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Can This New Digital Literacy Wave Impact the Classroom?

In the last decade, classrooms have undergone many changes, and for most educators, papers and pencils disappeared to pave the way for "cooler" tablets and PCs. With digital devices taking over classrooms, teachers were forced to contend with the reality that their know-how is now second to technology. While observers note that the shift to digital was inevitable, because at least 90% of US households own computers, many are still unsure of its impacts on learners.

Would John, a boy struggling with math, learn better from an iPad than from a teacher's instructions? While technophile philanthropists like Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates would swear on the power of education technology, the implications of digital literacy in classrooms are more complex to assess.

What Is Digital Literacy?

Digital literacy is understanding how to use digital platforms for creating, locating, and evaluating information. In the classroom, digital literacy has extensive implications on teaching methods and even choices in the curriculum. A great way to look at this phenomenon is that while learners operate devices like computers comfortably, literacy is all about using them for positive gains. 

Demonstrating digital literacy would be acquiring basic technological skills, social responsibility, and rules on ownership of data. For learners in K-12 curriculums, digital literacy is the surest way to benefit from the digital technologies that have become a necessity in the new world.

Digital Literacy vs. Traditional Literacy

To understand the impacts of digital literacy on the classroom, you need to consider its variation from traditional literacy. Several decades ago, literacy was all about reading and writing, with learners starting from basic understanding and progressing towards more complex comprehension. For example, students started by learning words, phonetics, and gradually reading literary texts. For educators, key methods utilized textbooks, written tests, recitations, and workbooks to boost learner engagement.

Digital literacy built on the strengths of traditional literacy, and expanded traditional literacy's scope. Modern classrooms combine digital and traditional literacy to benefit from added features like imagery, audio, and video data that take reading and writing to new levels. With digital literacy, students develop their creativity by engaging with their world through materials and experiences they can relate to. When audios, videos, texts, and even game-based technologies are used for education, traditional literacy gets the uplift it desperately needs to enter the digital realm.

Digital Literacy In The Classroom

Throughout history, people met new inventions like the electric light bulb, the telephone, or the television with resistance. When these technologies were first introduced, naysayers predicted that they were doomed to fail, while skeptics felt that they would destroy the world. Similarly, when new devices like cell phones and computers were first introduced to classrooms, many parents and teachers opposed them. Many felt that the increased screen times would "hurt" kids and affect their learning.

Yet, this is still the age of screens, social media, and digitization, and love it or hate it, schools can't ignore these changes. As children explore the internet, download apps for their phones, and consume all sorts of content online, they need to learn how to consume it safely and sustainably.

Digital literacy is important since it exposes students to the rules of consuming digital content, including the importance of sources, information quality, and credibility. When it's initiated in the classroom, digital literacy invites children to embrace valuable habits like critical thinking as they consume digital content. As students interact with others on these platforms, they can also identify opportunities that they can tap for personal growth and development. An internet search can be useful in learning about complex classroom content, hence supplementing textbook and course content.

Still, some positive impacts of digital literacy in the classroom are impossible to forget. For instance, little John can do his math homework anywhere and if need be, he can find helpful resources online. At times where home-schooling is unavoidable, kids can also interact with peers at all times, developing skills like teamwork along the way. What about the teacher-student connection? On all school levels, digital literacy provides a great foundation for personalized learning, helping students to digest content at their own pace. If you think about it, digital learning has many benefits that make it a great substitute for traditional learning.

Digital Literacy Challenges

Despite the benefits of digital literacy, studies have shown that technology introduces some negative effects in the classroom. Any classroom that embraces technology can accommodate all students. In most cases, teachers form groups and encourage independent learning at other times. 

Children handle screens on their own during free individual learning sessions, responding to queries and dialogue on-screen while completing their homework. The insistence on using a digital device for learning replaces the teacher's instructive influence on the student, an outcome that erodes collaborative efforts.

Findings also point to disparities in benefits gained from using computers across various school levels and courses, from college to fourth grade. This means that despite the general view that digital literacy is the way forward, it also brings forth shortcomings that were inexistent in the past.

Research has indicated that vulnerable students suffer most from the use of digital devices in classrooms since sponsor programs prioritize virtual learning. The rising reliance on technology is a dangerous development that might undermine learning and child development.  


So, what's the verdict on digital literacy? In the classroom, digital literacy is a double-edged sword. We can't dismiss its role in the modern world, but we can't ignore its downsides. To guarantee that trendy changes don't hurt kids, we must be careful to limit distractions and reduce screen time for the most vulnerable.

Like other innovations, technology has its shortcomings and the best path to sustainability is moderation. Since too much of anything is poison, we should prioritize making the best of digital technologies without overdoing it.

Written by Simon Riitho

Education World Contributor

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