Digital Literacy: A Moving Target

When I was in the ninth grade, I took a typing class. It was expected that most students in my school did. We did have electric typewriters back then, not manual, but they were definitely typewriters and not keyboards. My classmates and I learned about the home keys, and over the course of a year we learned the others and different conventions of typing. Typing was an expected skill for most students, so could be considered a basic literacy.

The author with his pal Max honing their digital literacy skills on their weekly Zoom family meeting.

Twenty years later, I was working on digital literacy training for school leaders. No more typewriters! It was all PCs now. I had just entered an elementary school in Georgia to visit with and interview an exemplary principal when we ran across a young man pushing a large cart of older laptops down one of the school hallways. The principal looked at me and said, “I’m having the old laptops sent to the Kindergarten classes so they can learn keyboarding now and really apply those skills next year.” Next year, as in the first grade! So much for the keyboarding expectations for high school students.

Travel forward another 20 years to a fourth-grade classroom I visited in Kentucky last week. Every child had a laptop on their desk and they were working away on several tasks comparing and contrasting Greek and Roman gods to prepare for reading one of the Percy Jackson novels. The students were going back and forth between a spreadsheet, some notes from online research, and the Canva website where they were using their information to create an infographic. One young man in front of me furiously pounded away on his keyboard about as quickly as I can touch type, but…he was truly a hunt-and-peck aficionado. Most of the students were. My typing teacher wouldn’t have liked their style. She might have gotten out the masking tape to cover their keys, but their method didn’t slow them down. I can’t imagine what they could do with their thumbs on a handheld, touchscreen device. I’m sure they’re much better than I am.

This little storyline emphasizes that the idea of what a person should know and be able to do to be considered “literate” evolves over time. I’ve been working with schools on aspects of digital literacy for much of my career, but just like this story, the digital literacy projects I worked on 20 years ago are different from what they are now. I’m co-author of a textbook with two of my mentors, Kathy Cennamo from Virginia Tech and Peg Ertmer from Purdue. It focuses on the ISTE Standards for Students and for Educators, but those standards have changed over time. They’ve moved from being very tool-focused to focusing on what teachers and students do with digital resources. To reflect this, we had some foundational agreements about technology that thread their way through the multiple editions. One of those is that technology is constantly changing, which means “being literate” changes, and so we encouraged our readers to become lifelong learners who understand how to manage change and develop new literacies as they become important. Another is, “it’s more important how you use technology than if you use it.” (Cennamo, K. S., Ross, J. D., & Ertmer, P. A. (2019). Technology integration for meaningful use. A standards-based approach. Boston, MA: Cengage. P. 2.)

I’ve been working on the “what technology skills do our students need to know” question with numerous school districts across the country a lot lately. During the time of forced remote learning, so many school districts bought a lot of devices and digital resources for students but didn’t have the time or ability to thoroughly teach everyone how to use them—even teachers. Now that students are once again attending schools every day with those devices, we are seeing teachers and students with access to powerful devices and digital resources but perhaps not using them as effectively as they could be. But what to focus on? Many adults are calling for isolating technology and teaching those skills separately. For example, some think we should stop everything and focus on typing, because typing was once seen as an important skill (and still probably is for some) but is it that important for everyone? Phones are more ubiquitous than laptops with keyboards. What skills do you need to be considered literate if your digital device doesn’t have a keyboard or you don’t need to use one? Phones have teeny tiny keyboards that I can’t use my touch-typing skills with, and many people just talk to their phone (or TV remote, or smart speaker, or other device) to navigate the apps on it.

I go back to the how you’re using technology part of the equation as being the most important consideration for being literate. The ISTE Standards no longer focus on the technology you’re using. Instead, they encourage students and adults to become empowered learners who leverage technology to connect with content and with others to support their learning. They acknowledge how important it is for all of us to be savvy digital citizens that understand what it means to live in an information-rich society and to manage and protect our own information and data that is now generated in any number of media formats with the click of a button. They inspire us to communicate and collaborate locally and across the globe and to create innovative new products and propose solutions to challenging, real-world problems. What I see as the connecting thread behind those standards is that they happen everywhere, not in isolation. They happen in every class. They happen on the playground, and at home, and everywhere else, and so maybe the secret to digital literacy is to not consider it something separate or unique. It’s just literacy. And we use the tools that are necessary to be literate in whatever situation we’re in.

This entry is cross-posted with the Region 8 Comprehensive Center blog.