Teaching digital literacy to digital natives

How can educators help students learn how to critically evaluate information? 

The Tree Octopus

In 2006, researchers at the University of Connecticut asked 25 seventh-graders to review a hoax website about a fake endangered species called a “tree octopus.” All 25 students, upon reviewing www.zapatopi.net/treeoctopus, believed in the existence of a “Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus,” and all but one rated the site as “very credible.” When told the website was a hoax, most students could not find proof that it was false, and some of them refused to believe the tree octopus was a myth.
The University of Connecticut experiment shows that while today’s students—so-called “digital natives”—are adept at using technology to find information, they are not necessarily good at discerning the quality of the information they’re finding. And in the modern world, that information is coming at us faster and faster. The importance of digital literacy continues to grow.

Defining digital literacy

The University of Illinois Library offers this definition of digital literacy on its Digital Literacy portal:
Digital literacy: The ability to use digital technology, communication tools or networks to locate, evaluate, use and create information.
In an August 2012 interview with SmartBlog on Education, Columbia University professor Ernest Morrell explained that teaching digital literacy is helping students learn how to “decode and deconstruct” messages:
“The available communications tools at our disposal have changed what it means to be literate,” Morrell told SmartBlog. “A digital literacy education will help our youth to become better consumers and producers of information in the digital age. … we have to teach students to ‘read’ media such as magazine covers, songs, films, television shows and Internet sites. Our youth are forming views of themselves and the world based on information they receive via the media, so literacy educators have to help them understand how to decode and deconstruct these messages.”

Google’s digital literacy resources

Google calls digital literacy “search education” and offers webinars on topics such as judging website credibility, writing effective search queries and exploring search results beyond the first five delivered. Google also offers:
  • Beginner, intermediate and advanced lesson plans on search education.
  • “Power searching” guides to improve your own digital literacy.
  • Google a Day Challenges games to excite students about searching for accurate information.
One “Google a Day” challenge starts by asking students a question in German, so the first task to perform is figuring out how to obtain a rough translation for the question. Once they’ve determined what the question is asking them to find—the population density of Germany’s largest city—they can figure out the answer. In another challenge, students must calculate how many U.S. dollars they would have if they came home from a trip abroad with 150 South African rand, 350 Kuwait dinars and 200 Japanese yen.

Additional digital literacy resources for teachers

  • ProCon.org’s Teachers’ Corner offers lesson ideas for incorporating information presented on the independent, nonpartisan and nonprofit website, which offers pro-and-con examinations of controversial issues ranging from standardized testing to euthanasia.
  • PolitiFact Texas, a project of the Austin American-Statesman and the Pulitzer Prize-winning www.politifact.com, rates political statements on hot issues as “true,” “mostly true,” “half true,” “mostly false,” “false” and “pants on fire!” In its examination of statements, Politifact demonstrates how much research and analysis are necessary to evaluate a claim.
  • The University of Illinois Library’s Digital Literacy YouTube channel offers short videos on finding and evaluating information.