Digital Literacy in the Elementary Classroom: A Necessary Foundation

Today, digital technologies are more central to our daily lives than ever before. However, many people lack access to, or knowledge of, critical digital skills that are necessary to use online platforms. To ensure that every person is able to navigate the internet, schools should consider implementing a digital literacy curriculum.

Digital literacy in the elementary classroom can provide significant benefits to students. The younger a child begins to feel comfortable while using digital tools, the more successful they are likely to be later on in life.

How Children Develop Digital Literacy Skills

Digital literacy refers to the ability to use internet and communication technologies (ICT) to find, evaluate, use, and communicate online information. Through the process of gaining digital proficiency, children can strengthen their critical thinking skills and build a strong foundation for future endeavors.

Why Digital Literacy Is Important

Digital skills are becoming more and more critical for work, school, and daily life. In fact, the United Kingdom’s House of Lords issued a statement in 2017 on the important of digital intelligence. The report reiterated the importance of digital skills in the twenty-first century and called for digital literacy to be the fourth pillar of education alongside math, reading, and writing.

At the same time, many people lack the knowledge and ability to navigate the internet, especially children. According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), 1.3 billion children from age three to seventeen lack internet access at home. This amounts to two-thirds of the world’s school-age children.

As the internet and ICT devices become more complex and advanced, children who are not digitally literate will continue to fall further behind. According to UNICEF, digital literacy is a key component of skills development among elementary-age children. Children’s education, future job opportunities, and overall welfare will depend on how well they understand the digital world.

Key Digital Literacy Skills for Children

The internet is a growing marketplace of content, but not all content is safe or reliable. A strong digital foundation is necessary to navigate the online world, and young children should understand key concepts to stay safe online.

In the elementary classroom, children should learn the following skills.

  • Basic computer skills: Not all children have access to a digital device at home. Children should know the basics of how to use a computer and use basic programs on the device, such as the web browser and word processor.
  • Reliable information: Children should know how to distinguish between an unreliable and reliable source of information on the internet. Educators should teach students about bias in articles and how to identify unreliable sources while researching online. Students should be able to fact-check information and verify the credibility of individual websites as well.
  • Plagiarism: Teaching students how to properly cite sources is a critical skill in general. However, many elementary students are unaware of plagiarism and its consequences. Educators should ensure that children know how to properly use information from online sources and the importance of citations.
  • Online etiquette: The internet has a unique landscape with various terms and social rules that students should know. Children should understand internet language and how to properly communicate online. Additionally, educators should emphasize the importance of good digital citizenship and remind students to treat everyone with respect, even if they are a stranger on the internet.

The Importance of Teaching Digital Safety in the Classroom

Children face serious challenges and dangers online, including bullying, false information, and criminal activity and predation. Online platforms, especially social media sites, can also contribute to mental health and body image issues for young people. Children may experience feelings of isolation, detachment, and inadequacy.

To avoid harm, it is critical for children to become digitally literate early on. By implementing a digital safety curriculum in the elementary classroom, educators can support and guide their students as they engage with the online world.

There are key internet safety tips that elementary students should know. For example, students should never share personal or sensitive information online—publicly or in private conversations. If a student witnesses cyberbullying or any dangerous activity online, they should notify a responsible adult as soon as possible. A student should also ask for help if someone online is asking for private information or making the child feel uncomfortable in any way.

What Digital Literacy Looks Like in an Elementary Classroom

Digital proficiency is a continuous process, not a skill that a child can learn overnight. For digital literacy initiatives to be sustainable and effective, elementary students need to learn base skills and continue to build, grow, and apply them over time.

The Impact of Digital Literacy on Students

In today’s educational environment, digital skills and digital literacy are more important than ever before. Children who are digitally proficient are critical thinkers. They are able to leverage information on the internet to support various endeavors, whether they are working on a school project or applying for postsecondary education.

Children without digital literacy skills can miss out on key opportunities, widening the socioeconomic gap that often defines the digital divide. This digital skill gap can follow a person well into adulthood, impacting their ability to obtain advanced education or a higher-paying job.

Students can also suffer in the short term as well. As more teachers invest in digital technologies to support their students, those without digital skills can fall behind in the classroom as well. Students may be unable to complete their assignments or research information for a project, leading them to fall behind their peers.

Classroom Technologies for Elementary Students

To build digital literacy at the elementary level, students need to know not only the basics of the internet but also how to apply the skills they learn in real-world contexts. As a result, teachers are bringing new technologies to the classroom, especially in the age of remote learning. Using these technologies, their students can strengthen their applied digital skills.

In addition to laptop and desktop computers, teachers are adopting many types of modern classroom technologies.

  • Smartboards: Unlike traditional whiteboards or chalkboards, smartboards have a digital display that offer more interactive learning experiences for students. A teacher can display photos, videos, and online content alongside a lesson plan and augment the learning experience.
  • Tablets: Some schools are equipping elementary classrooms with tablets where students can access online content, books, articles, and educational games and applications. These handheld devices enable improved content interaction and are typically cheaper to supply than a laptop.
  • Smart tables: A close relative of the smartboard, smart tables are digital displays available for students to use. Children can engage with content at their seats, providing learning opportunities beyond watching the teacher lecture.
  • Virtual reality devices: Virtual or augmented reality is just starting to be used in the classroom, due in part to the increase in distance learning. Virtual reality devices enable students to experience lessons in 3-D renderings, providing a more interactive learner experience.

How to Use Digital Literacy in the Elementary Classroom

Students in elementary school are just beginning to create a digital footprint and learn to use various devices. Some children may not interact with a digital tool outside of school. As a result, teaching digital literacy at the elementary level can be challenging.

Educators can use the following tips to support digital literacy instruction and help all elementary students better understand key concepts.

  • Stay grade appropriate. Apply appropriate pedagogical techniques for the child’s grade level. Children who are older require a different teaching approach than very young children. Keep lessons for younger children simple, and delve into more advanced topics for older students.
  • Drive interaction. Hands-on learning is incredibly valuable for digital literacy. Students need to use and engage with ICT devices in order to truly learn how to use them. To drive retention, educators can implement opportunities for students to apply what they learn in their lessons to in-class activities. For example, an educator can take children on a virtual field trip to visit places around the world. Students can simultaneously use the internet to learn about the significance of each location.
  • Leverage online resources. Educators around the world are sharing resources online, such as lesson plans, teaching tips, and even open-source software programs. Teachers can leverage these resources to support lesson development and inform their pedagogies.
  • Apply it to real life. To teach children about digital technology and media literacy, use real-world examples to explain online situations and applications. Relating technology to real life can make it easier for younger students to conceptualize and understand. For example, teachers can use a traffic light game to have students evaluate the risk level of internet content. If a website feels unsafe, for example, students could flag it as a red light.

How to Create a Digital Literacy Curriculum for Elementary School Students

Building an effective, long-term digital literacy course is key to help students navigate today’s digital world. However, many educators face difficulties designing curricula, securing funding, or gaining support for implementation.

Digital learning is a continual process as well as a collective effort. Teachers, administrators, parents, and students can all play a role in closing the digital divide by supporting critical digital literacy initiatives.

Key Components of a Digital Literacy Curriculum

Aside from teaching basic computer skills, a digital literacy curriculum should focus on three key learning units. As students advance their digital literacy skill set, teachers can go into more depth within various topics to support their growth.

These components will help elementary students build the foundational skills that they need to use the internet.

  • Finding reliable information online: Students need to know how to use online search engines, evaluate the credibility of websites, and identify low-quality, potentially false information. Educators should teach students how to use online search engines to find information, such as using shortcuts to find content from government and educational domains. Students should also learn critical thinking skills and be able to identify common signs of unreliable information, such as grammar or spelling mistakes, biased language, and heavy advertisements.
  • Using online resources ethically: Citing sources properly is a key digital skill. Educators should teach the basics of plagiarism and intellectual property and explain how to credit information from the internet. Students should know what plagiarism looks like and how to summarize sources appropriately.
  • Staying safe while using the internet: Students should know the basics of online safety, such as keeping personal information private and creating strong passwords to protect accounts. Educators can go more in depth and teach students about online scams, online bullying, and managing their digital footprint.

The Role of Administrators in Strengthening Digital Literacy

Administrators play a central role in strengthening digital literacy for students. These individuals can support teachers in securing funding for digital skills courses. School leadership can even spearhead digital literacy initiatives by themselves, leading the way to technology integration.

Educators may need support in developing curricula, obtaining ICT devices for students to use, and planning hands-on activities to further digital skills. Administrators can streamline these processes by obtaining support from key stakeholders, identifying sources of funding, and supporting lesson development.

Building Digital Literacy for the Future

For young students, digital intelligence is becoming more and more integral for work, school, and daily life. For these reasons, digital literacy in the elementary classroom is an essential requirement. With a digital literacy curriculum in place, a student can strengthen key skills early on, and they’ll be poised to become a good digital citizen.

To learn more about building digital literacy, check out the IEEE Standard for Digital Intelligence (DQ)—Framework for Digital Literacy, Skills, and Readiness.

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