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Reports from the Classroom: Removing the Isolation of Digital Literacy

Martha Warner Martha Warner
14th April 2021
Reports from the Classroom: Removing the Isolation of Digital Literacy

Note: The views and opinions expressed in blog/editorial posts are those of the author. They do not purport to reflect the views or opinions of Misbar.

Daniel walks into our university classroom and belts, “Warner, did you hear they’re cancelling Dr. Seuss? Who does that?” 

I have to contain my sigh and eye roll before my student, or any student, sees my sheer exhaustion over people perpetuating this kind of misinformation.

Instead, I patiently ask Daniel to sit down as I quickly rearrange the day’s lesson in my head. I start with, “Let’s talk about this. How many of you are familiar with what Daniel is referring to?”

Daniel has already aroused a few other comments from some of his classmates who were open and brazen in their reactions. 

“Freaking democrats.”

“Are you kidding me? No one’s canceling anything.”

“Dr. Seuss is an innocent player in the left’s game.”

But I also caught the eye rolls, sighs, and forced distractions. 

I start a line of questioning about who “they” refers to and where this information comes from. Then I ask the question that halts the conversation: “How many of you checked sources to verify what you heard?”


This instance is a regular occurance in the classroom where learning is expected, but it’s also happening more in our day-to-day lives. Rumors, lies, and misinformation spread like wildfires. 

Misinformation is readily available: social media, television, streaming services, and hundreds of other outlets put misinformation out there for the world to see quickly and easily. The ease of digital access helps move along the lies that are being told regularly. Media is often skewed because competing outlets are working to sell stories. Those stories are competing for ratings; the more biased a story is, the more emotion it triggers, generating higher ratings. But we can’t blame it all on the media. We have control over what we do and what we share. 

It needs to change, but where do we start? Many would say it needs to start in the classroom. 

The concept of digital literacy was firmly established in 1997 with Paul Gilster’s book Digital Literacy. In it, he challenges internet users to critically evaluate what they find. That concept worked well for many years as only a select group of people had access to the internet. 

But as the internet became more readily available, digital literacy was less luxury and more career-based. People who wanted to be successful in business needed digital literacy skills. Enter 2016 when Former President Barack Obama charged The Department of Education with the Computer Science for All Initiative, which established Computer Science (CS) programs in schools throughout the country. 

Most states created a digital literacy program for their state standards. Schools created standalone programs or implemented digital literacy into the core curriculum. Some states, like my state of Indiana, placed CS programs with the sciences and integrated digital literacy in all content areas as a literacy standard for grades K-12, which has evolved into information literacy. Core courses include components of information literacy to teach students about accessing media sources and outlets, but it’s yet another piece added to the already impossible curriculum. 

Digital Literacy in Isolation

Many programs teach digital literacy skills in isolation; removed from the rest of the content as a separate unit or with a separate focus. Oftentimes, the librarian at a university becomes the digital literacy expert who comes in to teach the skills of evaluating sources and information as part of a mandated process. 

It’s limited, but it can work. At Indiana University’s Kokomo campus, where I teach W131: Reading, Writing, and Inquiry I (first-year composition) and S121: Public Speaking (speech), that was our practice until 2019 when I participated in a grant-funded project called Mind Over Chatter. Instead of having the librarian swoop in as the expert on digital literacy, instructors and peer mentors taught modules that challenged student perceptions on authority, framing, bias, and more, with enhancements from the librarian. These modules were originally designed to stand alone, but my team (instructor, peer mentor, and librarian) worked together to fully integrate the modules into our existing courses. You can read more about that project here.

The project worked well enough for the first-year composition classroom, but it added yet another component to my already overflowing curriculum. And it left me with no pre-packaged modules for my speech students who also needed the skills. It also made digital literacy feel removed from the existing curriculum no matter how much I tried to make it fit.

Digital Literacy, Inclusively 

With years of experience, I’ve learned that the most effective teaching happens when the dynamic of the students meets the pulse of the world. Students need to experience the world--flawed, gross, unabridged--in order to fully grasp how to communicate effectively. We can theorize concepts all we want, but it’s the nitty-gritty practice that matters to the person where that information sticks. A lab tech can know all the technical processes of drawing blood, but without that actual practice with a person, it’s not as effective. Learning doesn’t happen in isolation. Any quality educator knows that when we teach something, we cannot teach it in isolation because it doesn’t stick in the same way it does when it’s connected to other knowledge. 

Take “canceling” Dr. Seuss for example. We could have moved into our regular lesson for the day or discussed our feelings about Dr. Seuss. Instead, we dug into what led to the language. We did some fact-checking ourselves. We looked at how the publishing companies’ decision not to continue printing certain books led to an all-out war between people who love Dr. Seuss and the rest of the world. We mined for strategies that would help us avoid those pitfalls in media and to respond to our friends and family who were deep in that same pit. We did this all in isolation from our regular coursework.

But then, we took it a step further. Speech students were starting an assignment on Public Service Announcements. We rewatched PSAs from different decades, and I asked students to note the detailed facts, the sources, and the feelings that emerged. And then, we checked the facts. We looked at the evolution of the evidence provided. We looked for flaws and issues with the claims. Early in the semester, I work with students to create a standard that challenges perceptions, beliefs, and comfort. We weighed the PSAs against that standard. The next step was for them to use that process in creating their own PSAs. We did this all inclusively with our regular coursework.

In both composition and speech, the librarian and I take advantage of the noise in the outside world. We work on creating an environment where students can talk about issues safely but critically. Together, we create a platform where students discover and use methods for checking sources, finding other information on the topic, and challenging those sources as much as they challenge themselves. 

The Curriculum Follows the Students

Not every group of students is the same; therefore, the way I teach them doesn’t stay the same. I may have a class that has students who are struggling with mental health issues who need to talk about their feelings alongside the facts. That group may need to focus on rationalizing their emotions before they can see the facts. I may have another class that has students who are extremely critical and question everything around them who need to consider why people believe what they believe. That group may need to focus on how the facts lead to a person’s perspective or story before they can begin to trust others.

What doesn’t change is the need for digital literacy. Teaching it within an existing course curriculum (inclusively) typically works for more students than teaching it as a separate course (exclusively), but in all actuality, both methods need to be considered. Like the Dr. Seuss example, a learning experience can stem from exclusive to become inclusive. No matter what, if it’s not rooted in what they are experiencing in the world, it’s not going to work for most students. 

More of us need to act like students in our everyday lives. We need to challenge our perceptions, beliefs, and comforts. We need to put in the work to actively challenge those parts of us. We need to have those hard conversations and open our minds to other people’s truth. And we need to do it all through a critical lens.

Photo by JHU Sheridan Libraries/Gado/Getty Images