4 Tips For Teaching Digital Literacy

digital literacy
(Image credit: By Gerd Altmann from Pixabay)

Melissa Jacobs, director of the New York City Department of Education School Library System, says digital literacy teaching needs to be more detailed in today’s world. “In years past, it's always been, ‘Okay, well it's important not to plagiarize and you need to cite sources,’ and that’s as far as it's gotten,” she says. “The situations from the last few years have emphasized the need to have digital literacy skills embedded in your daily life.”

Students are also inundated with more and more sources -- many of which are of dubious quality -- at a younger and younger age, says Jacobs. Teaching them how to critically analyze these sources is an important part of their education.

Jacobs advises teachers to work with the librarians within their school system and enlist them to help you build digital literacy into as much of what you do as possible. “The school librarian has the ability to teach these skills through the curriculum, whereas the classroom teacher is teaching content,” she says. “These skills can be taught through different classes, and so you then as a student, gain the ability to apply the skill set, rather than just applying the knowledge base.” 

Tech & Learning recently spoke with Jacobs and two of her NYC DOE colleagues: Michael Dodes, Queens library coordinator; and Leanne Ellis, Manhattan library coordinator. They shared tips for educators on how to successfully implement digital curriculum. 

Remember It’s Not a One-Time Lesson  

Effective digital literacy requires continual teaching over various courses and years, says Dodes. “It's not like you did one lesson and your kids, ‘Recognize fake news’ and they're good for life,” he says. “It has to be done continuously and iteratively as they get older, just so that it's a constant part of their exposure and they learn it from different lenses.” 

Focus on Lateral Reading  

“Research is not looking up information on the internet, it's a much more complicated inquiry process,” says Ellis. 

Ellis, her New York City librarian colleagues, and other education organizations such as the Stanford History Education Group are promoting lateral reading. Instead of staying on a single website (vertical reading), students are encouraged to read laterally by consulting various sources and sites. 

Also, rather than rely on the top article of a Google search, students should be taught to look critically at each one, including researching the authors of an article, the publication/site that carries it, and anyone who might be sponsoring it. “This way you're approaching your research with a critical eye instead of just taking the first thing that comes up,” says Ellis, which can help students realize what conducting research truly means. “That's always a defense of people who believe in conspiracy theories, like ‘Well I did my research.’ It's like, ‘Well you didn’t.’ There's this mischaracterization of what research is.”

Don’t Assume Someone Else is Teaching It 

Even though people recognize the need for digital literacy in today’s world, it’s still not always easy for school librarians and other educators to implement robust programs. “It's a compliance question but principals just check that they've done it,” says Jacobs. “It's not its own course so anytime something's not its own course, it's harder for teachers to integrate it into their curriculum.” 

“Our classroom teachers are assuming that someone had to have taught it [digital literacy] to them,” says Jacobs. “Not everyone has access to librarians, and so there are a lot of kids who are missing the scaffolding of these lessons.”

Use Digital Resources  

The Stanford History Education Group and Common Sense Education’s Digital Citizenship both offer free lessons and curriculum designed for various age groups. The New York City School Library System also has many digital literacy resources available for educators. 

“There's lots of good curriculum,” Dodes says, suggesting that educators pick and choose what pieces of those online curriculum will work for them and their schools. 

Educators should also remember that it’s okay to remind students there are such things as facts that we can all agree on. “I think we've been both sides-ing,” Dodes says. “There are things that are true and false, and we can say that. We don't need to be sensitive to every side on every issue because not everything is subject to debate.” 

Further Reading

Erik Ofgang

Erik Ofgang is a Tech & Learning contributor. A journalist, author and educator, his work has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Smithsonian, The Atlantic, and Associated Press. He currently teaches at Western Connecticut State University’s MFA program. While a staff writer at Connecticut Magazine he won a Society of Professional Journalism Award for his education reporting. He is interested in how humans learn and how technology can make that more effective.