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Why you need digital literacy in every classroom

“Every teacher is a literacy teacher.”

This phrase is a bit road worn by now - simultaneously true and a bit trite. There is a kind of literacy special to the science classroom, a method to a mathematician’s reading and writing. The same is true for history, art, design tech and the rest. Each department is responsible to impart something of what it means to read effectively in a particular discipline.

This statement recently came up in some work I was doing a few weeks back. I began thinking of it in reference to my work helping schools provide a modern learning experience to their students. I think it has a younger sibling: every teacher is a digital literacy teacher.

As a school leader, how are you ensuring that students’ digital literacy is a part of your digital strategy in every classroom? Well, it depends on exactly what you mean by digital literacy. Here are a few roles that digital literacy takes and some ideas to help students become fluent:

 

Digital Literacy: a Foundation

What literacy came to be in the 19th and 20th centuries, digital literacy is to the 21st. It permeates our lives in nearly every arena. And it only continues to meet new needs and wants. There is a lot to be said for a careful, selective approach to technology adoption. However, schools have a mandate to expose students to technology in order for them to enter adulthood professionally and personally.

My start at Firefly immediately comes to mind. In my first few days, I was awash in new digital tools — Sugar, Xero, People, Zoom, Pendo, and the list continues.  That’s not to mention our own product. I had a lot to learn.

I wasn’t without though. I had a strong schema from my other experiences with digital tools. I could adapt and learn because I had a network of reference points.

My hunch is that this happens to our students all the time. They take up the latest social media or streaming platform in a blink. They have deep prior experience from which to draw.

I think schools can intervene here effectively.  What other tools do we want as a part of their network of reference points? Think of it as teaching the “ key features” of digital tools. There are common features and ways of working that recur across technology. To this end, wider exposure is better.

That said, technology needs to be used purposefully. Schools should commit to tools that fit their needs while also building “technological fluency”. A basic fluency is foundational to our students’ success in the modern world.

Take a look at the downloadable template I’ve included. What “foundation” tools are you teaching?  When and how are students learning and using them?

 

Digital Literacy: a Doorway  

As an English teacher, one of my passions has been teaching effective research processes. It is such a powerful tool for students. I love a thoughtful annotated bibliography. While I know that some of the instruction and practice will fall to other teachers, I relish my responsibility to teach the process.

The digital tools required come with the territory.  More accurately, the specific features do — the less used formatting tools in a word processor, search engines, citation machines and the rest. They are an entry point. As critical as highlighting the text, these are tools of the trade.

The same applies for other disciplines. Photo editing software and art. Data analysis tools in the sciences and maths. These are discipline-specific tools, subject toolkits.

That’s not to say that these tools don’t have broad applications, but they are the tools we would expect to be taught in connection with specific subjects. They are the tools that digitally literate practitioners of the subject use fluently.

What discipline-specific “doorway” technologies do your departments use? How often are students using these tools? Use the template if it helps you organise your thoughts.

 

Digital Literacy: a Window 

Ultimately, digital literacy is not simply about giving children the digital tools in order to succeed at your school. It is also not just about the known tools that they will need as an informed citizen or employee.  It is also about digital literacy that inspires them and gives them a window to new possibilities.

Think of it like DEAR (Drop Everything and Read) or the short-lived popularity of the Genius Hour. How can digital literacy springboard students beyond the curriculum to their passions? 

This is where technology quickly becomes interdisciplinary and far reaching. Often, project based learning is somewhere mixed in the discussion. Technologies outside the realm of a particular course can offer some creative opportunities to reimagine the curriculum.

Short of a coding course, can programming be worked into existing curriculum through project based learning? How might students be able to learn and apply AV skills in traditional science and history courses? 

As an English teacher, I had my advanced students create poetry podcast series. Each chose two poems of a favourite poet and recorded three short episodes to introduce the poet and analyse their works. 

In the process, we interviewed a podcaster as a class to gain expert knowledge; I ran short tutorials on basic audio editing. In this instance, technology became a springboard for personal choice while also exposing students to what it is like to be a content creator.

I chose my technology carefully. I wasn’t interested in teaching technology that I didn’t believe enhanced the learning of my students in a meaningful way. By choosing the podcast creation process, I knew I could simultaneously deepen my curriculum while increasing my students’ digital literacy. 

When done effectively, students can discover a passion for video editing while still achieving national standards.  They may also use preexisting passion to show what they have learned in a way that truly shows their learning journey.

Could there be space in your school’s curriculum planning for technology to help kids express their creativity and explore their passions? The last section of the template gives you space to plan for it.

 

Closing Thoughts…

The first time I heard “Every teacher is a literacy teacher” from a school leader I couldn’t help but think that everyone else thought I needed them to do my job for me.

The truth couldn’t be more different; literacy is too big a skillset to tackle in isolation. There are as many unique applications of reading and writing as there are subjects other than English.

For many reasons, the same is true of digital tools and skills in this era. You likely have an explicit plan for literacy across the curriculum. It may be time to develop a plan for digital literacy across the curriculum. Feel free to use this digital literacy planning guide to help you.

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