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What Makes a Digital Literacy Program Strong? 

 Author – Monica Leong, Digital Divide Project consultant and Embedding Digital Skills in Learning series facilitator. 

Digital literacy is defined as,

“… having the knowledge, skills and confidence to keep up with changes in technology… To keep up, we need to keep learning so that we can continue to thrive at home, at work and in the community. Being digitally literate means being able to adapt to the changes brought about by computers in ways that make sense to your life.”

From ABC Life Literacy Canada’s “What is Digital Literacy?

In the field of adult foundational learning, how can we build a digital literacy program that meets learners’ needs? What do we need to understand and pay attention to? And how do we go about delivering such a program?

In this blogpost, we share what we have learned in the Digital Divide Project about what makes a digital literacy program strong.

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Strong digital literacy programs are thoughtful, responsive, and intentional. Creating strong digital literacy programs is not a simple task, and as digital technologies change, programs will need to adapt. The focus of strong programs, however, is to support adults to develop their digital literacy practices over time, in meaningful ways that relate to their everyday lives, and in safer learning spaces, whether online or in person. 

Strong programs are thoughtful. They understand that: 

  • Digital literacy is complex.
  • Digital literacy is a social practice. 
  • Digital inequality and systemic barriers exist. 
  • Digital literacy work is emotional.

Digital literacy is complex. Developing digital literacy does not only mean learning discrete digital skills or learning how to use specific digital tools. While those skills and activities may be a part of the process, digital literacy is more complex. 

  • It develops over time and throughout a person’s lifespan.
  • It is impacted by whether or not we have predictable, reliable access to devices and the internet.
  • It develops through repeated and meaningful engagement in digital actions in everyday life.

Strong programs understand the complexity of digital literacy and avoid being too narrowly focused on skills or tools. 

Digital literacy is a social practice. We use our digital knowledge, skills, and confidence in complex and changing ways that depend on the social contexts of our lives. Practitioners in strong programs see their work as one part of learners’ digital literacy development, and they are curious about how learners already engage in digital practices. They ask questions like:

  • How do you already use digital technologies? 
  • What tools and devices do you use? 
  • Where, in your life outside this program, do you struggle or have pinch points due to your digital literacy? Who helps you?

Strong programs understand digital literacy as a social practice and focus on learning that accounts for and supports real life digital use in meaningful contexts outside the program.

Digital inequality and systemic barriers exist, and they disproportionately affect marginalized people. The digital world is not a level playing field. The inequalities inherent in our broader society are often reproduced, reinforced, and even exacerbated online. And even though some barriers and risks are present for anyone online, they are heightened for people who are already experiencing marginalization. 

The Digital Literacy Audit Tool can be a starting point in the conversation on barriers and inequitable access to services. Calgary Learns developed the audit tool to support organizations to reflect on service delivery through the lens of digital literacy, equity, and access. It is designed to uncover unintended barriers in service delivery and to find ways to make services available to all clients by being accessible both online and offline or in print. 

Strong programs also open up conversations that engage learners and practitioners in thinking about the risks in digital literacy practices inside and outside the program. For example, consider the risks of sharing personal information online, and how those risks are intensified when someone’s only access point for the internet is on a shared device in a public space. A digital literacy program can encourage conversations around when, how, and in what contexts, learners need to share personal information online. For example, they ask questions like:

  • How do you decide when and where to share personal information online?
  • What does it look and feel like to enter personal information on a public device you are accessing in a library, for example? 
  • What do you need to know more about or be aware of?

Conversations might also discuss other risks and how to reduce them: 

  • What do you already do to remember your passwords? 
  • Do you have people in your network who support you to use passwords wisely? How do they do that?
  • What does informed consent mean to you? 
  • What other support or information would make things safer for you online?

Strong programs pay attention to barriers and risks, and they work with learners to understand and reduce them.

Digital literacy work is emotional. We are all digital learners, and when things go wrong with technology, it can quickly get frustrating. In a blog post on embracing digital skills as foundational learning, the Digital Divide Project noted that “practitioners suggest a trauma-informed approach to digital skills work, in both online and in person delivery modes, to help learners navigate technology with a less alarmed emotional response.” Simple actions can support this effort. For example:

  • Slow down
  • Take one step at a time
  • Work on what is most relevant first
  • Share your own or others’ stories of similar challenges and struggles

Strong programs start from a place of strength for learners and build learners’ confidence through instruction that is well placed and focused on learning. 

Strong programs are responsive and intentional in how they teach. They: 

  • Start where learners are at and build from a place of confidence.
  • Break down learners’ goals into prerequisite skills.
  • Unpack digital vocabulary. 
  • Use explicit skill instruction and repeated practice.

Start where learners are at and build from a place of confidence. Programs demonstrate learner-centredness by truly meeting learners where they are at, and in the ways they use digital technologies in their everyday lives. A program that has preselected discrete digital skills or tools to “teach” in a digital literacy program is probably not being as responsive as a program that is more learner-centred – one that allows learners’ unique strengths and challenges to inform the practitioner. 

We are all digital learners; It is easy for anyone to get overwhelmed by all the digital skills, tools, and practices that we don’t know or don’t feel confident in. Rather than starting with a list of skills or tools that are unfamiliar to learners, responsive programs:

  • Start with conversation, observation, and relationships with learners to better understand what they already do and have access to.
  • Respect learners’ strengths and recognize that the practitioner is not the only person in the room with digital skills, knowledge, and practices. 
  • Focus on learning, not on technology.
  • Move forward at a pace that supports learning and engagement.
  • Avoid cognitive overload — Too much, too fast does not support learning.

Strong programs start from a place of strength for learners and build learners’ confidence through
instruction that is well-paced and focused on learning. 

Break down learners’ goals into prerequisite skills. Learners have goals that make sense to them, but reaching those goals can include many skills and steps. Intentional and responsive practitioners ask about learners’ goals and consider them carefully. They use their expertise in adult learning to choose the kinds of knowledge, skills, and practice activities that will support learners in their journey toward the goal. 

Understanding how digital literacy skills build on each other, and what the prerequisite skills are to accomplish the goal is an important part of the practitioners’ role. It takes time and thought to understand how digital skills build on each other. And it is easy to unintentionally miss a small step or skill that is invisible to us as more comfortable users of technology. 

For example, consider something you might do frequently, like downloading and saving a document. 

  • Try doing it very slowly. Notice every small step you take to accomplish the task.
  • How many times did you click something? 
  • Did you need to recognize icons or specific vocabulary words? 
  • Did you use a touchpad to click? Or a mouse? Was it a right click or a left click?
  • Did you need to choose a location to save the file? 
  • What skills and knowledge do all of these steps involve?

When programs carefully consider learners’ goals and the skills needed to reach those goals, they can make better instructional choices about which steps to take with learners. In another blogpost from the Digital Divide Project, we further explore the idea of articulating prerequisite skills. 

Strong programs understand the range of steps and skills needed to accomplish a goal or task, and they focus on filling skill gaps to create a solid foundation for learners to take the next steps with confidence.

Unpack digital vocabulary. The digital world is full of specific language.  Vocabulary words, as well as visual vocabulary like icons and buttons, show up in similar forms across different digital tools and activities. People who are more comfortable using digital technology often take these words for granted, as if they are universally understood. Strong programs, however, recognize how important it is to unpack the language of digital literacy. Practitioners support learners to recognize those words and symbols, and to see how they are similar – and sometimes different – across contexts.

For example:

  • Consider the words “mute” and “unmute”
    • Where do you see these words in your everyday life? 
    • Where do you see these words when you use digital technologies? 
    • What do the words mean? What symbols mean the same thing? 

Strong programs intentionally notice and explicitly unpack the vocabulary that learners need. 

Use explicit skill instruction and repeated practice. Practitioners use their expertise in adult learning to scaffold valuable learning experiences. Responsive programs include explicit skill instruction, repeated practice, and time for learners to engage directly with technology in a supported environment. 

Adult foundational learners often require many repetitions of an activity or skill before they feel confident with it. Routines in the class could be used to provide repeated opportunities for skills used in context. 

For example, depending on learners’ goals and access to devices, practitioners might regularly use simple text messaging for class communications:

  • Start slowly by sending short texts such as greetings and simple messages that do not require a reply, such as, “It was great to work with you today.”
  • Then start sending messages with information such as, “Remember to bring a water bottle to class,” or “Our field trip to the library is tomorrow. See you there.”
  • Over time, encourage and support learners to reply to the messages and eventually to forward or save them.
  • As learners become more confident using the tools and skills in the class routine, practitioners can intentionally explore with learners other ways that the tools and skills can be used outside the routines in class.
    • How might you use text messaging to stay connected to people? Who would you contact? What information do you need to be able to contact them? How might this method of contact be better or worse than other methods, like email or a phone call?
    • How might you use text messaging for other purposes? (for ex., keeping track of important information)

Strong programs integrate explicit skill instruction and repeated practice in meaningful ways that support learners’ digital literacy development. 

Conclusion:

The Digital Divide Project has learned that strong digital literacy programs are thoughtful, responsive, and intentional. We share the characteristics above not as an exhaustive list, but as a tool for programs and practitioners to engage in wise practices. And we applaud the efforts of strong digital literacy programs to support adults in their digital literacy development by offering meaningful, supportive, and effective programming. 

Endnotes:

There are many different frameworks of digital skills and competencies that can offer some support for practitioners to make informed choices in their instruction. (For example, CrowdEd’s BRIDGES Digital Skills Library, Northstar Digital Literacy, and Digital Promise’s Learner Variability Project: Adult Learner Model) These frameworks all have their own strengths and they can be useful tools that offer support for practitioners and learners. One risk of using skills frameworks, however, is that they can perpetuate the idea that developing digital literacy is simply mastering a set of discrete skills in a linear way, from basic skills to more advanced skills. In contextualized, responsive programs, skills frameworks support wise instructional choices that are based on learners’ goals and real life uses of technology.

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