Digital Literacy

In The Digital Native Classroom


The terms digital native and digital literacy are now commonplace in pedagogical discussions and planning. In an age where mobile learning is facilitating exciting transformations in classrooms and learning environments, these two areas have created a study all of their own. Marc Prensky first coined the term “Digital Native” in his essay “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants” (2001). Prensky (2001) suggested that the arrival and widespread use of technology changed education forever. He pointed out that students would now “think and process information fundamentally differently from their predecessors.” (p. 1). They have therefore become the most analysed, and marketed to, generation to date (Cone, Inc., 2006) and this encompasses the way in which their educational experience is approached.

However, there is often a blurred distinction between the digital native and what is considered to be digital literacy. Gilster (1997) cemented the idea of digital literacy, bringing together many broad definitions by proposing that digital literacy is "mastering ideas, not keystrokes" (Bawden, 2008 p.18). This proposes that digital literacy is a dynamic concept that would be difficult to define. Nonetheless, the question remains. Are digital natives really digitally literate, and what implications, if any, does this have for educational planning and approaches?

In the following TEDx talk, Doug Belshaw explains that digital literacy is not something digital natives are born with. Much preliterate behaviour must take place before we move from elegant consumption of the internet and technology tools, as outlined by Mozilla Firefox's Mitchell Baker, to remixing and rerepresenting what is available. Therefore, digital literacy cannot be given a simplistic and lineal definition, and instead must socially negotiated and take context in to account.

The essential elements of digital literacies: Doug Belshaw at TEDxWarwick

What is Digital Literacy?

Broadly speaking, embedding strategies in the curriculum and enabling students and teachers to make use of technology in the classroom can be defined as digital literacy. The ability to use online sources to read and write and selecting information, tools and sources relevant to the task are important components of the wide-ranging awareness of digital literacy. Presenting, sharing and communicating ideas in an online environment is also a vital skill (Bulger, Mayer and Metzger, 2014). As previously stated, this must take in to account context.

Bawden (2008) outlines it is difficult to make a definitive “list of skills” associated with digital literacy, but provides an overview of what digital literacy might look like. These include gathering knowledge and deciphering reliability of sources, critical thinking skills relating to the validity of sources, reading and deciphering dynamic information, understanding the social nature of learning and advice available and being confident and comfortable in contributing to the online world (Bawden, 2008, pp. 20). However, perhaps the most notable on Bawden’s “list” is the recognition of how these new skills is the “awareness of the value of traditional tools in conjunction with networked media” (Bawden, 2008, pp.20).

Digital Literacy Across the Curriculum from Futurelab, UK sets a framework for embedding digital literacy in to the curriculum. Much has written about the fact that digital natives are not necessarily digitally literate, and the following video retrieved from illustrates some ways in which teachers in the United Kingdom have recognised this. Teaching digital literacy must be embedded in subject activities to foster components of creativity, critical engagement around technology, finding and selecting information and is affected by social understanding and online safety. Students must be given the opportunity to access, engage and use technology in a responsible and respectful environment.

Digital Literacy: Secondary

What is a Digital Native?

As previously explored, Prensky (2001) describes digital natives as those born after 1980, in whose lives technology and the internet have been a constant.

The digital native is considered to be imbued with the ability to use a myriad of devices to access information, create social networks and connect on a global scale. Tecnology has permeated and shaped popular culture. The challenge for education is understanding what the digital native is actually capable of and confidence with. Whilst it would be irresponsible not to acknowledge the inequities that exist in terms of access to technology, it can be assumed that technology is a central part of most peoples' lives (Futurelab, 2010, p.7). However, as more attention is paid to young peoples interaction with technology, their inability to effectively and responsibly use the technology and tools available to them may be overlooked.

MacFarlane (2015) notes that there is a temptation, particularly amongst educators, to assume that students possess a natural competence in using and utilising technology. Students often overestimate their ability in using technology tools to facilitate their learning, thus leading to the effectiveness of technology devices in the classroom (p. 27).

Therefore, the assumption that students are effective users of devices that connect them to the internet does not take into account their ability to assess, filter and even operate tools that are supported by those devices. This supports the process of teaching of digital literacy strategies as outlined previously by Bawden (2008), whilst still taking in to account learning context and the dynamic nature of the learners.

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What Is The Challenge To Education?

The challenges that face education in the digital native classroom are entrenched in what we know as digital literacy. As previously discussed, the digital native may not know anything else but a connected world and the digital devices that keep them connected, but that does not automatically make them effective, informed, confident and responsible users of technology in the classroom.

The digital divide and the participation gap are just two challenges to implementing digital literacy strategies in to the classroom.

The juxtaposition of digital natives to digital immigrants is often posed as a challenge in the modern classroom. Prensky (2001) nominates those born after 1980 as digital natives. Digital immigrants are those born before this time who may, as Guo, Dobson and Petrina (2008), display a type of digital immigrant accent by, for example, printing out a digital resource or attachment (p. 236). This distinction between native and immigrant can be seen as a barrier to implementing effective digital liietracy strategies.

Just as Doug Belshaw spoke of remixing and new representation of information in his Tedx talk, Conole (2012) notes that the changing nature of the internet, from consumption to social Ensuring that both teachers and students possess the right skills to navigate and participate in this representation rich environment is the key to undertaking an informed approach to digital literacy.

Thomas (2011, p.7) moves to the next level of this discussion, by suggesting that the distinction between digital native and digital immigrant is overrated. This “utopian” view that young people are now liberated by unparralled access to information and technology, while the digital immigrants are left to struggle to catch up is one that fails to address diversity within generations and access to technology. This has implications for the digital native classroom, as distinctions can often magnify the impact of what is often labelled the digital immigrant. Mediation and user generation of content, presents an interesting challenge to educators. Identifying differences in digital capabilities solely on age is dangerous and assumptive (Kuehn, 2012).

The participation gap, or the digital divide, can also impact on teaching digital literacy in the digital native classroom. Originally expressed as inequity in access to physical resources such as devices and adequate and reliable internet connections, the digital divide has also come to encompass content, language and level of education (Warschauer, 2004). This social development approach to the digital divide acknowledges that digital literacy strategies must not only take in to account access to technology and online learning spaces, but also the inclusiveness of activities and strategies.

So How Do We Teach Digital Natives Digital Literacy?

Teaching digital literacy to digital natives starts with acknowledging that this group has a natural propensity to be able to use technology and have a natural curiosity towards it (Ng, 2012). However, it must also be taken in to consideration that they do not always possess the skills to critically examine the information, resources and tools they have access to.

Ng (2012) draws together three broad intersecting dimensions of technical skills, cognitive skills and social-emotional skills. Technical skills include such components as troubleshooting, backing up files and understanding file structure. Cognitive skills include the ability to search for and evaluate information in the digital space, while social-emotional skills involve responsible internet use and online safety. The following graphic illustrates this interaction, and demonstrates an ideal framework for teaching digital literacy (Ng, 2012).

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An argument also exists that extols that digital literacy is not something that needs to be explicitly taught. Chase and Laufenburg (2011), write that digital literacy is just a new literacy. They provide practical examples whereby a “traditional” writing activity then moves in to the digital realm as the student starts to employ digital tools to present their learning. Therefore, the teaching of digital literacy must take place in the same moment as the learning moves to a digital platform. This idea is not as detailed as Ng’s intersecting dimensions (2012), but it does present an interesting view that digital literacy is often implied and disguised within a learning activity.

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Teaching digital natives digital literacy is a well-documented and researched area. Many opinions exist that take in to account the ability of the digital native to use, adapt and explore new technologies as they become available. The graphic above, as presented by Futurelab (2010), illustrates the skills that digital literacy aims to teach and promote.

However, it is the ability to critically examine information that is available at a scale never seen before, assess and choose appropriate tools to create and share their learning that cements the importance of digital literacy to the digital native and their learning. Online safety and privacy is also an important component of teaching digital literacy, as well as digital citizenship. Teachers must also be able to manage and direct productivity to ensure that learning intentions are reached in the digital space (Ohler, 2010).

Bridging the digital divide, breaking down any perceived gaps between the digital native and the digital immigrant also needs to be explored and addressed if students are to learn the importance of digital literacy and citizenship.

Ng best sums up the importance of digital literacy by describing it is “equipping of students with a repertoire of tools and cognitive capabilities to help them live in a technologically oriented society that would inevitably require them to be able to adopt new technologies or adapt to changes to existing technologies.” (Ng, 2012, p.14)


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Conole, G. (2013). Designing for learning in an open world. New York, NY: Springer.

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Kuehn, L. (2012). No More "Digital Natives" and "Digital Immigrants". Our Schools, Our Selves, 21(2), 129-132.

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