What is Digital Literacy?
Digital literacy is the ability to access, manage, understand, integrate, communicate, evaluate and create information safely and appropriately through digital technologies for employment, decent jobs and entrepreneurship. It includes competences that are variously referred to as computer literacy, ICT literacy, information literacy and media literacy.
Digital literacy plays a crucial role in today's increasingly digital world. With continuous advancements in technology, the ability to navigate and to utilize digital tools and information such as search engines, social media platforms and communication applications is essential.
The concept of digital literacy has a longstanding presence in scholarly discourse. Nguyen and Habók (2023) referred to one of the earliest and most common definitions of digital literacy by Gilster (1997) as the competence to use, evaluate, and align multiple digital resources or tools in the lifelong learning process. Still relevant today, albeit in a more advanced digital landscape, such a definition surpasses the narrow scope of technical digital skills while also highlighting the use of knowledge and skills in digital technology for problem solving.
While defining digital literacy, UNESCO (2018) referred to a digital literacy framework, DigComp 2.0, which was recognised to have “a comprehensive view on competence areas and competences from economically-advanced countries”. DigComp 2.0, also known as a revised version of the Digital Competence Framework for Citizens, was proposed by Vuorikari et al. (2016). According to the authors, this common reference framework provides an understanding of “what it means to be digitally savvy in an increasingly globalised and digital world” (Vuorikari et al., 2016, p.2), which includes one’s information and data literacy, communication and collaboration (e.g., through or via digital technologies), digital content creation, safety (e.g., protecting personal data and privacy), and problem solving (e.g., identifying needs and technological responses). The latest version, DigComp 2.2 (Vuorikari et al., 2022), consists of updated wording in the framework’s descriptions of key knowledge, skills and attitudes.
In sum, digital literacy involves a range of competencies for safe and appropriate utilisation of digital technologies. Essential in personal, academic and career contexts, digital literacy is key in modern life, and is crucial as a means of gaining some understanding of the world (Martin & Grudziecki, 2015). Ultimately, digital literacy plays a key role in enabling individuals to safely and effectively navigate and utilise digital technologies in the increasingly globalised and digitalised world of today. Furthermore, given the growing permeance of Artificial Intelligence (AI) tools, and more recently, Generative AI (GenAI) tools in public domains, more information about AI literacy (as a subset of digital literacy) can be found here.
Are you Digitally Literate?
Defining one’s level of digital literacy is subject to many underlying factors; for example, one’s job, age, education, and geographical location. Research has suggested the following indicators to evaluate whether one is digitally literate (e.g. Reddy et al., 2023; Ola et al., 2021):
To be able to understand the impact of digitalisation on society,
To be able to identify, access and utilise digital technologies,
To be able to make critical judgement of digital contents,
To be able to create new information and content with digital technologies,
To share and communicate with digital texts, media and tools, and
To understand the ethical and responsible use of digital technologies and platforms.
Are you Digitally Literate?
Why is Digital Literacy Important?
Digital literacy is important because it encourages learners to…
Understand, access and use digital technologies appropriately;
Communicate and collaborate effectively in digital contexts;
Analyse and evaluate digital information;
Create and share content using digital platforms;
Ensure safe use of digital tools and resources; and
Navigate and keep up with advancing digital technologies.
How is Digital Literacy Developed?
There is no definite, sure-fire strategy for developing digital literacy. Approaches to digital literacy development may depend on various factors, such as the target audience, the intended learning outcomes, and available tools or resources. Existing literature has suggested various examples of methods or strategies to promote and implement digital literacy learning based upon different contexts.
A study conducted by McGuinness and Fulton (2019) investigated the use of e-tutorials, which combined text, image, audio, video, and interactive quiz components, to facilitate the development of digital literacy among undergraduate and postgraduate students. This design kept lessons under 10 minutes in length, and aimed to present a dynamic, interactive learning experience which reinforced and enhanced learning, rather than assessing and highlighting skill deficits. Multiple topics were included into the e-tutorials, including search strategies and techniques, finding factual information, finding articles, finding books with catalogues, referencing, evaluating digital information, creating a wiki and collaborating effectively.
Students could take as long as they needed to complete and review the content, and were allowed to navigate back and forth across the different e-tutorial content. Some technological challenges such as browser incompatibility, uneven sound quality and general Internet connection issues were found, but the accessibility, ease-of-use, design and duration of the e-tutorials were found effective. Overall, students in this study expressed enjoyment of digital literacy learning facilitated by e-tutorials, but expressed a preference for a blended learning environment with a combination of complementary learning approaches.
Self-regulated learning strategies
Anthonysamy et al. (2020) examined how self-regulated learning strategies, which help students manage their learning independently, foster the enhancement of digital literacy in digital learning. The study was based on a cross-sectional study of undergraduates in IT and Multimedia programmes, all of which adopted a combination of face-to-face teaching accompanied by technology (blended learning) in the classroom. Findings showed the positive influence of metacognitive knowledge (students’ awareness and regulation of their own thinking), resource management and motivational belief strategies – three domains in self-regulated learning strategies – in enhancing university students’ digital literacy. Interestingly, the authors also reported that cognitive engagement did not contribute to mastering digital literacy skills, despite prior research identifying positive correlations between cognitive engagement and digital literacy.
Overall, based on the findings, it was suggested that students should be provided with environments where they can practice strategies to increase their critical awareness of their own thinking and learning (e.g., though practicing planning, monitoring, and regulating their thinking) to improve their digital literacy. Moreover, factors including the ability to effectively manage resources (e.g., effort, help from others, time), increased motivation in the learning activities, and ability to see the value of completing tasks in digital learning environments, will also contribute to the enhancement of students’ digital literacy.
Anderson (2019) remarked that “social media add[s] more than just ‘going online’ to formal education” (p7). Incorporating social media use and engagement into education can not only add flexibility of time and location to courses, but also results in opportunities for students to gain digital literacy. Through the use of social media, students are able to personalise learning experiences to their own interests, goals, and preferences. Acknowledging that social media use is limited and restricted in academic contexts, the article reported on multiple cases of incorporating social media into formal education, where social media use was challenged by cultural resistance, privacy and ownership concerns, pedagogical issues, as well as institutional and course constraints. In sight of such challenges, the article suggested a few solutions. Firstly, developing an institutionally-owned social media platform with a variety of social and productivity tools like blogging, curation, recommendations, likes and communication tools would offer a more secure platform for academic purposes. Secondly, social media applications can be developed where individuals can store personal data into personally owned data pods. While challenges persist for the incorporation of social media in education, various opportunities were noted, for example in allowing students to develop critical skills when using digital platforms, increasing student engagement with digital tools, and students’ gaining of competencies in discovering, annotating, and curating digital resources.
In another study by Tsvetkova et al. (2021), an experiment was conducted to look at the use of social media as a tool for improving students’ digital literacy. Teachers of a month-long study course uploaded educational materials onto various social media platforms, and primarily interacted with students through such platforms. Students were given instructions on how effectively utilise and search for educational materials. They were then divided into two groups: in the experimental group, students received greater guidance from their teachers and were required to complete exercises with specific digital materials for the course. Students of the control group could choose to use and interact with the same materials on their own.
Prior to the experiment, over 70% of the students in both the control and experimental group reported used social media for entertainment purposes. After the experiment, the experimental group reported their increased usage of social media for educational purposes, whereas the control group continued to use it predominantly for entertainment purposes. Overall, the study found that the use of social media in learning, when supported by appropriate pedagogical methods to encourage independent information searching and teachers’ supervision, can increase students’ communicative abilities on social networks, improve their academic performance, and allow them to see the opportunities for using social media as a cognitive tool.
How Should I Assess Digital Literacy?
Assessing digital literacy poses a significant challenge due to its multifaceted nature. The rapid pace of technological advancements poses a significant challenge in assessing digital literacy, and assessment instruments and methods may lag behind the introduction of new technologies, making it difficult to ensure that assessments remain up to date. Quantitative scales may fail to encompass the diverse range of skills and competencies required in the rapidly evolving digital landscape. Designing and implement authentic assessments focusing on digital literacy would thus require careful balance of authenticity and feasibility.
In order to address these challenges, it is crucial to have clear objectives when designing digital literacy assessments, taking into consideration contextual variations and factors. Gapski (2007) proposed some considerations when assessing digital literacy: Which level of analysis is relevant (the individual student, groups and/or a social system)? Which context of usage is relevant with regard digital literacy as relevant to all modes of communication with digital means? What is the object of measuring (processes or structures)? Which perspective respectively method is applied (self-observation, external observation, qualitative and quantitative approaches)?
Across literature, various approaches and methodologies have also been proposed to evaluate individuals’ digital literacy levels. To further illustrate how digital literacy assessment can be implemented, two case studies are presented below.
Rodríguez et al. (2021) adopted a self-assessment tool, the COMDID-A questionnaire, and distributed it to pre-service teachers undergoing their training programme at a university in Spain. The COMDID-A consists of 22 items on a 10-point Likert scale and measures participants’ perceptions of their own digital competence across four areas: Personal and professional development; Planning, organization and management of digital technologies spaces and resources; Teaching curriculum and methodology; and Relationships, ethics and security. The results of the questionnaire sorted respondents into four levels of competence: Level 1 responses used digital technologies as facilitators and elements for improvement of the teaching process; Level 2 responses used digital technologies to improve flexibility of the teaching process and adaptability to the educational context; Level 3 responses used digital technologies efficiently to improve the participants’ academic results, educational actions, and quality of the educational institution; and Level 4 responses used digital technologies, researched on how to use digital technologies to improve teaching processes, and drew conclusions responding to the needs of the education system.
Validity and reliability of the instrument was established, and implementing such an instrument was reported to assist students in becoming more aware of their learning, as well as recognise their individual shortcomings and orient learning to overcome weaknesses.
As part of a larger ethnographic study on undergraduate students’ various literacies and uses of technologies, Lea and Jones (2011) used various methods to gauge students’ digital literacy as engage with technologies both within and outside of the curriculum. First, the researchers met with student participants throughout the semester (three to four times over a six-month period), held at the start in small groups, then later, individually. During these meetings, students were observed as they used different texts and technologies for both their studies and personal lives. A process of ‘shadowing’ was also used where the researchers kept in close contact with students with short email or text exchanges.
Throughout the study, hard copies and electronic examples of students’ texts were collected, including from social networking platforms and web-based academic resources, as were meeting and discussion transcripts, field notes from observations of students’ practices, personal development plans, learning journals, and samples from individual and group work. By analysing this collection of evidence, the researchers were able to evaluate, identify, and build up a bigger picture of students’ digital literacy practices and strategies as the latter read, wrote, produced, and interacted with digital texts for different purposes (i.e., across academic and personal contexts) and across different platforms.
Digital literacy is an essential skill in our rapidly evolving digital and technological landscape. Through developing digital literacy, individuals can access a wealth of information, communicate, collaborate, and participate in the digital world more effectively and responsibly. Embracing digital literacy is not only beneficial on an individual level, but also crucial for fostering digital inclusion and bridging the digital divide in society. Ongoing learning and adaptation are necessary to keep up with the ever-changing digital landscape and harness its full potential for personal growth, professional success, and societal advancement. With the widespread use of digital technologies, platforms and resources and their increasing implementation into classrooms, educational institutions, governments, and organizations should work together to bridge digital literacy development from educational contexts to the real world. With digital literacy, we will thrive in the current digital age.
Anderson, T. (2019). Challenges and Opportunities for use of Social Media in Higher Education. Journal of Learning for Development, 6(1), 6-19.
Anthonysamy, L., Koo, A.C., & Hew, S.H. (2020). Self-regulated learning strategies in higher education: Fostering digital literacy for sustainable lifelong learning. Education and Information Technologies, 25, 2393-2414. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10639-020-10201-8
Gapski, H. (2007, September). Some Reflections on Digital Literacy. In Proceedings of the 3rd International Workshop on Digital Literacy (pp. 49-55). Crete, Greece: CEUR-WS.org.
Gilster, P. (1997). Digital literacy. Wiley Computer Pub., New York.
Lea, M. R., & Jones, S. (2011). Digital literacies in higher education: exploring textual and technological practice. Studies in Higher Education, 36(4), 377-393.
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Rodríguez, M.U., Lázaro Cantabrana, J.L., & Gisbert Cervera, M. (2021). Validation of a tool for self-evaluating teacher digital competence. Educación XX1, 24(1), 353-373. http://doi.org/10.5944/educXX1.27080
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