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Digital Literacy in K–12 Classrooms: Learning to Decode before Learning to Code

One might expect the first generation of digital natives, those who grew up immersed in digital technology, to be more media savvy than those for whom the language of digital culture has been a more recent, and sometimes difficult, acquisition. Today’s digital natives are in almost constant contact with digital media, and yet they haven’t necessarily been taught to read it. In other words, computer literacy is one skill, and digital literacy—the ability to find, evaluate, use, share, and create content using information technologies and the Internet—is quite another.

While digital literacy has already been incorporated into some educational settings, advocates argue for more and earlier exposure. Many high school and college students learn the important codes and protocol of Internet research and scholarship, but children as young as three to five years old have access to almost limitless content. Rather than fear the impact of digital technology on children’s brains and attention spans, the digital literacy movement recognizes that navigating our rapidly changing society and growing digital culture is critical in preparing students to be informed citizens of a democracy and to be successful professionals. As stated by the National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE), “we need to develop a wider set of literacy skills, helping us to both comprehend the messages we receive and effectively utilize these tools to design and distribute our own messages. Being literate in a media age requires critical thinking skills that empower us as we make decisions, whether in the classroom, the living room, the workplace, the boardroom, or the voting booth.”

Advocates of early digital literacy education maintain that teaching young students these critical-thinking skills is as important as teaching traditional reading and writing. Recent research by the Institute for Prospective Technological Studies (IPTS), suggests that teaching children how to critically evaluate information and computer technologies (ICT) is vital for living, learning, and working in today’s society. As NAMLE argues, empowered media participation is an essential life skill for the twenty-first century.  Just as humanities education is critical for participation in a democratic society, so too is early and lifelong media and digital literacy education, from kindergarten through college and beyond.

So what is being done in K–12 classrooms to equip students early on with the digital literacy they will need to thrive? Curricula look different depending on grade, a school’s readiness and commitment, and educators’ ability to integrate digital learning into already existing curricula. In the earliest grades, students need lessons about online safety and how the online world is connected to the real world. As students move through the primary grades and into middle and high school, digital citizenship, digital civility, and critical thinking become the focus. For example, the Center for Media Literacy lays out six questions in a media literacy tool kit for students to consider when gauging the credibility of an online source:

  1. Who created it?
  2. Why did they create it?
  3. Whom is the message for?
  4. What techniques are being used to make this message credible?
  5. What details were left out and why?
  6. How did the message make me feel?

The tool kit details these key questions and related core concepts for educators to explore with students. This guide is just one of many resources available to educators as they try to navigate this essential shift in pedagogical method and theory. Google has recently launched a multifaceted digital literacy program called Be Internet Awesome, which includes interactive educational games to teach Internet safety, curriculum guides, and other resources. The International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) has issued standards that can be used by educators and administrators to redesign curricula for digital-age learning.

In the forthcoming MLA Guide to Digital Literacy, Ellen Carillo argues that it is critically important for students to become digitally literate, particularly in what has been described as a post-truth America or the era of fake news. As our society moves deeper into the digital age, and now that exposure to digital culture and communication begins soon after birth, digital literacy cannot wait. It’s not enough to know how to code. For this generation of digital natives to be informed and responsible citizens, we need to teach students, starting as early as kindergarten, to decode.

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