Defining and Developing Digital Literacy – Embedding literacies into learning and life

Welcome to the practical Part Two of this two-post series focusing on digital literacies! In the first post, we explored the theories and models that underpin our understanding of digital literacies. In this post, I tackle the tricky part, offering suggestions and strategies for embedding digital literacies development into learning and life.

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First and foremost comes the most important advice – immersion is key! The best way to learn is by interacting. Think about how different it is learning the language and culture of a foreign country in a classroom, when compared with going on an immersion tour and living in that country. Having the opportunity to be speaking and hearing the language everyday, interacting with the people and experiencing the culture, observing the ways that they go about their life. It is the small things that we probably don’t even think to teach, like local mannerisms, slang, jokes that are what makes us truly literate in a foreign language – and becoming digitally literate is no different.

You can’t learn to become digitally literate outside of the digital world. You might gain some skills, but you will lack fluency. Students need to be immersed in all of these different tools and experiences and have a caring adult/teacher/guide there to help them if they stumble. This doesn’t happen at the moment in places where everything is blocked and locked down; instead we are leaving them to experience this world at home or elsewhere, with no guarantee that anyone will support them or re-direct them if they go down the wrong path or make a mistake.

Digital literacies also look different in different contexts. This is why immersion allows the experiences to be built in a natural way. If you are in a classroom in a high socio-economic area where most parents have smartphones, homes are generally connected to the internet, and students have had access to tablets or computers their whole lives, things will be different to a school in the far west of Australia, where connectivity may be poor and standards of living or school budgets may mean that computer access is limited. These are generalisations of course; but every class, every student and every teacher will have different experiences, different access, different levels of knowledge and understanding, and this will also change from day to day, from activity to activity. This is why digital literacies are so hard to pin down – because you can’t teach them in isolation, and they are different for everyone!

Developing Digital Literacies within Yourself

So what does immersion look like? Unfortunately it’s not as obvious as jumping on a plane and jetting to the country you are learning about, but it is fortunately a lot cheaper, and easier to make a part of daily life! In many ways you are already immersed, both in your everyday life and also in your teaching practice. Think about how naturally you jump onto your smartphone, or how you share a photo on Facebook, or even the fact that you are right now reading a blog for professional learning rather than sitting in a room in a hall somewhere, on an uncomfortable chair. Technology is seeping into our lives. When you navigate a menu online, you are demonstrating quite complex digital literacy. When you request your students o email their assignments to you, use the Maps App as a GPS tracker or search through Pinterest for resources; all of these require a level of digital literacy you probably take for granted.

If you are still feeling like you are more of a visitor than a resident, don’t worry about diving in and immersing yourself fully; it’s too overwhelming! However you do need to commit yourself to it; like learning a language, you won’t become fluent if you don’t continually use it. If you aren’t sure you will stick with it, don’t do it on your own; if you are part of a group, you are less likely to give up.

One way to do this is to search some of the sites like Future Learn or EdX for an online course to participate in. These are commonly known as MOOCs. A MOOC is a Massive Open Online Course. There are thousands that you can choose from. Find one that is in a topic you are interested in. It doesn’t have to be one related to work, or it can be, but if you find one on a topic that really absorbs you, you might find it more engaging and something you enjoy participating in. MOOCs can be amazing experiences, or they can be overwhelming, but if you find one that fits your needs, participating will definitely build your digital literacy. Lots of MOOCs require you to write blog posts, or contribute to discussion groups or Twitter chats. They give you structure and content to work with, so you aren’t just looking at a blank screen thinking what will I blog about? You are given tasks to respond to and learn through.

If a MOOC seems a bridge too far, try an activity like the 30 Goals challenge. This idea is drawn from the book by Shelly Terrell, The 30 Goals Challenge.  Shelly has constructed 30 challenges that you can work through; and in the process develop digital literacies that will influence your teaching. There are other challenges like this also; the best known is 21 Things….or just invent some tasks to complete for yourself!

Developing Digital Literacies with your Students

I know that you probably came to find all of these hands on strategies to embed digital literacies into the curriculum, and yet I’ve spent quite a bit of this series of blog posts on the theories and models which you need to be familiar with. I did this purposefully. The reason is, it will be different for each of you in every context, and I could give 50 strategies, and not one may be applicable to any of you right now.

In fact, spending time thinking about what digital literacies actually are and what they look like  means that you are now more able to recognise all of the things you are already doing in the classroom to build digital literacy; and when you can recognise these things, you are able to then make this explicit in your teaching, and plan more consciously for including these different aspects. Digital skills focus on what and how. Digital literacies focuses on why, when, who, and for whom. So a lot of developing digital literacies comes from the discussions around the tasks, how students use or plan to use technology, and why they might choose to communicate in such as way.

Some general suggestions…

When asking students to respond to an assignment, rather than just asking for a PowerPoint, emphasise the communication, construction and creative elements of digital literacies by changing it up– perhaps they could create a wiki page with embedded resources – also then recognising the cultural awareness this requires in attributing others’ work, the cognition this might require as students learn a new tool, and helping them manage their digital identity as they create something that they can add to their digital portfolio to represent their work to future employers or as evidence of their ability at University. This simple transition from a PowerPoint to a Wiki page enables them to be immersed in so many digital literacies.

Why not take advantage of a content curation tool like Pinterest or Blendspace (make sure that students are over 13 if they are having their own account), or create a class account or use a tool like Padlet that requires no accounts, and have students all contribute to a shared page of resources which they search for and explicitly explain why they made the decision to include it as a resource for the students to research from. This again builds their critical literacies, their cognition as they learn about curation and a different tool, their attention literacy as they stay on task to construct an online object that they can all share when they then research their assignments.

Consider providing resource material for assignments or for homework in a range of modes; perhaps a bingo style will encourage students to engage with lots of different types of texts as they try to complete a line or a whole card. For example encourage students to consult a book, a video,  an animation,  a tutorial, a short movie, a podcast or audio book, an infographic, a blog post or a Wikipedia page.  Also think about creating different ways that students can respond to their reading and engagement with the text. Rather than the typical book report, they could record verbally their response, or write a blog post (it could be posted on a class blog or even just shared onscreen; children do not necessarily have to have their own blog), they could write an article that would be suitable for publication on Wikipedia, or respond in a series of tweets. If they aren’t keen writers, responding in 3 tweets of 140 characters may be enough – again, these don’t have to be online, or they could be shared from the teacher or class account.

For younger students, why not use PowerPoint to teach them about hyperlinking; the ability to navigate menus and to read text that is not necessarily linear develops their cognition, their communication skills, the ability to maintain focus and attentional literacy, network literacy, and if you have links leading to multimedia, transliteracy. Design a series of PowerPoint slides that creates a ‘’choose your own adventure’ type text, where students need to click on arrows that are actually hyperlinks to take them to slides in different orders. Depending upon their age and ability, as well as access to technology, you could have students then plan and create their own hyperlinked adventure. This also helps build the algorithmic thinking of ‘if …then’ upon which so much coding is based.

It doesn’t have to be complicated; just tweaking what you already do in many ways can embed so much digital literacy into your current curriculum.

Keep abreast of these and other exciting Digital Literacy ideas by checking out some of the great tips and strategies as well as resources to support the theories and models underpinning digital literacies on the Pinterest board below. Drop a line in the comments and share what has worked for you! This is a new and growing area, and we are all learning…and participation is vital!