What is Digital Literacy?

Before use of the internet exploded in the mid-1990s, the question, What is digital literacy? coincided with how to use a computer. The simple process of turning on and using a device required some proficiency. Early PCs required understanding a computer’s physical assembly: connecting cables, inserting floppy disks, and booting the operating system with MS-DOS.

But the meaning of digital literacy has evolved in today’s digital world. And as online systems become more complex, the definitions of digital literacy and computer literacy have diverged. Computer literacy now refers to aptitude with the elements that run the computer itself: motherboards, operating systems, and peripherals. On the other hand, digital literacy has come to include everything a user might do on the internet.

Society has come to rely on obtaining, interpreting, and managing digital content. Digital literacy skills have become crucial to education, employment, and global citizenship in the digital society of the twenty-first century.

Definition of Digital Literacy

Digital literacy encompasses the entire digital ecosystem. This includes internet literacy: how to find information and understand what’s dangerous. Furthermore, digital literacy includes how to use and benefit from technology on a daily basis.

What Are Digital Skills?

Digital literacy encompasses five key areas, according to the European Union’s Digital Competence Framework for Citizens, known as DigComp:

  1. Information and media literacy: Finding and accessing knowledge on the internet, and storing and managing digital information
  2. Communication and collaboration: Learning how to manage an online identity as well as knowing how to interact with others online
  3. Digital content creation: Accessing the digital tools to create and edit digital content for computers
  4. Safety: Learning how to protect personal information online and identify scammers, as well as understanding how to protect social and mental health while using technology
  5. Problem solving: Learning to use online resources to innovate and keep up-to-date on evolving technology

What Are Examples of Digital Literacy Skills?

A digital literacy framework goes beyond basic computer knowledge, such as understanding how to turn the computer on and off with confidence and accessing its operating system. What is digital literacy? It involves proficient use of basic software packages, such as word processing. Document management, whether locally on a hard drive or in the cloud, also is critical to digital literacy.

Furthermore, social media savvy is important not only in terms of accessing information but also evaluating its truthfulness. Hand-in-hand with proficient use of social media is protection of personal information.

And as the population becomes more and more competent in an online environment, learning how to code is another useful skill. A basic knowledge of HTML, the universal language for coding websites, for example, provides additional understanding of information literacy.

Where Is Digital Literacy Relevant?

Digital citizenship refers to the safe and responsible use of technology for a meaningful purpose, according to a research paper from the 2018 International Symposium on Educational Technology. Globally, countries have emphasized the practices of good digital citizenship for students beginning at an early age.

The education systems of many countries have begun to emphasize digital access and inclusion, according to the book Educating 21st Century Children: Emotional Well-Being in the Digital Age. A twenty-first century education involves teaching children not only technology skills but also how to manage their psychological well-being while using digital platforms.

Moreover, many populations face barriers to digital literacy. In particular, a paper by Dutch researchers published in the journal New Media & Society found several factors to be relevant to the development of digital literacy. These factors included gender, age, income, employment, and disability. However, the researchers found that skills training and an emphasis on access can help improve digital literacy in these populations.

Role of Digital Literacy in Society

According to the American Library Association’s Digital Literacy Taskforce, a digitally literate person uses digital skills to participate in civic society. This means that an informed and responsible digital citizen contributes to vibrant community engagement.

Why Is Digital Literacy Important?

Using digital tools is a catalyst to education in the twenty-first century, according to a study from the 2020 IEEE Asia-Pacific Conference on Computer Science and Data Engineering. In the study, researchers used a digital literacy tool to measure the digital competence of first-year university students. They found that 86 percent of the students were average to highly digitally literate. The study concluded that the digital competency of today’s students is of utmost importance because technology has changed how students learn.

What Happens without Digital Skills?

Novice computer users are at risk for certain dangers, what some researchers have labeled “cyber risks,” according to a March 2021 paper in the journal Nature Human Behaviour.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic forced a surge in online access, many children were suffering from insufficient digital skills. In fact, 60 percent of children between the ages of eight and twelve across thirty countries were exposed to at least one cyber risk, the 2020 Child Online Safety Index reported. These risks included invasion of privacy, fake news, and obscene content.

In addition, a lack of knowledge of how to handle an online environment can open the door to cyber bullying or the potential for risky meetings. And as the digital landscape becomes more prevalent, digital skills involve today’s students learning how to manage time online to prevent technology addiction.

How Can Digital Literacy Help Contribute to Society?

In September 2020, the IEEE Standards Board approved the world’s first global standard related to digital literacy. This involved developing a digital literacy framework that standardized the definition of digital literacy, enabling an objective method of measuring success in the acquisition of digital skills.

In developing this framework, the Standards Board brought together major telecom operators as well as government agencies. Together, they created a plan to develop a person as a digital citizen, whether a young student or a senior. The benefits include:

  1. Helping nations to build their own curricula to foster digital literacy
  2. Creating shared definitions of terms so that government, industry, and schools can coordinate efforts to improve digital skills
  3. Enabling the identification of gaps in media literacy and allocation of resources to address this digital divide
  4. Increasing job opportunities and the expansion of a digital economy

Barriers to Digital Literacy

The COVID-19 pandemic revealed gaps in digital literacy skills in several sectors. Many students faced challenges when in-person school shutdowns forced them to switch rapidly to online learning.

What Are Common Barriers to Digital Literacy?

First, many rural areas lack access to high-speed broadband internet. A 2020 report from BroadbandNow estimated that at least forty-two million US residents across all fifty states lack access to broadband.

The authors of an IEEE white paper, “Options and Challenges in Providing Universal Access,” found five barriers to universal internet access: infrastructure, cost, availability, disinterest, and digital literacy. This creates a paradox. Digital literacy training requires internet access, but those who lack access to the internet cannot develop the use of digital resources.

In other words, a person who lacks competence in using a digital device likely will not have interest in online access or awareness of the internet’s potential. Furthermore, lack of awareness can cause fear of an online environment.

Who Is Most Affected by Barriers to Digital Literacy?

A 2018 report by the US Department of Education, “A Description of US Adults Who Are Not Digitally Literate,” described common factors in adult populations who lack digital literacy. They are likely less educated, older, and more likely to be Black, Hispanic, or foreign born. Furthermore, adults who lack digital skills have a lower employment rate or work in lower-skilled jobs than those who are digitally proficient, further increasing the digital divide.

Generally, digital literacy correlates with education level, the report found. For example, 41 percent of American adults without a high school diploma were not digitally literate. By contrast, just 5 percent of adults with a college degree lacked digital skills.

In addition, age affects digital inclusion. Only 9 percent of people aged 16 to 24 ranked as “not digitally literate.” By contrast, 62 percent of older adults, aged 45 to 65, were not digitally literate.

And the report found that the percentage of Black adults who lacked digital literacy was twice that of White adults. The percentage of Hispanic adults was three times that of White adults.

What Overcomes Barriers to Digital Literacy?

The Biden administration’s “American Jobs Plan” includes an effort to overcome access as a barrier to digital inclusion. The package includes $100 billion in infrastructure investment to expand broadband coverage to 100 percent of the United States.

But beyond access, most schools do not teach the basics of navigating the digital ecosystem, including internet literacy. These fundamentals include understanding data privacy and encryption, which refers to securing digital data by using a mathematical algorithm to encode information. Understanding online security also involves learning how to check a website’s SSL certificate, a data file that helps a digital device verify a server’s identity.

In short, digital literacy involves educating the population on how to use a digital device to obtain a goal. This could be accessing information, sending messages, shopping, or transferring money. The challenge for an educator involves teaching the navigation of online environments to be as intuitive as knowing how to behave in a real-life neighborhood.

Methods to Foster Digital Literacy

Investments in infrastructure and programs in digital learning form the foundation of improving digital literacy.

Fostering Digital Literacy in Elementary School Students

Recognizing the need for affordable information services for schools and libraries, the Federal Communications Commission instituted its E-Rate program in 1996. At the time, just 14 percent of American K-12 classrooms had access to the internet.

The E-Rate program provides discounts on telecommunications and internet services to schools, including Wi-Fi. The discounts range from 20 to 90 percent, with up to $4.276 billion in funding available for 2021.

Also, the Department of Education’s 21st Century Community Learning Centers program supports digital technology education for students outside of school hours. These programs go beyond helping today’s students, particularly those in low-performing schools, in core subjects such as reading and math. The programs also focus on technology education for these students.

Developing Digital Literacy in Adults

Approximately 16 percent of adults in the United States lack basic digital skills, according to the nonprofit Digital Promise. Digital skills are necessary for adults to succeed in the modern workforce. Indeed, more than 50 percent of available US jobs require advanced skills, according to SkillRise, an initiative of the International Society for Technology in Education.

The Department of Education also emphasizes digital literacy for adult learners. Its Division of Adult Education and Literacy provides funding for adults in a range of initiatives, including STEM classes and college and career readiness. These programs include access to digital technology so that adults can learn to find work and advance in their careers by improving digital literacy.

Advancement of Digital Skills

Accessing and understanding how to use emerging technologies affects all aspects of modern life, not just education and information gathering, according to the Internet Association. This trade association, which represents internet companies on matters of public policy, had a number of other significant findings.

In the United Kingdom, for example, in 2018 consumers saved the equivalent of US $970 million by shopping online. Other studies found that banking and food shopping over the internet resulted in the equivalent of US $13 billion in time savings in a year. Clearly, the question, What is digital literacy? changes as society progresses, going beyond education to encompass all aspects of daily life.

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