There’s a palpable digital divide in the United States. A report from the Pew Research Center found that there are currently two camps when it comes to digital competency. According to the study, 52% of U.S. adults are relatively hesitant when using digital tools to access information.

These findings signal both a substantial problem and a significant opportunity: as more people are prepared to use technology productively as they enter adulthood, they will be better equipped to solve problems, think critically and enter new virtual spaces. When educators and school librarians highlight the significance of digital literacy in education for students of all ages, they build a new foundation for a generation of learners.

What is Digital Literacy in Education?

Digital literacy, on its face, can be an intimidating concept. Because technological advancements in the past 50 years have expanded into unexpected parts of daily human life, it’s hard to determine what specific digital tools or skills ultimately constitute a digital literacy.

Fortunately, scholars have dedicated their attention to the study in order to streamline the benefits of these digital features for educational purposes. Renee Hobbs, whose research centers on the significance of different literacies in learning and teaching English as a foreign language, offers a concise definition of digital literacy. In her chapter “Media Literacy Foundations” for The International Encyclopedia of Media Literacy, she defined digital literacy as “the technical, cognitive, and social competencies, knowledge, and skills needed to communicate effectively and to participate in the contemporary knowledge economy.”

Most technologies today are socially oriented, and when students are invited to engage with these technologies responsibly and productively, they are better prepared to solve problems critically.

Additionally, it can be helpful to look at digital learning gaps in order to understand digital literacy more effectively. The U.S. Department of Education released a report in 2018 that lays out the importance of digital literacy by pointing to a significant number of adults who are digital skill deficient. Specifically, researchers found that 16% of adults age 16–65 are not digitally literate. To help bridge this gap, the governmental agency pointed to three overarching understandings that constitute digital literacy:

  1. The ability to control “input and output devices,” like the keyboard, mouse, monitor, speakers, etc.
  2. The digital skill to navigate user interfaces on computers, like finding and moving files, organizing folders and using hyperlinks.
  3. The familiarity with how to communicate in digital spaces, which, for example, includes saving and sending files over email or other file-sharing mediums, opening texts, images, audio and data files and interacting in these communications responsibly.

In this regard, digital literacy and information literacy share several similarities. As students learn more about using digital tools to locate, access, share and employ new information through the internet or a digital archive, they will have to evaluate that information to prove its validity.

How Digital Literacy Promotes Student Learning

School librarians and teachers have found meaningful ways to introduce digital literacy in education. When students are better equipped to engage with and utilize digital tools, teachers can make the learning process more interactive and effective.

This sentiment has been extensively explored in the academic world. For example, a 2018 scholarly article in the Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy explored how digital literacy platforms prepare both students and teachers for an effective learning process. Centrally, the researchers of the article honed in on a 42-hour immersive experience that took place at the University of Rhode Island’s Summer Institute in Digital Literacy. The program is structured to prepare teachers, educators, curriculum designers and college faculty to facilitate digital literacy in digital media spaces.

The writers stated, “Digital media platforms, texts, and technologies enable pedagogical practices that put learners and teachers at the center of an increasingly networked social world.” As more libraries transition to technologically centered digital media centers, students will be able to engage with “diverse perspectives, deliberative dialogue, and collaborative inquiry.” School librarians will equip students with digital tools such as emerging computer technologies, online information databases and digital archives. As a result, students will adopt new critical thinking measures as they employ new digital skills.

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The Library of the Future

The value of school libraries has increased dramatically as they adopt new technologies and accommodate new digital media resources. As libraries continue to house collections of books and administer information services to students, they are also finding novel ways to promote digital literacy in student learning.

And as libraries have begun to redefine as digital media centers, teachers across disciplines have begun to see the benefits of promoting digital literacy in their instruction. The scholarly article “Teaching Digital Literary Literacies in Secondary English Language Arts” highlights how educators can make literacies more engaging while promoting digital literacy. The librarians in the study rely on teaching reading with technology through a three-pronged approach:

  • Digital Texts: To sum up the importance of expanded access to literary texts, the researchers stated that “Far from limiting themselves to dusty library shelves, current members of the literary community construct interpretive literary knowledge with many types of focal texts.” These digital texts act as an umbrella that encompasses a wide range of literary text types, including electronic literature, literary artifacts that have been digitally archived, video or audio performances, online dictionaries and online literary criticism.
  • Digital Tools: As students are invited to consume literary texts in digital spaces, they must understand how to engage with these texts through appropriate digital tools. To this end, students can simultaneously develop digital skills as they refine their literary literacies when they can annotate literary texts using appropriate software, search for words using relevant search engines, and “investigate and visually represent patterns in texts.”
  • Digital Spaces: Students can create commentary and consume other criticism on literary texts in digital spaces. Across an array of social media platforms, students are encouraged to “produce, read and review user-created literary” texts and analysis. From fanfiction and songs to graphics and performances, students can employ digital skills to embark on new learning endeavors in new digital environments.

Separately, an unexpected benefit of libraries featuring digital media center resources is the overall reduced ecological impact. When students have stronger digital skills, they consume less energy overall as they use digital tools in the library. As the scholarly article “How to Improve the Sustainability of Digital Libraries and Information Services” noted that appropriate user research, transaction log analysis, user modeling and better design and delivery of services could significantly reduce user interaction time, and consequently, the environmental costs.

In other words, when students can navigate digital spaces on computers, mobile devices and other technologies in more proficient ways, they will ultimately reduce their carbon footprint. Technology is growing more energy efficient, and when users master technology in school library media centers, schools will develop more environmentally conscious practices.

Digital media spaces have begun to utilize new technologies to prompt students to approach new problem-solving methods. Augmented reality (AR) is one such technology entering the library space to enhance student learning. A recent poster in the Association for Information Science and Technology clearly outlined the benefits of incorporating AR in information and digital literacy instruction. Researchers focused on an example of when school librarians used an AR app that students could access on their phones.

Moreover, the app helped students understand in real-time on their phones where specific digital resources could be accessed in the library. This is just one example of how school librarians are innovating the digital literacy learning process. When technology in school library media centers is incorporated in this capacity, students have a better opportunity to refine their digital literacy.

Learn More about Digital Literacy in Education

School librarians are uniquely positioned to help facilitate the learning of responsible digital literacy practices. One of the best ways to identify how best to envision this instruction is through an online Master of Education in Library Media from the University of West Alabama. In the flexible and fully online program, you’ll have the opportunity to learn first-hand how to administer a successful school library media program that focuses on digital literacy principles. Discover more about the program today.