If Digital Literacy is a Basic Skill, Who’s Responsible for Teaching It?

One of my students, a grandmother in her fifties, sat a full arm’s length away from the computer, recoiling from the mouse as if it were a snake. It was the first night of our Freshman Comp I class at the rural Drew, Mississippi campus of Mississippi Delta Community College, and I was trying to introduce her to our class website.

Like many of my students, younger and older, she does not use computer or Internet on a regular basis. In many cases, my students are learning to use the internet or their devices–beyond updating Facebook or texting—for the first time. I show them how to access our learning management system (Canvas), and how to access their essential student and college information on our administrative system (because there is no orientation or workshop for them on how to do that). But I also often end up teaching them how to use basic computer software (Word, Google).

There’s a misconception among some teachers and policymakers, especially at the college level, that students come to us already being tech-savvy. I recently learned that some of our secondary schools have done away with what was called “computer discovery” courses, based on that same reasoning. The truth is many of our students need teachers and schools to provide not only access but also direction and encouragement in navigating and using various tech tools.

Others believe simply putting students in a computer lab, or in front of a whiteboard, or even allowing them to bring their own devices will result in technology infused learning. Technology is not magical; students are not engaged by the technology alone, but by learning how to use technology to do meaningful things. As some of my own students pointed out on a webinar a few months ago, “It’s not the technology; it’s the teachers!”

A recent guest blog at Larry Cuban’s On School Reform and Classroom Practice focused on the need for teachers to be trained in how to do online teaching.  This warning comes at a time when many colleges have rushed into the competition to offer courses online while giving faculty little or no professional development in how to do it well. Learning and writing are different digitally than they are experienced face-to-face. Teaching an online class is much more than throwing our lecture notes (or a lecture video) up; whipping up a set of computer graded quizzes/tests; then setting the class on auto-pilot.

I practice blended teaching in my courses, which to me is really appropriate, given how a community college is situated as a transition into higher education. By requiring students to learn and use digital tools while they also have physical access to their teacher, I hope to encourage them to explore more ways to use technology independently (taking online courses, MOOCs, and other self-directed learning).

 Some of my English colleagues (here and around the nation) chafe at being expected to show adult students how to use a word processor, how to log-on or register on websites, how to do a focused web search, and other seemingly mundane tech tasks, not directly related to our course content. Yet, these are critical communication skills in our world, and as an English teacher, I am a teacher of communication. My personal professional goal is not just to cover the course, but also to prepare students for fuller lives, empowering them to communicate in a world that often wants to marginalize or take advantage of them.

Eventually, my reluctant student tapped the mouse and realized it wouldn’t hurt her, and she didn’t break the computer. Now, at mid-semester, she’s confidently navigating web sites, producing Word documents, and searching resources, and we’re on our way to learning new things together.

Yes, helping her get there took some time away from other things in my syllabus, so we won’t read as many pieces, or I’ll lop off a writing assignment. How terrible is that? It would be great if all my students came already knowing how to use these tools, but if they don’t, don’t I have a moral duty to teach them?

What about teachers in other subjects? How do you respond to students with varying levels of tech ability? Should we still have designated computer courses?

  • DeidraGammill

    App Savvy but Technology Naive
    I appreciate your blog topic – you touched on a largely unspoken problem in the K-12 world; I just didn’t realize it was also an issue in higher education. Our high school teaches a STEM class, and the students learn a lot of fantastic things. But it still catches me off guard every time a student expresses confusion when I ask him or her to email me or post an assignment to Google docs. They are comfortable with smartphones and apps, but they have a difficult time understanding how to use basic software programs. The saddest part of the situation is that I am not much more advanced in my understanding of software and web “stuff” (as evidenced by my extensive vocabulary), so they leave my English I class a little more advanced, but not much. Kudos to you for drawing attention to a problem while working to solve it in your own classroom. 🙂
    Mississippi teachers rock!
    Deidra Gammill

    • ReneeMoore

      Learning Digital Together

      Yes, Mississippi teachers do rock!

      From what I’m hearing this is a common myth across levels of education. Truth is many of our students AND teachers are learning how to navigate the digital world together, and that’s not a bad thing. It saddens me that some schools don’t allow teachers or students the freedom to explore these tools by working on meaningful projects.

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  • BriannaCrowley


    Although I am a self-admitted technology enthusiast, I still sometimes have to remind myself that “back to the basics” is necessary for some of my students. I love when they come to me with some established skills and behaviors for using technology with their learning, but I cannot expect that their comfort with a smart phone will automatically transmit to their efficacy in using that phone for learning in my classroom. 

    I too see my role as a 9-12 educator  to “teach communication” as you so brilliantly point out. If the majority of the current and future communications will take place on  digital platforms, I am not doing my job if I don’t help students understand how to advocate and learn using that digital platform. I feel so passionately about this, that I rarely let my colleagues “off the hook” when they suggest that they are simply more comfortable with printed word rather than digital. I don’t berate or belittle them by any means, but I challenge them to think about how much of their own daily writing and reading is digital. Why shouldn’t we be asking our students to prepare for that world?

    Thanks for calling attention to this!


  • ErnieRambo

    Too Much Tech Control

    Each day, I find my “digital native” students who feel intimidated by using unfamiliar applications. Just as I focus on helping students understand how they learn, no matter what subject I teach, I am beginning to recognize that part of my job includes helping students learn how to use technolgical applications. Just because so many of our students are tech-savvy, it doesn’t mean that they will seek out a tech tool that will help them create a knock-out presentation ro to collaborate more conveniently with their peers. The teachers in my school are comfortable with taking kids to the computer lab for word processing or with checking out a mobile cart of iPads for research, but how can we move toward using technology seamlessly? –how can we encourage our students to say, “How about if I use this app to help me keep track of information that I gather?”

    Sometimes, I feel as if we should knock down the walls (and the technolgical limitations) of our schools and take our students to various offices, labs, places of business, and let them see first-hand how technology is used. I feel as if we’re limiting our students’ education when we don’t help them see how to use the tools and the information that can be made available with the Internet. How can we encourage teachers to consider a greater variety of tech applicaitons in their classrooms?

  • ReneeMoore

    Increasing teacher “comfort” with digital writing

    Many of my colleagues at the community college would give the same answer about being more comfortable with print. I’m trying to get more of them to engaged in forms of digital writing as educators, in order to get us all more comfortable with teaching (and learning) digital writing with our students.

    I remember my early work with Bread Loaf Teacher Network, and how I learned that students writing changes in significant ways in digital genres. Are you familiar with Troy Hicks’ work or others on this topic?

  • Richard T Fanning

    Tech in the Everyday Curriculum

    I agree with your thesis that all teachers are responsible for helping their students develop sophisticated tech skills. I recently retired from a 15 year stint as the Computer Teachr in a 7/8 Middle School in western Massachusetts. I spent all of that time waiting for my colleargues to catch up with the current and emergins technologies. Yet, despite our robust district network, the average core subject classroom teacher is still oriented to the pre-PC era.

    If we can encourage our public school admins and teachers to begin to transition to these tools, our students will have the opportunities they need to learn how to use them, learn with them, and teach their mentors new and improved ways to deliver curriculum. 

    My students loved to come to my computer lab because they enjoyed the chance to work on their projects without “interference”, i.e., lecture, from the teacher. One project that was always popular with students was the development of digital portfolio web sites. We figured out that the portfolio approach allows for all kinds of academic work and all the forms technology can take.

    Thanks for a thoughtful message which addresses the overdue need for tech integration.

    • Kevin A. Tierney

      CCSS and Technology

      As the Common Core Standards roll out in the K-12 classrooms more emphasis will have to be placed on technology.  Tech skills are integrated throughout these standards, so districts are going to have to find ways to integrate technology and teachers will be forced to step up to the challenge.  In my district we piloted 600 Chromebooks this year and will be adding 1200 more next year, moving toward an eventual 1:1 model.  Other districts are engaged in similar roll outs, while still others are scrambling to find funds to bring more technology on board.  Eventually, students entering the college ranks will be better able to use technology as a learning tool and won’t need as much support.  That said, if their skills are not up to par, teachers do have an obligation to take some time away from their core curricular area to assist that student and others like them. I too say “thank you” for bringing up a subject that needs to be discussed.

  • ReneeMoore

    Teachers Learning to Integrate Technology

    Tom and Kevin,

    Your remarks make me wonder how much time and resources were put into helping teachers become more proficient in their uses of technology in classroom. My experience has been that most of the schools get tech hardware with a buffet of grants, but often those grants do not include funding for PD or training of faculty. Even fewer schools are providing real learning time for teachers in how to effectively integrate various technologies.  How did your districts/schools approach this issue?


  • Taya Tayler

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