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What Are Digital Literacy Skills? (+ Why They Matter)

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There’s no question about it: Technology shapes how we live. From the apps we use to online education, digital tools are changing how things operate. Still, many students need more knowledge about how to use technology efficiently and safely.

Strong digital literacy helps students see the benefits of new systems and information, but they have to know where to start. When there’s a foundation of skills in place, anyone can access what technology has to offer with confidence.

Let’s explore how to make that a reality.

What is digital literacy?

Digital literacy means more than being able to browse the internet. It’s about accessing, understanding, and applying information. This includes operating devices, using applications, evaluating online sources, and creating content. With guidance and practice, students can develop strong digital literacy skills and use them to research, communicate, and collaborate.

Why does digital literacy matter?

Today, 35% of job holders can work from home full-time, and 76% of teachers say the majority of their instructional materials are found online.

The challenge? There's still a gap between those using technology successfully and those lacking the skills, access, and/or comfort with various tools. Teaching digital literacy skills helps bridge this divide.

But for this to happen, there needs to be a better understanding of how to use apps and websites well. Sounds easy enough in theory, but it can be challenging for students who don’t have experience with some of these new tools.  Digital literacy skills are crucial for students to navigate online resources and engage in modern learning.

What are digital literacy skills?

Young teen doing schoolwork on laptop.

Digital literacy skills generally fall into three categories: technical, cognitive, and social emotional. Let’s take a closer look at each.

Technical skills

Strong technical abilities make it possible to focus less on fighting with technology and more on using it to enhance education. The goal of these skills is to help students use technology well throughout their academic journey and prepare them for modern careers. 

As technology continues to advance, many people still struggle with this. In fact, 47% of digital workers struggle to find the information they need to perform their jobs effectively. The combination of so much available data and different ways to access it makes sorting through everything more difficult.

When students have strong technical skills, they can transition smoothly to new digital tools in any environment.

Cognitive skills

Cognitive skills give people the ability to practice good judgment and critical thinking online. Understanding the dangers of the digital space isn’t easy, but students need these skills to navigate safely.

Recent data shows that 25% of adults say they’ve fallen for a scam in the past year. People who responded to the same survey also want to do more to protect their privacy. The problem? They don’t know how. Being able to tell the difference between legitimate communication and scams helps people avoid a variety of online security risks.

Work on cognitive digital literacy skills in class, and teach students how to adopt good consumption habits. By practicing quality digital citizenship and understanding what to consume versus what to avoid, they’ll help create a better online learning experience for themselves and others.

Watch: How to Support Digital Citizenship Skills with WeVideo x Wakelet

Social emotional skills

Social forces combined with digital fuel give us the ability to shape perspectives, spread information, and move people's hearts and minds in a new way. This isn’t to be taken lightly. What students say and do can reach more people than ever before.

The quick sharing and resharing nature of content also opens the door for impersonal interactions or misunderstandings, even when that isn’t the intention. That’s why it’s so important to learn how to connect online. Otherwise, problems that students didn’t anticipate can rise to the surface. 

Think about a group of students working on a project and using a shared document. One student makes extensive edits without leaving comments or tracked changes. That would likely cause confusion and frustration for the rest of the group. When students learn how to respectfully collaborate, they can avoid these issues.

7 key digital literacy skills

Teaching digital literacy skills for the first time, or looking for a quick refresher before incorporating it into your curriculum? Here are seven crucial digital literacy skills for all students to learn.

1. Internet searching

Online research is a skill. Strong searching helps students dial in on relevant information and get the details they need. For example, a student working on a project about climate change might find their initial search overwhelming.

However, if they learn to use specific terms, like "impact of climate change on polar bears,” they may be able to find results that work for their project more quickly. This, in turn, speeds up the learning process.

2. Digital culture

The way we present ourselves is an important part of using any online space. This means knowing how to engage appropriately. 

Every person online should also have an understanding of what information is appropriate to share in spaces like forums or public comment sections. For example, sharing knowledge and asking questions is okay, but sensitive location information should be kept private.

3. Digital communication

Communication and collaboration skills maximize the value of technology at school. That said, this may require changes to communication styles. For example, a student may need guidance on the best way to communicate their questions in an email versus in-person.

Understanding how these forms of communication are different is crucial as students prepare to enter the workforce.

4. Critical evaluation

We all have a voice, but in the not-so-distant past, every voice couldn't reach the masses. Now, any student engaging in digital activity must evaluate information by assessing relevance, accuracy, bias, and reliability.

Show students how to watch for subjective spins on facts to avoid misinformation, especially when resharing information.

Boy with red and white hoodie at laptop wearing black headphones.

5. Problem solving

It can be frustrating to rely on technology and have something go wrong. Students can solve problems faster by understanding the terms to explain the issues. For example, instead of saying they’re having trouble accessing the internet, they might pinpoint that the browser keeps crashing (and subsequently fix the issue faster).

6. Content creation

There’s a lot to consume online, but there are also many opportunities to create. Digital content ranges from written material to graphics, videos, podcasts, and more. By learning about digital formats and how to distribute content, students can take a more active role in the digital space.

7. Security

Encourage students to practice good digital behaviors to protect themselves and the data in their online accounts. For example, using strong passwords and not sharing them. Best practices like these are important to maintain privacy.

Benefits of developing digital literacy skills

Wondering what you can expect after teaching digital literacy skills to your students? Take a look at some of the common benefits.

Boost performance

Sharpening digital literacy skills can change how students perform at school. Starting with these skills in place lets them shine on assignments and projects that require the use of digital tools. This empowers students to spend less time learning how to use a new system and more time perfecting the work.

Improve information use

Strong digital abilities allow students to search for information effectively and find what they need faster. Students can apply the insights they have to make better choices and refine their work.

Engage in safe internet use

With savvy digital literacy skills, students are wiser. Their online experience is also better for it. Digital literacy helps to build healthy digital habits. This way, students can protect themselves and even help others avoid pitfalls that may impact their safety.

Adapt to different tools and systems

New technologies appear every day, changing how we communicate, learn, and work. Digital literacy skills reduce the learning curve educators must manage with students as new options pop up.

Provide more learning opportunities

Implementing new tools into your instruction not only builds students’ digital literacy skills, but also can make your lessons more engaging. Looking for a good place to start? Try interactive video creation!

The path forward

Developing digital literacy skills is a must in today’s society (and tomorrow’s). Building these essential skills transforms devices and apps into assets, and ensures that technology makes life better for all. 

When students are digitally literate, their ability to create, communicate, and collaborate skyrockets. And that’s what is most important, right? Preparing our students to be the best versions of themselves today, tomorrow, and beyond.