November 8, 2013

Beyond the Digital Divide: Teaching Students Digital Literacy

by Christine Hoekenga

Image Courtesy: San Jose Library (Flickr CC)

Image Courtesy: San Jose Library (Flickr CC)

You’ve probably heard the term “digital divide” used to describe the gap between people who have regular access to the internet and those who don’t.  In September, the Pew Internet and American Life Project published a report called Who’s Not Online and Why, which found that 15 percent of American adults do not use email or the internet. Among the 85 percent who do use the internet, nine percent do not have access at home. When non-users were asked why they don’t use the internet, the two most common answers were that the “internet is just not relevant to them” (34 percent) or that “that the internet is not very easy to use” (32 percent).

You’ve probably also seen headlines about schools taking major steps to ensure that their students have access to technology in the classroom, such as the L.A. Unified School District’s plan to issue an iPad to every student and teacher.

What’s often missing from these discussions focused on access is the importance of teaching digital literacy along with expanding access to the internet and digital tools. Digital literacy, according to the Cornell University Digital Literacy Project, is “the ability to find, evaluate, utilize, share, and create content using information technologies and the Internet.”  If students aren’t comfortable (or capable of) using digital tools provided, or don’t they understand the value of using them, they will still be at a major disadvantage.

So how do we teach digital literacy?

  • Obviously, access is the first step. Instructors need to recognize that not all students have regular internet access at home and may need to advocate for students to have access to computers and mobile devices, either in classrooms or in shared spaces like computer labs and libraries.
  • When making assignments that require the use of technology, instructors also need to gauge students’ skill and comfort levels with technology and be willing to offer or find extra help for those who need more practice or tutoring–just as we would for students struggling with reading or math skills.
  • It’s easy to overlook, but virtually any writing or research assignment will require students to find and evaluate digital resources.  Thus, teaching specific skills, like how to conduct smart, focused online searches that yield high-quality information and how to avoid plagiarism in a cut-and-paste world is also key.
  • Steer students in the right direction by carefully selecting online resources that are easy for students to use and help enhance their learning.  (Of course we hope that Visionlearning tools, such as our science learning modules and our glossary of science terms will be among your top picks!)
  • Finally, teachers can help their students by refining their own digital and technology skills through programs like the Google Teacher Academy.

Teaching digital literacy may take some extra thought and time, but the pay-offs for students–higher quality work, increased workforce skills, and the ability to find reliable information needed for all kinds of life situations–is huge.

Tell us: How do you incorporate digital literacy skills in your classroom? Please share your thoughts in the comments section.

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Christine Hoekenga

Written by

Christine is a freelance writer, editor, and content strategist, specializing in science and nature. She holds an Bachelor's degree in Environmental Science and Media Studies and a Master's of Science Writing. She has been working in science communication and education for nearly a decade as a journalist, an organizer for conservation groups, and a museum educator. Before joining the Visionlearning team, she served as the New Media and Online Community Manager for the Webby award-winning Smithsonian Ocean Portal. Christine is assisting Visionlearning with developing new modules and glossary terms, managing the blog, and outreach through social media.