What is Digital Literacy and How to Use it in the Classroom

Erica Fenner-McAdoo
Erica Fenner-McAdoo
Elementary school principal; M.A. in School Administration
Group of hexagons with digital symbols and ‘Digital Literacy’ in the center.

What is Digital Literacy?

There are a plethora of definitions, info graphs, explanations, and interpretations of digital literacy. Most of them have commonalities. According to the ALA (American Library Association), digital literacy is the ability to use information and communication technologies to find, evaluate, create, and communicate information, requiring both cognitive and technical skills. To be deemed digitally literate, you must encompass specific skills. Those skills are as follows:

Creation and Creativity

Students need to be able to create. Not just for now, but for the future. We have a responsibility to teach them how to use their knowledge to create meaningful things and ideas. This requires creativity. Giving students the freedom to be creative and incorporate their interests and personal style in their assignments is empowering and prepares them for the world ahead.


Effective and appropriate communication is vital for digital literacy. In order to fully learn digitally, students must possess the skills to communicate what they have learned, their thoughts and questions, and collaborate with their peers. Students will communicate verbally during live sessions but will also communicate through essays, projects, presentations, assessments, and other assignments.

Netiquette is all about internet safety. Students may not realize that their digital footprints follow them forever. It’s important we teach them to communicate in a respectful manner at all times. They should also know what is considered inappropriate, how to identify it, and who to report it to.


Collaboration is another life skill that students will carry into their future. Collaborating digitally requires students to understand the task and how to use the resources given for that task. Collaboration does not have to be face to face to be effective. Once students understand the platform, the sky is the limit. Communication for digital literacy entails sharing, listening, note taking, and understanding each person’s role.

Functional Skills

Most children are very comfortable with technology. It is a part of their generational norms like my Walkman and Nintendo were for me and my peers in the 80s. No one had to teach me the basic functions of these devices. It was natural. Children nowadays seem to be born with basic functional skills. They use skills like searching the web, downloading, opening and closing documents, using apps, recording and editing videos, posting to social media, and more. This happens during their leisure time while on social media, watching YouTube, or messaging with friends. Even smaller children are prone to knowing how to manipulate V-tech toys, iPads, cell phones, and Osmos. The number of child YouTubers is massive. Some have their own channels, blogs, vlogs, podcasts, etc. These skills translate to class and schoolwork and force our teachers to also understand these skills in order to add value to the skillset they already have.

Although students have these innate skills, there are still other functional skills students should have to reach digital literacy which are related to the platforms and devices used by the school system. Universally, it is important that students gain keyboarding skills. Using a laptop or desktop is much different than the touchscreen on a phone for texting. Many aspects of technology have changed over time but one thing that remains the same is the arrangement of the keys on a keyboard. Our students will work in job positions that don’t exist yet and work to solve problems that we don’t have now. Having sound functional skills for technology is vital.

Critical Thinking

Critical thinking is a given for any classroom setting. Students are to be challenged with rigor and the right amount of productive struggle, which forces them to think further than they would normally.

Why is Digital Literacy Important?

The swift change from face-to-face to virtual learning during the COVID-19 pandemic has proven why digital literacy is important. Now, virtual learning is the only means of teaching and learning in many school districts. Students and parents are learning how to navigate new systems and complete assignments with accuracy. Even for students who are hybrid or are still attending school face to face daily, computers and other devices like Clear Touch boards, Parmethian boards, iPads, clickers, and a multitude of applications and websites are used to complete assignments.

Think about it this way, if all the tech devices that you own and use each day stopped working for one week, what would you do? How would you function? How would you communicate, teach, and learn? How would you pay your bills, order food, listen to music, or watch entertainment? Having the competencies to thrive with digital literacy is paramount.

Ways to Promote Digital Learning in Your Classroom

Assess what your students already know and are able to do. Assign groups of students with varying abilities to work together for assignments. We know students learn from one another. Teach students how to properly use the internet and determine which sources are credible and valuable.

Allow student choice in how they would like to complete assignments. Offer a choice board with multiple options. For example, for any given assignment, students would have the choice of completing it with a video presentation, a PowerPoint or Prezi presentation, a brochure, a journal entry or blog, a song they created, etc. Allow students to share with you the skillset they hold. The highest form of learning is teaching.

Promote the Ps of digital citizenship. These are: Passwords, Private Information, Personal Information, Photographs, Property, Permission, Protection, Professionalism, and Personal Brand. It’s essential that students understand the protocol; responsibility to be smart, safe and kind; and possible penalties that come with using the internet and other digital sources.

Digital literacy is not only important for students. Teachers and other school staff must also possess these skills in order to give their students the best and most comprehensive education possible. Many teachers struggle with technology and just don’t understand it. It can be intimidating for some. Degreed teachers from 20 years ago or more did not learn about digital literacy and how to use it in their classrooms in college. This is why teaching is and has always been about continuous personal and professional growth.

*Updated January, 2021
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