Three Techniques for Teaching Digital Literacy

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Twenty-five years ago, the term “literacy” was synonymous with the printed word. Today, that definition has evolved and being literate necessitates more than simply interacting with text. We must be digitally literate, too.

Teachers have an even harder task; we must cultivate this ability to adapt to constantly changing mediascapes while simultaneously preserving students’ writing skills in their purest form. This may sound intimidating, but there are simple things you can do to help prepare students.

1. Teach How to Mindfully “Read” New Media

Many teachers have started to supplement traditional curriculum with everything from video to online articles. But simply adding in new content isn’t enough. We must instill a complementary skillset that enables students to closely read things within those mediums. Believe it or not, this can be done with lessons you currently have--with a bit of tweaking.

In the same way we deconstruct themes, plot development and perspective in literature, we can teach how to decode digital media. As you introduce an infographic or video clip into class, ask students to unpack its mode and type of media--what genre and what form is it? Consider the audience--who is the intended reader, viewer, subscriber? Evaluate motive, bias and intention--what was the content creator’s purpose? Examine the context--does when and where it was created offer important clues? Discuss the pros and cons in using images or video to tell a story versus text--what is better expressed in each form and what are the drawbacks?

Often these discussions begin as teacher-facilitated and slowly turn to student-led. For example, our six and seven-year-old students organically began discussing the recent earthquake in Nepal based on a photo of a child in the rubble, following a facilitated conversation around photos. They inferred how the child might be feeling, commented on the landscape depicted and compared the child to themselves. Photos and video can capture real-life emotions in a way that text does not.

If you’re doing a lesson on the American Revolution or World War II for example, students might have stronger reactions to the information presented when they see visual representations of the realities of war. Encourage students to posit their perspectives in a speculative fashion, such as “they might be feeling scared” or “they might be angry at the soldiers.” We must teach these tools to create an environment where students feel safe to voice their opinions on the content presented.

2. Help Students Become Makers and Tinkerers--of Text

Reading and writing are creative tasks, requiring both the building and breaking down of words--or “tinkering.” As literacy develops, a student’s toolbox grows, and the forums in which students can build grow too. You can help students transition from what frequently is their comfort zone (i.e. 140-character updates and pictures) to more in-depth commentary, such as a written blog.

Create simple tools for your class like flexible, common rubrics, to enable students to self select topics, publish journals, music, or videos weekly, and then iterate on their work over time. These short, on-demand curation tasks not only build writing stamina and ownership of their craft, they also reinforce the iterative nature of writing.

Say you have a student struggling with writing fluency. Brainstorm with her to find a subject she’s passionate about like airplanes or animals. Ask her to begin by just finding and posting pictures on those subjects to her blog and encourage her to then discuss the images with her peers. Meanwhile, your primary role is to enable her to better communicate her interests by adding words and phrases to accompany the photos. What she’s doing is essentially “tinkering” with more and more text.

Within a few weeks, she will be constructing multi–sentence entries, and slowly but surely, you will have helped her to transition from a photo blog to a written blog. The key is to select a topic she is invested in and therefore more likely to maintain.

3. Offer Guidance to Becoming Responsible Digital Citizens

Our generation was thrown into the digital age--and had to fumble along as we went. However, we are now the first generation of teachers with the power and responsibility to shape how future generations will use those same tools; to become good digital citizens.

With younger students, that begins with interactive conversations around the best-practices of using devices. Use the classroom to problematize things like how much time is appropriate to be in front of a screen, whether it’s safe to walk while using a tablet, and what you should do when someone speaks to you while you are using that device.

For older students, who will likely be using digital communication, collaboration or blogging tools, address how to avoid plagiarism, approaches and criteria to find quality online resources, and how to give and receive constructive feedback. You’ll find these conversations are even more impactful when augmented by hands-on learning.

You might plan a lesson that requires students to provide feedback to each other on their writing via a resource like Edmodo. Start by asking students to pick and then post a sentence that needs revising. Instruct students to propose various writing strategies for improvement and within minutes you’ll have whole walls of suggestions.

This exercise lets students practice digital citizenship in a controlled setting, so that you can mentor them in the art of constructive criticism. Just imagine the practical implications to this small task, from navigating the Comments section of news sites, interacting with friends on Instagram to someday collaborating with colleagues. Plus, it reinforces the concept that although online reading and writing may seem ephemeral, our words may be viewed by millions and recorded for an eternity.

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