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The Importance of Digital Literacy Training in the Classroom

By McGraw-Hill Education 2 years agoNo Comments
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We are continuing our series on digital literacy in education. We began several months ago with a blog, Teaching Digital Literacy Skills in the Classroom, which explored the changes to the teacher’s role when incorporating technology. We followed that blog up with a blog about students’ digital literacy, Addressing Digital Literacy Skills for Students. With the study presented in that article, we learned that students consume information through technology, but they don’t create blogs, podcasts, stories, or art through technology.

As we continue to explore digital literacy and the use of technology in the classroom, we have two concerns for our students. First, how can we help students understand the information that they are consuming and train them to become critical consumers? And second, how can we help them to become contributors to the global society created by technology?

We know that technology is having an impact on education. We are asked to change our teaching methods to incorporate more technology. But rather than just using an instructional video or other instructional technology, recent studies are showing that we need to find a way to teach more digital literacy skills in the classroom so that students become savvy consumers and are not taken in by misleading advertisements or fake news.

The Stanford History Education Group designed a study and reported their findings in “Evaluating Information: The Cornerstone of Civic Online Reasoning.” They created a series of assessments to measure students’ ability to evaluate online sources. They wrote age-appropriate assessments for middle school, high school, and college students, and administered the assessments at a variety of schools to include all demographic ranges. In their report, they highlighted one assessment, out of five, for each level, and explained the results.


Middle School

The middle school assessments asked students to recognize when an item on a website is a news article and when the item is an ad.

The assessment presented students with a screenshot of Slate magazine, whose website operates with a standard news style. Across the top of the site was a banner ad, underneath there was a news article, and underneath that was a sponsored article, with other content on the right side of the page. Students were asked to identify each of the three elements as an advertisement or not and explain why.

The Importance of Digital Literacy Training

In explaining the results, the researchers used the term “native advertising” for the sponsored article. They explained that this type of content is lacking the indicators of an ad and is designed to look like an article although its purpose is to sell a product or service. While more than 75% of the middle schoolers were able to correctly identify the traditional ad and the news article, more than 80% of them did not identify the native advertising as an ad.

The native advertising was labeled with the term “sponsored content,” and the researchers suggest that part of digital literacy training should include what sponsored content means and that we should teach that to students early in their schooling.


High School

High school students were also asked to analyze the validity of a source. But rather than focusing on whether an item is an advertisement, high school students were asked to evaluate a photo. The photo came from Imgur, a photo-sharing website, and showed daisies with the claim that they have defects from the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan. The question asked, “Does this post provide strong evidence about the conditions near the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant? Explain your reasoning.”

The researchers created a scoring rubric with three levels. The highest level, mastery, required students to question the source. They could question the author as an anonymous poster on a photo-sharing site where anyone could post, or they could question the photo by asking whether it was actually taken in Japan. The students at the middle level of the rubric also said that the photo did not provide strong evidence, but they gave reasons other than the validity of the source. At the lowest level of the rubric, students claimed that the post did provide strong evidence.

Importance of Digital Literacy Training

In the results, 40% of the students were at the lowest level, arguing that the photo provided strong evidence. Twenty-five percent were at the middle level. Only 20% of students were at the mastery level, showing that they understood the need to question the source.



The assessment of college students turned to social media. College students were given a tweet and were asked two questions, “Why might this tweet be a useful source about NRA members’ opinions on background checks?” and “Why might this tweet not be a useful source about NRA members’ opinions on background checks?” They were told to include any additional sources they consulted in their answer.

The tweet that students were given was from a liberal advocacy organization who wrote, “New polling shows the @NRA is out of touch with gun owners and their own members.” The tweet also included a graphic that stated, “Two out of three gun owners say they would be more likely to vote for a candidate who supported background checks.” In addition to the text and graphic, the tweet gives a link to a press release about the poll. The press release was written by another liberal advocacy organization, but the poll was conducted by a professional polling firm.

Importance of Digital Literacy Training

Again, the rubric scored students at three levels, and mastery asked students to understand that the poll might be useful because it was conducted by a professional polling firm, but that it might not be useful because of the political leanings of the organizations writing the press release and the tweet. Students were directed to include all their sources in their answers, which prompted them to do more research about the tweet and its content.

More than half of the students did not click on the link included in the tweet or do any other research. Less than a third of students explained the political leanings as a reason why the tweet might not be useful. Rather than focusing on the content of this particular tweet, the majority of students made generalized comments about the dangers of social media.


What do we do?

In beginning their report, the researchers sounded despairing as they used the word “bleak” to describe students’ digital literacy skills. But they quickly shifted the focus to the next steps. Their next steps take us back to our two questions about incorporating digital literacy and technology in the classroom: First, how can we help students understand the information that they are consuming and train them to become critical consumers? And second, how can we help them to become contributors to the global society created by technology?

First, the researchers discuss how important it is to be aware of the shortcomings in digital literacy. Often we make the assumption that because students are early adopters of new technology, they are adept at evaluating the content they find. Studies, like this one by the Stanford History Education Group and the one by MediaSmarts presented in our previous blog Addressing Digital Literacy Skills for Students, show that students lack the skills to evaluate the content they are finding. Awareness allows us to take the first step to addressing the problem.

The researchers then suggest that their assessments can be used to direct lesson planning. For example, the assessment shows that middle school students don’t understand sponsored content, and that information could be used in a lesson. After learning the keywords –sponsored content, native advertising, and content marketing — students could be asked to evaluate a variety of articles. They could even be pushed to evaluate articles that have had the sponsored content designator removed.

Finally, the researchers stress the importance of incorporating digital literacy training into the curriculum. When we incorporate digital literacy into the curriculum, we can have more focused and dedicated attention given to building those skills. Attention can be given to helping teachers through professional development and team-sharing. Attention can also be given to having class time dedicated to building digital literacy skills.

As teachers, we can first decide which of the digital literacy skills tested in these assessments is most important for our individual students. After we decide that initial skill, we can begin designing lessons that teach that skill. As students increase their training, they will be able to effectively evaluate any source they are presented with, whether through the classroom or in their own personal technology use.

  Course Design, Digital Literacy, Higher Education, Pre-K to 12, Research & Studies
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