Digital Literacy in Higher Education: A Key Area to Close the Digital Divide

Technology is everywhere and is now an integral part of societies worldwide. As a result, a digital divide has formed between people who have digital skills and people who do not. This divide prevents people without digital skills from advancing in their careers and getting higher-paying opportunities. It’s particularly important to teach digital literacy in higher education, helping students to get caught up and learn digital skills before they start their career.

The solution to closing the digital divide is not simple. Because students come from different backgrounds and have different resources, it’s challenging to meet every student’s needs in an environment like higher education. Higher education schools must invest in a multifaceted approach in developing digital literacies to keep students from falling behind further as technology advances, and more jobs require greater digital skills.

What Digital Literacy Means in Higher Education

According to the American Library Association, people are digitally literate if they understand how to “use information and communication technologies to find, evaluate, create, and communicate information.” In addition to basic computer literacy, digitally literate people have the technical and cognitive skills to handle the following tasks, among others:

  • use a variety of digital devices and tools, including computers, mobile devices, and programs
  • understand how to effectively search through digital content online
  • distinguish low-quality sources from reputable sources online
  • use social media platforms and create social media content
  • avoid scams and keep private information safe
  • communicate and collaborate with others online

Many factors contribute to digital literacy, including access to technology, access to the internet, and knowledge about how to use this technology. It’s not enough to provide basic technology and internet access. It’s important to invest in initiatives like 5G research areas to make sure students have access to fast and reliable internet. Programs helping students understand the capabilities of technology must also ensure the tools are used effectively.

Why Digital Literacy Is Important for Future Careers

College prepares students for their careers, making digital literacy skills especially important in higher education settings. According to studies by Burning Glass Technologies, 82 percent of middle-skill jobs require digital skills. Additionally, middle-skill jobs that require digital skills offer higher pay than middle-skill jobs that don’t require digital skills. Teaching digital skills in higher education means that students can graduate better prepared for future careers. And students can also use advancements in technology to gain a better education while still in school.

Why Digital Literacy Is Important for College Success

Digital tools, such as online portals, are important in higher education because they facilitate more advanced teaching and grading. In writing classes, submitting essays online allows the educator to automatically detect plagiarism, for example. However, a learner is at a disadvantage if he or she is not familiar with these digital tools.

Even though higher education students today have grown up in the information age, not all young people feel equally equipped to use technology. According to a 2021 survey from Western Governors University, 20 percent of students reported struggling to learn how to use educational technologies in online courses. In the same study, nearly 8.8 percent of students said they didn’t feel confident in their ability to adapt to new technologies in their courses.

Without access to the best technology or a firm understanding of how to use digital tools like assignment portals, students can struggle to keep up with assignments.

The Benefits of Teaching Digital Literacy to Higher Education Students

In addition to preparing students for future endeavors, a key benefit of digital literacy to college students is that digital skills allow them to engage more fully with their studies. Teachers can make learning more advanced and interactive using digital tools.

In libraries, digitally literate students have access to a wider breadth of resources with online databases and digital archives. In the classroom, students can engage with lectures using clickers that allow them to respond to survey questions in real time.

With technology maturation, new tools and automation capabilities become available over time. One recent example of this maturation is the faster access to online resources enabled by integrating 5G and higher education.

How Digital Literacy Affects Academic Performance

Because students and educators use digital tools throughout higher education today, digital literacy greatly affects the academic performance of students. In the following examples, students without digital skills are at a disadvantage to their peers who have had the opportunity to develop digital skills:

  • Students typically perform research by searching online databases. Without digital skills, students may rely on physical sources in a library, which can take longer to sift through and may not be as comprehensive.
  • Students often need to interact with online portals for submitting assignments or managing scholarships. Without digital skills, students may struggle to complete assignments on time and can miss out on financial scholarship opportunities.
  • Students during the COVID-19 pandemic needed to quickly shift from in-person learning to virtual classes. Students without technology, a reliable internet connection, or an understanding of programs for video conferencing couldn’t participate.

Why to Invest in Media Literacy

Media literacy is a subset of digital literacy. It requires individuals to critically evaluate media rather than passively consuming it. Media literacy is particularly important as technology and internet access become more readily available and people have more exposure to a variety of information sources. Individuals must be able to understand and analyze the messages they hear so that they can form their own educated conclusions.

To increase media literacy, societies must teach general information literacy and critical thinking, which is often more challenging than finding funding for more physical resources. It’s important to teach these foundational skills to higher education students, though, because the payoff is great. By investing in media literacy, schools can develop well-rounded students with the capability to use their critical thinking skills to improve society and make a difference.

How to Prioritize Digital Literacy in Higher Education

The definition of a necessary digital literacy skill continues to evolve in higher education as new technology becomes available and the structure of higher education changes. When the COVID-19 pandemic caused many schools to move to virtual learning, the benchmark for digital literacy expanded to include a larger set of skills. For example, students needed to be able to avoid digital distractions while engaging with a virtual classroom. Students in higher education will need to continue to adapt to keep up with the evolving definition of digital literacy and the formation of new literacies.

While educational institutions expect students to gain some digital skills over time, students must grasp some core digital skills now. To achieve digital literacy and succeed in higher education, a student must have the following basic digital skills:

  • the ability to independently research, which includes knowing how to search and how to identify reliable sources
  • a familiarity with common software and platforms, such as web browsers and word processing applications
  • the ability to adapt to new digital technology by applying existing knowledge to understand new innovations

Schools and policy makers need to make interventions both at the policy level and at the local level to prioritize digital literacy in adult education. To address inequalities, they might need to give specific students dedicated aid or tutoring. Or leaders might need to seek broader funding to provide access to the latest technology across the campus. Each school must determine the specific needs of its students to identify the right solution.

The amount of money necessary to prioritize digital literacy in college students will depend on the demographics of students in the school. In some schools, most students will already have basic digital skills, so there won’t be a need for many initiatives. In other schools, students could be far behind, and the costs could be high. The first step to prioritizing digital literacy is assessing the needs at an individual school. Then, leadership at the school can plan the best course of action to close the gap between the digitally literate and illiterate. These leaders can best prioritize digital literacy by analyzing its current state, setting metrics-based goals for the future, and making programs available to students in need.

Why Digital Literacy Demands New Thinking from Higher Education

Technology is changing the future of higher education as schools adopt new innovations into the learning experience. Some educators are even testing innovations like virtual reality computer simulations for an immersive digital learning experience and artificial intelligence “teaching assistants” to answer questions at any time. Other innovations include subscription-based models for enrollment, such as the one being piloted at Boise State University. With this model, students could pay by the month for online courses, allowing them to move through their education more quickly.

How to Address the Challenges of Digital Literacy in Higher Education

As these changes progress, leaders in higher education must think creatively to continue promoting digital literacy so disadvantaged students don’t fall further behind. Here are a few ideas for how to address common challenges to improving digital literacy in higher education:

  • Lack of funding. New technology and training programs require funding, and many schools already have tight budgets. Leaders in higher education can consider campaigning to raise funding specifically for digital strategy initiatives. By using metrics to show a program’s impact on students, leaders may be able to raise ongoing support from donors.
  • Insufficient infrastructure. Students need access to fast, secure internet connections in the classroom, but older infrastructure may no longer support the number of devices on campus. School administrators should consult with industry experts to analyze existing infrastructure and design future-proof network solutions.
  • Insufficient training. Teachers and students alike may not be familiar with new technology. Consider offering fun training sessions with rewards so that everyone understands how to use the tools and can focus on learning in the digital environment of the classroom.
  • Susceptibility to misinformation. With the amount of information available on the internet, students must think critically when evaluating sources. However, if they are not taught the digital skills for distinguishing a reputable source from an unsavory one, students can become victims of scams or misinformation. Critical thinking is a skill that is important for digital literacy in higher education because it teaches students to use digital tools carefully regardless of the project.

The digital skills gap is not a new problem. Since the advent of computers in the twentieth century, a divide has been forming between people with access to technology and people without. However, society must use new ways of thinking to close the gap and prevent individuals from falling further behind.

Digital literacy demands new thinking in higher education in particular because colleges and universities offer the last chance for training before a career. By employing creative solutions to promote digital literacy at this level, educators can reach students before they embark on a career path. That way, educators can teach them the skills to help them succeed and pass down knowledge to future generations.

How to Join a Community Promoting Digital Literacy

To continue making progress toward universal digital literacy in higher education, people from different backgrounds need to join together to come up with creative solutions. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) is the world’s largest technical professional organization for the advancement of technology. By joining the IEEE community, you can stay up to date on topics like digital literacy and participate in initiatives that promote digital citizenship through public policy.

Interested in becoming an IEEE member? Joining this community of over 420,000 technology and engineering professionals will give you access to the resources and opportunities you need to keep on top of changes in technology, as well as help you get involved in standards development, network with other professionals in your local area or within a specific technical interest, mentor the next generation of engineers and technologists, and so much more.