Digital Literacy in the 21st Century

Over the past few decades, digital literacy has grown and expanded in many ways from word processing to web 2.0. Yet through all of those changes, instead of becoming obsolete, each new development remained at the forefront because of its distinct benefits and the additional affordances brought about by their interrelated quality. For instance, with word processing, documents are easily written, edited and formatted but with online communication they could also be rapidly distributed via email and other similar methods (Dobson & Willinsky, 2009). Likewise, because of the Internet, hypermedia offers a more connected and flexible nature while digital technologies like laptops or tablets and web 2.0 multimedia and information tools such as Skype, Moodle, and blogs are interactive and collaborative in addition to possessing the other affordances (Ng, 2012). As such, the more each of these tools and resources have become regularly used by the general population, the more influence it has gained in all aspects of everyday life to the point where it has created a global digital society (Jeffrey et al., 2011). It is therefore not surprising that, along with the key educational component of forging connections between knowledge and the real world, the need to keep learning current and relevant to the digital society has recently received widespread support. As a result, incorporating digital literacy within the curriculum is now highly important so as to ensure students are taught to be literate in an online context as well as adequately prepared for the future with ample practical experience in using digital technologies.

Presently, the majority of students, whether or not a digital native by Prensky’s definition, are already aware and have experience with digital technology. This is evident in Ng’s (2012) study wherein data showed among pre-service teachers at the University of New South Wales in Australia, on a daily basis, 63% use the web to access the school portal, 73% use the Internet to search for information, 82% send or receive emails and 84% use social networking software. Although these results are derived from one study, it does serve as a significant example for so many other students that regularly go online for education, work, social or entertainment purposes. However, learning to use those tools in an informal setting and often for personal reasons will not necessarily yield the level of skills and knowledge required for today’s society. It is therefore crucial that formal learning not only mirrors what is already being experienced outside of the classroom, but also teaches students effective digital literacy strategies. In particular, this can be understood “…as a form of information literacy that demands skilled navigating through, searching for, and making sense of relevant and reliable information (Dobson & Willinsky, 2009, p. 18). To ensure students properly learn such skills, educators must also teach them the inner workings of search engines, web page organization, how to discern or evaluate which resources are reliable and relevant for textual and multimedia sources as well as ethical and legal issues (Doering, 2007; Ng, 2012). In doing so, students will be more informed and more likely to utilize digital literacy strategies so that information gathered is satisfactory, copyright and plagiarism issues are adhered to and communication is conducted appropriately.

Like most things, learning about something is important but so too is practically applying that knowledge. Hence, along with teaching digital literacy strategies, students must also be given the opportunity to actively engaging with digital technology because more often than not, exposure on its own is simply not enough. Among the multiple arguments that have been made as to why this is the case, one of the most applicable is in regards to the inherent nature of web 2.0 tools, other forms of digital technology and the collaborative and experiential principles put forth by John Dewey in 1933 (Jeffrey et al., 2011). More specifically, because digital tools and resources are all designed to be highly technical, the only way to completely learn how to use it is through exploration, collaboration and an overall hands-on approach. Furthermore, educating from such an approach has recently developed into a much easier task since there are an endless amount of resources that can be integrated, such as Smart Boards, tablets or other computer applications; Google Docs, Edmodo and blogs for communication and collaboration, online libraries and Google Scholar for information searches, YouTube or Flickr for video and photo design and sharing, and wikis or for social bookmarking. Thus, the more educators practically incorporate these digital technologies into the classroom and teach students how to suitably apply digital literacy strategies, the better prepared they will be now and in the future.


Dobson, T., & Willinsky, J. (2009). Digital Literacy. In D. Olson & N. Torrance (Eds.) Cambridge Handbook on Literacy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Doering, A., Beach, R., & O’Brien, D. (2007). Infusing multimodal tools and digital literacies into an English education program. English Education, 40(1), 41-60.

Jeffrey, L., Hegarty, B., Kelly, O., Penman, M., Coburn, D., & McDonald, J. (2011). Developing digital information literacy in higher education: obstacles and supports. Journal of Information Technology Education, 10, 383-413.

Ng, W. (2012). Can we teach digital natives digital literacy? Computers and Education, 59(3), 1065-1078.

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1 Response to Digital Literacy in the 21st Century

  1. joypenner says:


    A hands-on approach is so vital! I have just experienced this in ETEC565A. A constructivist methodology allowed me to dig in and really learn by doing. In a situated learning approach the community of practice provides varying levels of expertise and was invaluable in this course. Students do have different levels of ability and as you mentioned, by collaborating can learn better.

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