Digital literacy is the product of our modern age of instant messages, after-hours emails (if there were still an “after-hours”), and on-demand programming. The digital age of connectivity and mass communication has led to the development of new and dynamic forms of literacy, constantly changing in the on-going search for increased computing power. In short, if we could send a faster message – we would. But, what is digital literacy anyway?

Digital literacy refers to our ability to actively and competently express ourselves within a network of connected digital technologies. For example: digital literacy means knowing the difference between a multi-paragraph text-message and a short email. For many of us, these skills are almost second-nature as we move through the constant communications of daily life. If your day is anything like mine, then you likely get more emails than you know what to do with, you send more emails than is healthy, and you eat lunch at your desk. The modern world of business hours combined with the fluidity of academic life means that you can often feel as though you’re constantly behind. For the most part, it’s possible to survive in an academic digital world without being completely bogged-down, but not without cutting a few corners on the work/life balance.

For many of us, digital literacy was a set of skills developed in response to the increasing posed by continuous connectivity. So while it may seem somewhat strange to think of digital literacy as something that can be developed and refined, it is important to consider that there are new grammars and syntaxes emerging that need to be learned. For example, everyone thinks they communicate just fine, but we all know people who still reply to emails in ALL CAPITALS.

If you have taken time out of your lecture or seminar to let students work in groups or talk amongst themselves, then you have also likely noticed the grey box with blue bubbles in the corner of nearly every student’s laptop screen. The world of constant communication and connectivity is already in your classroom, so why not incorporate digital literacy into your teaching? With as little of an in-class commitment as a slide or two, or maybe ten-minutes of discussion, you could build a foundation for students to use as they adapt to a fluid digital world. The following are three ideas for enriching digital literacy in your classroom.

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Build a Healthy Skepticism

While many students already approach the digital world with a healthy skepticism, enriching digital literacy means developing an awareness of the impact digital communications have. Other than instilling an awareness about the development and production of digital media, social media, and multimedia in students it is also important that they understand the longevity of digital communications. While their comments on social media, or their own multimedia content may seem like a good idea at the time, digital literacy means understanding that these things last forever and can be used or seen by others long after they seem relevant. This is a level of forethought humans have never had to consider in the history of social interaction.

To develop this sense of skepticism, try having students use whatever means they can to find their own earliest mark on the internet. Challenge students to find the first thing they ever put online and then have them reflect on how that piece represents or misrepresents them. As students may learn: some things can be misconstrued when you aren’t around to explain them.

Try New Ways of Communicating

We all know the tried and true method of in-class discussion, the tutorial or seminar setting, the lecture: verbal and textual communication in the classroom is typically bound up in these methods. It is therefore possible for students to develop a completely disconnected set of academic literacy skills from those of the digital world. Maybe you use online discussion boards, maybe you do an online office hour, or host webinars whatever the case there are always new ways of reaching students that can enhance their relationship to course material.

The next time you plan a discussion try asking students to choose the least efficient means of communication and then have them reflect on how and why they felt it inhibited their expression. Have students work in groups to identify common roadblocks to communication, and have them compose a list of things they believe are essential to enhanced digital expression. The next time you try this exercise, ask student to refer to the lists they made and then have them find a digital communication technology that fits their list. You may even consider having students use their chosen tool as part of an assignment, or even as an assessment itself.

Is There Space for Emojis in the Classroom?

The ancient Egyptians used pictograms and in the present day we still do. Emojis or emoticons are the little smiley faces and cartoon objects that pepper peoples text messages, web commentaries, and emails. While it might seem like emojis fall outside the realm of digital literacy, knowing when to use them is not an agreed upon rule, nor is it something we explicitly explain. What emojis do is allow you to enhance the expressiveness of your communication by engaging more than one human language. When we use emojis, like pictograms, we communicate with a kind of digital body-language that contextualizes what we are saying. Sounds pretty useful, right? Well maybe it is, but the unfortunate reality is that we don’t learn how to conjugate “smilies” the way we learn about similes.  

Emojis are contentious at best, so using them in classroom exercises requires an open mind and a bit of creativity. In class, ask students to develop a list of “rules” or grammars that they would use to govern what they see as proper emoji usage. Have students work in groups to compare their emoji grammars and establish a common list of rules. Divide students into two groups and have one use emojis and the other none. Correct the examples using the pre-established grammars and as students to reflect on what each form of communication offered or inhibited.

While I don’t expect to see emojis in any midterm essays, professional proposals, or cover letters I don’t see why they can’t become a part of classroom communication. After all, experimentation breeds discovery. While these ideas are just a few simple ways of enhancing digital literacy in the classroom, they offer blueprints for developing your own digital literacy curriculum with the potential for enriching the communication between instructors and students, students and their communities.

In need of some more inspiration? Read our free guide containing 13 tactics from some of North America’s most innovative professors.


Jeremy Haynes

Jeremy Haynes

Jeremy Haynes is a PhD candidate in English currently completing a dissertation on Indigenous and Canadian literatures. He has also performed the roles of Sessional Instructor and Teaching Assistant.