

But before we go further, let’s clarify a definition of digital literacy for the purposes of this blog post. 

Digital Literacy→ How to use technology efficiently and appropriately. 

Given the constant and torrid pace at which we use technology to receive and communicate electronically, digital literacy should be an anchor in today’s classrooms, providing learners with entry points into becoming contributing members in our digital society. According to Mike Ribble, digital literacy is only one element of nine that make up digital citizenship. He encourages educators to reflect on two essential questions when engaging in elements of digital literacy:

1) Is enough time devoted to learning how to use the technology tools in the classroom?

2) How can students use digital technologies to take best advantage of the educational opportunities available to them? 

These are powerful questions, ones worth writing on a Post-It and staring at each day on our laptops. Why? Because they are directly bundled with student achievement and performance.

If, at our core, we are truly focused on improving learning outcomes and preparing learners to become 21st-century citizens, then our work must dive deeper into areas of digital literacy and how we can provide students with an array of opportunities to flex this muscle alongside curriculum. Mike says it best: “When we teach digital citizenship as a one-off event like a presentation or an assembly, everybody gets all hyped up—and then it disappears over time.”

My experiences and observations would agree with this thought completely; proper use, modeling, and application must be side-by-side with the curriculum. Take the onslaught of fake news as one example of how important it is for today’s learners to have built-in skills and strategies to curate information, land on reputable and reliable resources, and ask a ton of questions. If students are not explicitly taught media literacy skills, thus building up their digital literacy muscle, students will continue to struggle in this domain. 

There is good news, though: educators and leaders across the country are becoming more aware than ever that this is an area that requires our collective attention. A great place to start is by unpacking the ISTE Standards for Students. Carolyn Sykora, senior director of ISTE’s Standards program, provides clarity on how the standards can help provide a map to guide school leaders: “...part of the Digital Citizen and Knowledge Constructor standards are to give students the skills that allow them to be informed citizens. It lays a foundation not just for college and career, but these things are really about growing an informed citizenry that can contribute to our society in a positive way.”

In addition to “finding and consuming,” digital literacy also encompasses content creation for learners. Bringing student blogging into one’s instruction can provide learners with a powerful platform to work on many elements within digital literacy, including the use of a certain tool, understanding its reach and limitations, and creating original content to connect with a wider audience. When learners are given the opportunity to blog, they begin to sort out a variety of different features and formats of digital communication, as well as creating and maintaining a positive digital footprint. Student blogging also allows learners to develop reflective thinking and student voice skills. When learners can reflect on their learning, we see not only what they learned, but also the thought process behind it.

If our youngest learners in kindergarten are exposed to 70 media messages a day, it is up to us to ensure that, within the classroom, those messages are meaningful and serve a purpose. We can begin to accomplish this by embedding avenues for students to be better curators of information as well as creators of their own thinking. We should also become models of these behaviors ourselves. It’s a complicated job, but a very important one. Because, as Kristin points out below in another Instagram post during Media Literacy Week, they’re watching. 

Billy Spicer

Billy currently teaches in Lake Zurich Community Unit School District 95 in suburban Chicago. After spending a decade teaching 3rd thru 5th grades, Billy served students and teachers as an instructional coach. He recently spent time in the Bahamas with the Shedd Aquarium where he lived on a research vessel for a week conducting scientific inquiry. Prior to teaching in Lake Zurich he worked at Walt Disney World as a member of the Animal Programs department in entertaining, educating, and inspiring conservation action. He facilitates a passion for literacy, passionate learning, and social media to discover creative ways for students to meet their individual learning needs. Authentic and purposeful technology integration is a non-negotiable aspect in providing students with the tools to be successful. Billy earned his BA in Elementary Education at Illinois State University and a MA in Literacy and Reading from Benedictine University. He also enjoys hot dogs, coffee, and his ever growing collection of records. To learn more about his interests and passions in and out of the classroom, follow him on Twitter-@MrBillySpicer