Digital literacy refers to the ability to find, evaluate, utilize, share, and create content using information technologies and the internet. It encompasses a range of skills from basic computer usage to navigating online environments and understanding digital safety and ethics.
Being digitally literate is extremely important in the 21st Century. We need to use digital technologies for everything from information gathering to banking. As a result, digital literacy has become a central concern within school curricula, as well as among governments who are concerned about nefarious actors online who may use people’s data without their consent.
Digital Literacy Definition
The original definition of digital literacy comes from Gilster (1997), who defined it as:
“…the ability to understand and use information in multiple formats from a wide range of sources when it is presented via computers” (p. 1)
Since, a range of definitions that paraphrased, modernized, and expand upon the original definition have emerged; but, perhaps more usefully, scholars have create categories that help us understand the concept.
For example, according to Heitin (2016), there are three categories of digital literacy:
- Finding and consuming digital content: for example, conducting web searches or accessing information via browse features on social media
- Creating digital content: uploading content onto a digital platform, such as creating YouTube videos or blog posts
- Communicating or sharing digital content: this occurs when we don’t create the content, but we re-share it, such as when people re-post viral memes.
In each category, we face issues related to ethics, critical thinking, and analysis of the origins of information. Without the stringent gatekeepers of traditional media such as newspapers, we need to know how to navigate online spaces safely and with a critical eye.
Digital Litearcy Examples
1. Basic Computer Skills: Mastery of basic computer skills is one of the essentials of digital literacy. They include the ability to operate a computer and navigate an operating system. Basic skills also encompass the use of software applications such as word processors and spreadsheets.
2. Internet Browsing: Acquiring knowledge on how to efficiently navigate the internet is a critical aspect of digital literacy. To illustrate, this includes the ability to use search engines effectively, understanding how hyperlinks work, and navigating multiple tabs and windows concurrently. Identifying safe and reliable websites also falls under this category.
3. Media Literacy: Central to digital literacy is media literacy, a concept that refers to the ability to ascertain who the author of a text is, what their biases are, how authoritative the information may be, and so on. This is essential for us to ensure we’re not misled online. It’s so important, which is why I’ve written a whole guide on media literacy skills.
4. Email Management: As email remains one of the primary methods for electronic communication, the ability to send, receive, organize, and delete emails is essential in this digital age. Importantly, you need to know email etiquette – far too many of my students send me emails as if it’s a text message, and often phrased as a rude demand rather than a polite request!
5. Social Media Savviness: Social media platforms are ubiquitous in our lives, and understanding them is part of being digitally literate. This entails knowledge about creating a profile, managing privacy settings, knowing taboos around creating posts, and discerning between real and fake news on such platforms (Facebook, for example).
6. Digital Etiquette: Also known as ‘netiquette,’ digital etiquette involves behaving responsibly and respectfully online. It includes understanding the possible impacts of language, tone, and behavior in online communication platforms like Zoom meetings or online forums.
7. Online Safety and Privacy: This involves understanding how to protect oneself from the potential dangers of the digital world. This is a key concern for elderly people, who are often targeted by nefarious actors, and who might not have the digital literacy skills necessary.
8. Digital Content Creation: Mastering digital content creation forms part of advanced digital literacy. It involves the ability to create infographics, videos, podcasts, and blogs (for example, making a video tutorial on YouTube). It enables you to actively contribute to the digital world, rather than just consuming content passively.
9. Cloud Storage Navigation: We need to know how to access, save, share, and manage documents in clouds. One important consideration is knowing how to maintain control over who has access to the documents, seeing as they’re theoretically available from any internet-connected device.
10. Smartphone Usage: The use of smartphones is now nearly universal. This form of digital literacy encompasses downloading and using apps, browsing the internet, and protecting personal information on numerous smartphone-based platforms like WhatsApp or Instagram. We need to know how and when to use them, as well as how and when to put them down!
11. Digital Empathy: Understanding the perspectives and feelings of others online is an important part of being digitally literate. For instance, an empathetic response to a sensitive status update on a friend’s Facebook timeline is a real-world example of digital empathy.
12. Understanding Big Data: Big data refers to large data sets that can be analyzed for patterns, insights, and trends. It’s an integral part of our digital world today, with applications in fields ranging from marketing to healthcare. Grasping the basics of big data — such as knowing what cookies do on a website — constitutes a part of advanced digital literacy.
13. Digital Marketing Knowledge: This involves understanding how online advertising and marketing work. Whether it is through search engine optimization (SEO), using Google Analytics, or understanding the algorithms that affect what content appears in a digital media news feed, digital marketing knowledge has become increasingly crucial.
14. Digital Rights and Responsibilities: Comprehending one’s rights and responsibilities in a digital space is a prominent component of digital literacy. For instance, this includes understanding copyright law (like obtaining proper licensing for stock images) and respecting the digital works and privacy of others.
15. Gaming Literacy: With video games becoming increasingly interactive and connected, familiarizing oneself with the norms and practices of these virtual landscapes are crucial. It covers understanding how to navigate game settings, interface with others online, and comprehend the narrative and mechanics of a game (as you would in a game like Minecraft).
16. Digital Problem Solving: This includes troubleshooting issues and solving problems in a digital context. Imagine, for instance, that an app on your smartphone constantly crashes. Understanding how to solve these issues — by checking for updates, for example — is a practical example of digital problem-solving.
17. Use of Advanced Software: Utilizing specialized software tools, for instance, Adobe Photoshop for image editing or AutoCAD for building design, is a key component of specialized digital literacy. Understanding these tools and their functions can greatly contribute to one’s digital skills set.
18. Blogging Skills: Possessing the ability to write, post, and maintain a blog is an essential facet of digital literacy. This also includes understanding how to embed images and videos, hyperlink to external content, and moderate and respond to any comments on the platform like WordPress.
19. Online Research Skills: The ability to conduct online research effectively and responsibly is vital to digital literacy. This involves knowing how to use search engines, databases, and online libraries, as well as how to assess the credibility of the information discovered (like using the ‘Google Scholar’ search for scholarly publications).
20. Podcasting Know-how: Podcasts have become a popular form of digital content. Digital literacy in this case is demonstrated by knowing how to listen to podcasts, subscribe to them, and even create them. Examples include using apps like SoundCloud or Apple Podcasts to consume content and software like GarageBand or Audacity to create your own podcasts.
21. Cybersecurity Skills: Understanding basic cybersecurity practices, such as backing up your data, updating your antivirus software, and using secure networks, is crucial. Digital literacy in this area helps protect you from data breaches and cyberattacks.
22. Use of Assistive Technologies: Digital literacy often implies the proficient use of assistive technologies for those with disabilities. For example, being able to customize voice-over settings on an iPhone for visually impaired users or using speech-to-text software for individuals with mobility challenges.
23. Data Visualization Ability: The capability to interpret and create data visualizations is increasingly important. This skill involves comprehending and creating graphs, charts, and diagrams to represent data or complex ideas (like in tools such as Excel or Tableau).
24. Peer-to-Peer (P2P) Networking: P2P networks allow computers to share resources without a central server. Understanding the basics of P2P sharing and its potential risks and benefits (e.g., sharing documents via BitTorrent) is also part of digital literacy.
25. Understanding Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning: Being aware of the basics of AI and machine learning is becoming part of digital literacy. This includes understanding concepts like algorithms, neural networks, and data training, as well as their applications and implications in society (for example, the use of AI in self-driving cars).
26. E-commerce Literacy: Knowing how to safely and effectively shop online represents digital literacy. This includes understanding aspects like secure payment options, reading product reviews, and assessing the reliability of e-commerce sites (Amazon is a prime example).
27. Video Editing Skills: The capability to shoot and edit videos digitally is increasingly important. From software like iMovie or Adobe Premiere Pro, the process of editing involves cutting and rearranging footage, adding special effects, correcting color, and more.
28. Livestream Literacy: Being able to navigate, engage with, and even host live streaming events is a valued digital skill. It involves understanding how to use platforms such as Twitch for gaming, Instagram for live chats, or Facebook for events and seminars.
29. Mobile Payment Familiarity: With money increasingly being moved digitally, understanding how to use mobile payment systems is essential. Mobile payments encompass making purchases via platforms like Apple Pay, Google Wallet, or Venmo.
30. Digital Collaboration Skills: As remote work becomes more prevalent, the ability to collaborate on digital platforms has become necessary. These skills involve using project management tools (like Asana or Trello), document collaboration software (such as Google Docs or Microsoft Teams), and understanding how to work effectively in these virtual environments.
31. Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) Understanding: Familiarity with AR and VR technologies is becoming increasingly important in the digital world. This involves the ability to use devices like VR headsets and understanding how to interact with AR applications (like Snapchat filters or interactive learning environments).
32. Geo-tagging Awareness: Understanding what geo-tagging is, how it is used, and the privacy ramifications it involves forms part of digital literacy. For instance, posting a photo on Instagram and attaching the location is a simple and common act of Geo-tagging.
33. Making online Bookings: With the digital enhancement of many services, being able to book and manage bookings online, be it for airlines, hotel reservations, or event tickets, is a part of being digitally literate. Consider the use of apps like Expedia or Airbnb for this task.
34. Understanding Coding Basics: While not needing to be a full-fledged developer, having a basic grasp of the logic and functionality behind coding is part of digital competence. This can include understanding elements like HTML (used in website creation) or Python (used in a myriad of applications, including data analysis).
35. Digital Health Management: Digital health literacy involves knowing how to navigate and use digital tools for health purposes. This spans knowing how to set and track goals on a fitness app like MyFitnessPal, booking a doctor’s appointment online, or using a telehealth service.
Digital Natives vs Digital Immigrants
The terms digital native and digital immigrant were coined by educator Marc Prensky in 2001 to describe the difference in technology knowledge between those born during or after the introduction of digital technology (digital natives) and those born before its inception (digital immigrants).
- Digital natives are people who grew up with internet technology as part of their everyday lives. As a child or teenager, you may have been introduced to personal computers, smartphones, or social media platforms, which typically results in a more intuitive understanding and use of technology. For instance, digital natives are supposedly be more comfortable multitasking in a digital environment, such as juggling different online communication platforms simultaneously or quickly learning a new app or software.
- Digital immigrants are those people who were introduced to digital technology as adults. They had to adapt and learn to use these new tools, often experiencing a somewhat less seamless encounter compared to their younger counterparts. For instance, a digital immigrant might prefer a face-to-face meeting over a virtual one or choose to read from a physical book over an e-book.
However, the dichotomy between digital natives and digital immigrants does not directly equate to an individual’s digital literacy. Digital literacy requires not just familiarity with technology but also a critical understanding of how to use it effectively, safely, and responsibly. A digitally literate person can navigate, understand, and create information using digital technology, regardless of when they were introduced to it.
If an older worker remains engaged and up to date with advancements in technology, they may even become as digitally literate, if not more, as a millennial Internet guru. In turn, a digital native might be comfortable using technology but lack awareness of privacy settings, copyright laws, or the assessment of online information credibility.
Digital literacy is a prerequisite for operating in today’s progressively digital world. It spans a broad spectrum of activities, from fundamental computer skills to understanding AI and machine learning. It impacts nearly all aspects of modern life, work, and communication. Overall, advancing one’s digital literacy is not just desirable but a “survival skill” (Eshet, 2004) in the digital age.
Eshet, Y. (2004). Digital literacy: A conceptual framework for survival skills in the digital era. Journal of educational multimedia and hypermedia, 13(1), 93-106.
Gilster, P., & Glister, P. (1997). Digital literacy (p. 1). New York: Wiley Computer Pub..
Heitin, L. (2016). What is digital literacy? Education Week, https://www.edweek.org/teaching-learning/what-is-digital-literacy/2016/11
Prensky, M. (2001). Digital natives, digital immigrants part 2: Do they really think differently?. On the horizon, 9(6), 1-6. doi: https://doi.org/10.1108/10748120110424843
Tinmaz, H., Lee, Y. T., Fanea-Ivanovici, M., & Baber, H. (2022). A systematic review on digital literacy. Smart Learning Environments, 9(1), 1-18. doi: https://doi.org/10.1186/s40561-022-00204-y
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]