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  • Writer's pictureJeffrey Hinton

Digital Literacy: What it is and Why We Need to Teach It

Today's students are digital natives. That is, they were born into a world that has always known personal computers, the internet, smartphones, and digital gaming. As a result, it can be assumed that these children are highly proficient in their use. Unfortunately, this could be further from the truth. A multi-year study conducted by revealed that 75 percent of fifth and eighth graders are non-proficient in 21st-century skills. The study involved over 110,000 students who took the 21st Century Skills Assessment from 2012-2017, which measured the digital literacy skills in the International Society for Technology in Education standards or I.S.T.E. According to C.E.O., Keith Oelrich, "When we look at the test scores for this significant sample of students, it is alarming to see that the vast majority of fifth and eighth-graders did not have the digital skills necessary for success in college and their future careers – not to mention high school, which is right around the corner,"

The American Library Association's digital literacy task force defines digital literacy as: "The ability to use information and communication technologies to find, evaluate, create, and communicate information, requiring both cognitive and technical skills." Professor of literacy and technology at North Carolina State, Hiller Spires, points out that digital literacy consists of three major components. 1) finding and consuming digital content; 2) creating digital content, and 3) communicating or sharing it. A recent report indicates that teens spend, on average, seven hours and 22 minutes a day on their phones. That time consists of mostly watching videos and playing games and does not include screen time for schoolwork. While young people might be competent at finding and consuming entertainment online, they cannot distinguish between commercially influenced sources and peer-reviewed and academic sources. The so-called "Google generation" often lacks the patience and knowledge to conduct meaningful internet searches, as demonstrated by the fact that less than 10 percent of searchers click "Next" beyond Google's first page of results.

The democratization of the internet, to include the proliferation of Web 2.0 or the social web, has enabled internet users to create, distribute and interact with original content on blogs, wikis, folksonomies, video and photo sharing sites, and other social media. Over 1,000 new websites are created every minute of every day. While many users do so for altruistic purposes, some misuse the technology to do harm. For example, in 2016, the Pew research center conducted a study just after the presidential election in which they found that 64% of adults believed that fake news stories caused a great deal of confusion. 23% of respondents reported that they had shared fake news stories online. While most had done so unintentionally, some admitted to doing so on purpose. A recent Stanford University study examined middle school, high school, and university students' ability to assess the internet's information. The results indicate that students have difficulty understanding how to evaluate content for bias, reliability, and veracity. According to the study, "Many assume that because young people are fluent in social media, they are equally savvy about what they find there, our work shows the opposite." For example, more than 80 percent of middle schoolers believed that 'sponsored content' was the equivalent of a real news story. Most high school students blindly accepted photographs as presented without verifying or challenging them, not understanding that images can be manipulated to influence public opinion. Additionally, they couldn't tell the difference between a fake news story and a real one on Facebook. The study found that most college students could not detect bias in a tweet from an activist group with a discernable political agenda. Even students from Stanford, one of the nation's most elite colleges, could not correctly identify the difference between mainstream and fringe sources found online. Taken together, these findings indicate that our students are not equipped to critically evaluate and consume online information, which can have serious educational, political, economic, and personal consequences. Digital literacy will become increasingly more critical as technology continues to evolve. For example, artificial intelligence and deep learning technology have been used to create video forgeries known as deep fakes. Deepfakes essentially transpose real and fictional faces onto actors creating realistic videos that appear true to life. Deepfakes have a wider-range of useful purposes, such as restoring old video footage, resurrecting deceased actors to reprise roles in new movies, creating personal avatars to be used in professional settings. Retailers have even designed apps that use deepfake technology so that users can try on new clothes, eyeglasses, and hairstyles. And while the technology used by major movie studios and retailers is expensive and not accessible to the general public, less expensive apps have been created, allowing anyone to create authentic-looking deepfake videos. Just as all technology can be used for good and evil, deepfakes have the potential to be used for fraudulent purposes. That is why students must be taught the skills to analyze content to identify dubious content critically.

There are steps that students can take to become more critical consumers of online content. According to Evaluating Wikipedia, internet users should ask themselves the following questions. Who is the author of the website? Are they qualified to write on a given topic? Do they have professional credentials? If no author is listed, what does the domain name or web address reveal about the website? Students should ask themselves what the intended purpose of the website is? Was it created to inform, explain, persuade, or sell a product? Students should have the skills to know how to tell the difference. Also, students should be able to discern objectivity. In other words, they should know if the information presented is a fact, opinion, or propaganda. They need to understand how to detect bias from language and how the information is presented. Students ask themselves if the information accurate? Does the website contradict what they already know about a given topic? Are there links to source information so that the content can be verified beyond the website? Has the content been peer-reviewed or refereed? Students should question the credibility of the source. In other words, can the information contained on the website be trusted? Does it come from a reputable source such as a university, the government, or an established and trusted company or industry? Is the website current, has it been recently updated? Do all of the links work? Do they lead to reputable sources of information? Does the website contain spelling and grammar errors that might indicate the site was created for nefarious purposes? Students must develop the habits of mind to ask critical questions about all information consumed online and in the disconnected world to become savvy consumers of digital content.

Today's students do not only need to know how to find and evaluate sources of information, but they must be proficient at creating and disseminating content. There are many reasons why students should become digital content creators. One is the pride students take in creating something authentic and relevant. Unlike physical projects like poster boards, shoebox dioramas, and research papers, online content can be seen by multitudes of people worldwide. This creates a sense of ownership, purpose, and importance because they know their content could be seen by a greater audience beyond the classroom walls, including them to a global community of learners. Additionally, creating digital content will allow for interactions between the creator and the consumer that might challenge their points of view, the status quo, and conventional ways of thinking. This is especially important in heterogeneous classrooms that don't have the opportunity to hear diverse perspectives. Creating digital content such as blogs, vlogs, digital books, memes, documentary and explainer videos, and slideshows, to name a few, help students develop 21st-century skills by giving them real-world, hands-on experiences. As the world continues to be transformed by technology, employers are looking for skilled workers in today's digital tools and platforms.

Creating online content helps students to become good digital citizens. Digital citizenship is difficult to define because it means different things to different people. Still, according to Matthew Lynch of EducationWeek, digital citizenship is merely using technology responsibly and ethically. Using technology responsibly implies that users are thoughtful and intentional in their online activity. In other words, they treat other users how they want to be treated; in other words, a cyber Golden Rule. A popular acronym suggests that we T.H.I.N.K. before posting online. This means that we should ask ourselves the following questions, T=Is it true? H=Is it helpful? I=Is it inspiring? N=Is it necessary? And K=Is it kind? Following this advice could significantly reduce incidences of cyberbullying and other malicious acts perpetrated online. Another way to think about responsibly using technology is to conduct oneself online the same way one would in real life. In other words, users should never say or do anything online that they wouldn't say or do in front of their own family. Digital citizens must be ethical. This means that they should never appropriate anything from the web that they do not have a legal right to. This includes giving proper attributions to all materials that were created and produced by someone else. Students should also understand the rules related to the public domain, copyright, trademark, patent laws, and the creative commons and royalty-free media.

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