Teaching Your Students Digital Literacy

They’re called ‘Digital Natives’

Students graduating from high school today have always had access to high speed internet. For much of their lives, access has been readily available. This unprecedented connectivity has given rise to a new term: ‘digital native.’

Digital natives are the ones who have grown and developed alongside the internet, and will never experience life prior to social media. Many never know a life without an online presence.

Those of us born before social media have a new name as well: ‘digital immigrants.’ It’s a little silly, these names, but the underlying concept is that today’s children and students are more fluent in navigating the digital landscape than adults. Many take this as a call to remaining hands-off when it comes to the internet – leave it to the children to figure their way around, because they have always had it.


But in avoiding the topic of digital literacy, we let the younger generation of students down. Our generation may not have grown up with a Facebook persona, but it is still our duty to pass on what we know to the next generation.

What is digital literacy?

Digital literacy covers such a broad range of topics, but has gathered a lot of attention over the past few years. Students would do best to learn how to specify their search terms so that they can conduct better research for their work. But this is only a technical challenge. The biggest challenges lie beyond technical expertise.

Not only should students learn to use digital tools properly, but they must also discern fact from fiction, and understand the consequences of their online actions. The digital landscape is murky and the line between private and public is not always apparent. Certainly, the challenges that students face online are unique to their generation, as information has never been so readily accessible, nor have our words ever been so permanent.

Fact or Fiction?

Search engines run by algorithms, and though many companies are trying to find a solution, there is no reliable way to determine the truthfulness of any given search.

With words like ‘fake news’ being thrown around, it’s important to educate young students on the trademarks of false information, and to guide them toward reliable sources. Online resources such as Coursera offer classes on discerning between reliable sources and non-reliable sources. Microsoft runs a digital literacy course, as does Cornell University. These are all free and available to anyone with an internet connection. These classes teach not only technical ability, particularly focusing on optimizing search engine research, but they also cover the ethics of online content creation and social media posts.


For students going to college, less research is being done in libraries– which have always been trustworthy– but as students move away from libraries to the much more efficient online database, we lose the curation of content. Teaching students the ability to maneuver through the informational jungle can prove invaluable, particularly as they head into college classes and increase their use of digital research tools. Citing reliable sources in research papers is a hallmark of solid academic work, whereas basing an argument on false information could be both embarrassing and result in a lower grade.

Your Digital Tattoo

Another signature of the new digital age is the permanence of online social media posts. In her book Courageous Edventures, educator Jennie Magiera uses the term “digital tattoo.” In her experience, the common term “digital footprint” is ineffective in defining how permanent and harmful certain social media posts can be. When thought of as a tattoo (painful to remove, can not be washed away like a footprint), students begin to understand how their online actions can create consequences offline.


The computer screen makes it easy to believe there is a wall of privacy between our physical lives and our digital lives. However, online expression comes into consideration for many jobs and can even impact a student’s plans for the future. Recently, ten students accepted to Harvard had their admission offers revoked for posting explicit content in a private chat-room.

Though these students thought they were operating in a “private” chat-room, they came to learn that what they were posting was not private at all, and the lesson was hard-learned. These students were accepted into one of the top universities in the world, but lost their chances at attending because they weren’t aware of the consequences their online posts could have.

In her New York Times article regarding the rescinded Harvard admissions, Ana Hamayoun explains that the developing teenage brain seeks “external validation [and can] become intoxicated by sensationalist engagement.” In cases like Harvard, prospective students are vying for attention in inappropriate ways and not only are losing valuable opportunities, but their posts will remain online and attached to their names for the foreseeable future, and could cost them a chance at other opportunities should potential employers use a quick Google search.

NBC News surveyed employers and claimed that just over twenty percent of “hiring managers look [prospective employees] up on social media,” and “about one third of those web searches lead to rejections.”


The cost of inappropriate social media posts can reach far beyond college admissions, and can act as a barrier throughout student’s professional lives if they are not clear on the boundaries.

Digital Citizenship

Because students are still developing, it is our job as educators to inform students of the consequences of their actions. The landscape has changed, but there is no difference in our responsibility.

We are seeing that the divide between our digital and physical lives is not as great as we once believed, and it is important to impress that upon our students.

Just as we wouldn’t let a group of unprepared students wander into the woods without any guidance, we should not release our students into a digital world without some prior knowledge.

After all, the internet is an incredibly powerful tool for dialogue and learning if used properly. But just like any tool for learning, it must be understood before it becomes effective. When students become aware of the possibilities, both positive and negative, they are empowered to make better decisions and to use the tools to their advantage.

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