Digital literacy: For a lifetime of critical thinking

The internet opens a world of learning for K-12 students extending far beyond text books and classroom instruction. It connects study topics to current events and primary sources. It frees students from limitations of geography and demography. It uses interactivity and multimedia to engage and enlighten.

As schools provide students with online learning opportunities, they have also been quick to identify and address issues of online safety and appropriate use. Now, we are seeing more and more districts recognizing the need for robust “digital literacy” that goes beyond knowing how to use technology―to knowing how to critically judge digital content and media sources.

Determining the validity and trustworthiness of digital content and media sources is a serious challenge for everyone these days, as the proliferation of web-based content, social tools, and learning sites transforms how we consume, create, and share information. For today’s K-12 students, the ability to navigate and evaluate digital content and sources will only become more critical, as algorithms and digital manipulation become more sophisticated, and the proportion of video content grows. In fact, according to a recent study, video is expected to make up 80 percent of all web traffic by 2021.

An integral part of digital life

Security measures, including up-to-date and age-appropriate network filters, play an important role in protecting students from nefarious content. Teachers can—and should―guide students to reliable sites and sources. However, it is clear that achieving a high degree of personal digital literacy is as important to student success as traditional literacy. The ability to find, navigate, evaluate, and effectively use digital content and sources is necessary for students to become autonomous and capable in all aspects of their ‘digital life,’ outside of school and long after graduation.

Teaching digital literacy is naturally intertwined with the use of online content in the teaching of any topic or subject. Indeed, there are likely additional considerations for students to learn when evaluating the trustworthiness of content in specific subject areas, such as the sciences. Not only do students need to learn how to push past the first search engine result to find the most reliable, up-to-date content when doing research or working on projects, but they also need to know how to break free of algorithms that tend to only serve up one viewpoint.

Part of the district plan

In our work with schools, we’re seeing an increased interest in making digital literacy part of strategic plans at the district level. For example, the Henrico County Public Schools (HCPS) district of Virginia, which began providing 1-to1 laptops to all of its students in grades 6 through 12 more than 17 years ago, has incorporated digital literacy into their broader digital citizenship initiative developed by its Department of Instructional Technology. This district-wide initiative is setting the bar for other schools and districts to mirror, incorporating guidelines and training modules for educators to teach safety and responsibility, relationships and communication, digital identity, and information literacy.

Build on the learning of others

When it comes to developing a district strategy and plan for digital literacy and implementing new instructional practices, educators needn’t start from scratch. The internet is full of valuable resources to aid the development of solid digital literacy programs and policies, including Common Sense Media, Be Internet Awesome, Microsoft’s digital literacy standards, certificates and curriculum package; and CoSN (Consortium for School Networking).

There are professional learning consultants who also collaborate with school districts to help develop digital literacy plans as well as to provide customized professional learning services, equipping teachers and staff with the skills needed to teach digital literacy.

Teachers are looking for new knowledge and skills to leverage digital opportunities and help students participate fully in the digital community. As part of our Dell EMC Professional Learning Services for Educators in Plainfield School District 202 in Illinois, for example, we’re partnering with teachers as they empower students to employ strategies to identify, evaluate and use online information effectively.

With support, K-12 schools can more quickly develop the right programs for their students to instill the digital literacy and critical thinking skills they need to be discerning lifelong learners, consumers, and citizens in the 21st century.

Interested in implementing a digital literacy program? Start by reviewing these five steps.

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