Last December I took part in an online discussion about digital literacy. Amongst the many interesting questions posed by teachers, one question came up that I had never been asked before – Whose job is it to teach digital literacy?
As someone who teaches it as a subject, and also as part of my ELT lessons, I just assumed it was something any and all teachers should do. Which is pretty much the answer I gave at the time. However, the question came up several times. I feel my assumption is not held by everyone, so I’d like to use this opportunity to qualify my answer.
What do we mean by digital literacy?
Having reflected, I think part of the issue is that the term ‘digital literacy’ means different things to different people. This is perhaps no surprise as it does encompass so many varied aspects. Search the internet for a definition and you’ll find educational websites offering as many as 8 different literacies within the wider definition. Take for example the JISC website, which shows seven different aspects.
I suspect that the question of who should teach digital literacy is grounded in a common misunderstanding of equating it with simply the ability to use a computer or mobile. This is computer literacy but of course, is still part of the whole digital literacy area. Taking this line, it is easy to conclude “I teach English, I don’t teach computers, so we should leave digital literacy to the ICT teacher”. In the same way, being terrible at maths, I’d leave that to a maths teacher.
By the way, if you did search the Internet for a definition then you’re showing another digital literacy, specifically information literacy, knowing how to find, evaluate and share information. Consider how often you get students to use the Internet, do you ever discuss this process with them? If you do, then you’ve taught digital literacy. However, if you didn’t search then you might still be wondering what digital literacy is so here’s the definition used within the OUP coursebook series Life Vision:
Digital Literacy covers a very broad spectrum of skills it can be defined in general terms as the ability to access, use, create and share information and content using a range of digital devices and applications in ways that show critical awareness and an understanding of what is safe and legal.
How is digital literacy related to language learning?
If you’re still wondering whose job digital literacy is, consider the ‘critical awareness’ part of the definition. Few teachers would argue that instilling critical thinking is not part of our job. Most course materials address critical thinking in some way, as complementary to teaching language. I said I assumed it was all our job to teach digital literacy because I see it in the same way. Critical thinking is part of digital literacy. Take the topic of fake news, an area that has found its way into many classrooms. Teaching how to spot fake news, and critically evaluate it, is part of information literacy and I am sure something all English teachers address. When we get students to look at texts online and go beyond skim-reading and scanning, by asking the students what they think of the article or the webpage, we’re addressing digital literacy.
Some of you might now be thinking “Shaun I see your point, but I don’t use the internet in class. In fact, in my class we don’t or can’t use devices” and to that, I would say you don’t need to. Many typical classroom practices are set up to teach it. Consider how often you use photos or videos. Visual media is very much part of the digital world so asking students to go beyond ‘what can you see?’ into ‘what do you think the message is’ makes them more digitally aware.
Consider all the topics you could use for language teaching that have a digital theme – from the latest TikTok fad to more serious issues such as cyberbullying and scamming. If, for example during a speaking lesson, you get students to discuss ways to stay safe online, or when to share or not share things on social media then you are addressing digital literacy.
Preparing students for a digital world
The teacher trainer in me appreciates it when a teacher raises a question that makes me pause so thank you to those that questioned whose job it is. After reflection I stand by my original answer, I think all educators go beyond their subject when they teach. Digital literacy is a life skill that goes hand in hand with language teaching. Not only is it a complement to what we do in the classroom but with teaching becoming ever more digital if we want our students to learn digitally then we have a duty to make sure they do it safely and knowledgeably no matter what subject we teach.
Get free resources on Digital Literacy, and a sneak peek at our brand-new course!
Watch our live stream recording, where our experts shared their tips and advice on enhancing digital literacy.
Shaun Wilden is an education technologist who teaches and trains both face-to-face and online courses. He is the academic manager for online courses for the International House World Organisation overseeing their suite of asynchronous teacher development courses. He also teaches digital literacy as well as short courses in teaching online at the University of Oxford. His latest book, Mobile Learning, was published by Oxford University Press. In his spare time, he makes the TEFL commute podcast for teachers and plays board games.