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Digital Literacy in the Classroom: Benefits, Challenges, and Impact on Learning

Children sit at a desk with their devices.

The need to promote digital literacy in the classroom may not seem immediately obvious. Approximately 90 percent of US households have a computer, and many children know how to use digital devices better than their parents. However, digital literacy isn’t limited to computer literacy or technical know-how—digital literacy also addresses online information, social interactions, and the evolving ways that students engage with the world.

Educators need to stay ahead of the curve in today’s rapidly evolving digital landscape, honing their teaching methods and expertise in programs like American University’s Online Master of Arts in Teaching and Online Master of Education Policy and Leadership.

What Is Digital Literacy?

Digital literacy is the ability to find, evaluate, create, and communicate information on digital platforms, including computers and mobile devices. Digital literacy doesn’t replace traditional ideas of literacy, but rather builds upon them to address competency related to computers and other digital devices, the internet, and social media.

For teachers, digital literacy has implications for both curriculum and teaching methods. The use of computers in the classroom, educational software integration, and expanding access to school materials via the internet are part of digital literacy, as is students’ mastery of foundational computer skills, such as manipulating input and output devices, navigating and managing file systems, and using search and navigation tools. Teaching students skills and practices related to digital information—verifying the credibility of online information, using digital resources ethically, protecting online privacy—is also part of digital literacy.

Benefits of Digital Literacy in the Classroom

Digital literacy addresses the growing need for critical analysis of digital content, teaching students to assess its source, credibility, and quality. Digital literacy instruction engages students’ cognitive abilities, asking them to apply critical thinking skills to their actions, behavior, and social engagement on digital platforms. Social media’s explosive growth has made information literacy and digital citizenship increasingly important components of digital literacy.

Analysis of online news and advertising teaches critical thinking skills and prepares students to identify credible information sources. Lessons in responsible digital communication and ethical use of digital resources (proper citations, treatment of copyrighted material) better equip them for their academic and professional careers. Privacy and security are also components of digital literacy. Teaching students to understand their digital footprints—personal information actively and inadvertently shared online—makes them less likely to fall victim to criminal behavior, such as cyberbullying and identity theft.

Bridging the Gap in the Digital Divide

Among the challenges facing students and teachers is the digital divide. Disparities remain among various populations regarding access to digital technology, be it hardware, software, or basic internet access. Although most young people in the United States have access to the internet, the quality and ease of their access vary. In the United States, 97 percent of urban dwellers have access to high-speed fixed broadband service, while in rural areas only 65 percent have access and on tribal lands only 60 percent have access.

Nearly 30 million Americans face this discrepancy, according to the Federal Communications Commission. Such disparities have been highlighted by the coronavirus outbreak, which was declared a public health emergency in the United States in early 2020. School districts ordering students to stay home and access coursework online have faced the reality that some will be disadvantaged by limited internet access.

For teachers, the growing expectation that school curriculums will address digital literacy sometimes outpaces resources and training. In its 2020 survey on literacy trends, the International Literacy Association received mixed results regarding the focus put on digital literacy, with roughly equal numbers of respondents reporting that the topic receives too much or not enough attention. However, when respondents were asked to identify professional development needs, digital literacy ranked first; nearly half of respondents expressed that they want more professional development in the area of using digital resources to support literacy instruction.

Preparing to Promote Digital Literacy in the Classroom

Educators interested in digital literacy education can explore American University’s School of Education, which offers degree programs, including an Online Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) and an Online Master of Education (MEd) in Education Policy and Leadership. Preparing teachers and policymakers to excel in the digital age, American University’s School of Education emphasizes the need to transform the education system to benefit all learners.

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