Mar 25 2013

How Do You Teach Digital Literacy?

The developer of a digital literacy curriculum reveals how to bring substance to its instruction.

Literacy once was defined simply as the ability to read and write, but in the digital age, it's become much more than that. The American Library Association's Digital Literacy Task Force defines digital literacy as "the ability to use information and communication technologies to find, evaluate, create and communicate information, requiring both cognitive and technical skills." But what's the best way to teach these skills?

Inquiries Welcome

At the Inquiry Hub, a technology-driven, inquiry-based school within Coquitlam, British Columbia's School District No. 43, "Digital Literacy" — offered under the name Digital Media, or DM101 — is one of two required courses. The school's philosophy is to teach the rather nebulous concept of digital literacy in ways that require critical thinking, ethical decision-making and reflective learning.

One DM101 assignment requires students to examine my digital profile, as well as the profiles of a few of my digital friends. One student called this the "creeper assignment" ­because she felt like she was digging into people's private information. But students search for this information using public means — an ­important reminder that what they share online is easily accessed by others. In this case, students' reflections ­after the assignment are as important as the assignment itself.

Digital presentation is a key ­component of the DM101 curriculum. The topic requires students to ­continuously improve their skills over time and across many platforms.

One recent lesson included the study of infographics as a means of presenting information visually. I began by having students find examples of infographics they liked and didn't like. I then selected two of their least favorite examples and asked students not only to discuss how to make them better, but to also re-create them.

The challenge was to tell the ­stories in these ­infographics in more compelling ways. But improving on design isn't always a clear-cut task. Although there are some basic ­principles to adhere to, creative ­variations can be hard to teach.

Even if students design an infographic that tells a good story in a meaningful way, that doesn't mean that they understand how to repeat the process with different data or that they can replicate the principles of design in a different context. These things take practice.

And that's the wonderful thing about an inquiry-based school: The asking of questions is an intricate part of what we do. Sometimes, past iterations are better than current ones, and sometimes students surprise you with the speed of their improvement.

After this assignment is completed, students can create new infographics that are relevant to their current ­inquiry. If those infographics are ­better than the ones completed for the ­assignment, it's time to reassess their skills.

No Easy Answers

Of course, assessment in a school of constantly changing questions and project iterations can't rely on a linear grading model. Learning outcomes are continuously re-examined to ensure that students are always improving.

It takes a real shift in thinking to allow students to provide new ­opportunities for assessment of learning outcomes on a continuous basis. But ultimately, educators are there for their students, and that means that most courses really should allow this approach.

Literacy, Applied

The Inquiry Hub's DM101 course focuses on four areas of study: social networking, personal learning environments and networks, ­principles of digital presentation and principles of digital inquiry. To view the curriculum, visit


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