Digital Literacy–What does it mean to a writer?

digital literacy‘Digital literacy’ is one of those buzz words floated by experts as being granular to the 21st-century. It’s on everyone’s tongue but figuring out what it means can be daunting. ‘Literacy’ is simple: the ability to read and write–so ‘digital literacy’ should be achieving those goals digitally.

Not that simple. Here are a few of the definitions I found:

the ability to find, evaluate, utilize, share, and create content using information technologies and the Internet.“.

–Cornell University

“the ability to use digital technology, communication tools or networks to locate, evaluate, use and create information”

–Digital Strategy Glossary of Key Terms

“the ability to understand and use information in multiple formats from a wide range of sources when it is presented via computers:

–Paul Gilster, Digital Literacy

“a person’s ability to perform tasks effectively in a digital environment… includes the ability to read and interpret media, to reproduce data and images through digital manipulation, and to evaluate and apply new knowledge gained from digital environments

–Barbara R. Jones-Kavalier and Suzanne L. Flannigan: Connecting the Digital Dots

Philosophically, these are all good definitions, but after fifteen years teaching K-8 technology and grad school, I know ‘digital literacy’ is much more complicated than a couple of sentences, especially when we’re talking about a generation baptized in iPads and smartphones. Here are the seven transformative skills required to be digitally-literate:

Basic tools

Digital literacy implies skills you and your characters already have but without paper, pencils, books, or lectures. It’s purpose-built and user-driven and includes the following:

  • digital devices–such as laptops, iPads, Chromebooks, or desktops, used daily
  • a digital calendar–with due dates, activities, and other events
  • an annotation tool (like Acrobat, Notability, or iAnnotate), to take notes wherever you are
  • email–or some method of communicating quickly–more real-time than email. This can be messaging, Twitter, or a dedicated forum

social mediaSocial media

Social media has the reputation as a gossip column–where people meet to chat. But, it’s not your mother’s water cooler. Over a billion people use Facebook and Twitter every day. That’s over 80% of internet users, about 70% in high school or under. It crosses both sexes and all income levels. In short, it has become the communication method-of-choice for millennials and younger, where users share information, collaborate on ideas, and update deadlines.

As a writer, your goal is to represent characters as they are in the real world. That’s social media.

cloud computingCloud computing

The digitally-literate can start something in one place and finish it in another. It may require switching seamlessly between the work PC and the home Mac. It means sharing a report with team members without worrying that you don’t have email addresses or they can’t read the format you published in. Cloud computing makes all that happen. It’s accessible from anywhere with internet or WiFi, on any device, by whoever you give access. Whether that’s one document a week or ten, people expect you to be that versatile.

Writers need to understand how cloud computing works and which ‘clouds’ are used by their characters.

Digital databases

Physical libraries are often closed when inspiration strikes. Plus, their supply of resources is dictated by how many shelves they have. The Library of Congress, while almost infinite (with a copy of every copyrighted tome) can only be accessed from Washington DC. Digital databases are the new library. They’re infinite, everywhere, and welcome visitors at all hours. Writers should learn how to roam these virtual halls and access not only online libraries but dedicated databases like the Smithsonian and the History Channel.digital library

Virtual collaboration

Writer’s groups struggle to find a time that works for all participants, agree on a meeting place, and then actually get there (schedule conflicts with other family members or car problems can make that difficult).  Virtual collaboration has none of those problems. Documents can be shared with all stakeholders and accessed at will. Many digital tools (like Google Apps) allow writers to review submittals for a critique group even if the dog ate their printed copy. Meetings can take place in the bedroom or their backyard, through virtual sites like Google Hangouts and Skype. A wide variety of resources can be shared without lugging an armful of materials to the meeting and ultimately forgetting to bring half of them home. These get-togethers can even be taped and shared with absent members or rewound for review.

Writers should become comfortable using these if for no other reason than that their characters may use them, especially if they’re under forty.

Evaluate information found online

Just because information is online doesn’t mean it’s not ‘fake news’. Writers will quickly lose their reading audience if they don’t present accurate information that fits the facts. To do that, writers need the tools to evaluate the reliability and veracity of what they find online. This includes questions such as:

  • is the site legitimate or a hoax
  • is the author an expert or a third grader
  • is the information current or dated
  • is the data neutral or biased

Digital citizenshipcollaboration

Because we-all spend so much time online, we need to learn how to act in that digital neighborhood. This includes topics detailing the rights and responsibilities of digital citizens, such as:

  • cyberbullying
  • legality of online material
  • buying stuff online
  • digital footprints
  • privacy and safety while traveling the digital world

Being a good citizen of the digital world is no different than the physical world. There are practical strategies that revolve around proper netiquette and an understanding of the culture that permeates a vast, anonymous, Wild West-like territory often defined by the accountability of those who visit it.

Consider these eight topics the organic workflow to be covered as you and your characters travel the internet. I’ve only touched on them–let me know if you have questions about any and I’ll direct you to more resources.


Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy, the Rowe-Delamagente thrillers, and the upcoming Born in a Treacherous Time. She is also the author/editor of over a hundred books on integrating tech into education, adjunct professor of technology in education, webmaster for four blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer,  a columnist for TeachHUB, monthly contributor to Today’s Author and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics. You can find her books at her publisher’s website, Structured Learning.

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9 thoughts on “Digital Literacy–What does it mean to a writer?

  1. Sorry that came out so large! Yikes!

  2. Jacqui, this is the best collated discussion of digital technology and why it’s important I’ve encountered. I wish I were efficient enough to use this info efficiently but I’m way behind. Fortunately, my sons and their families are right on target. You’ve shown me why I need to catch up.

  3. The cloud is big and going to get bigger. In the last five years I’ve seen a major shift from companies owning their own data centers to companies moving all their data processing and storage into the ‘cloud.’ My job for the last three years has been moving my development team from in house PC and servers to a fully cloud based solution. In my personal computing, I’ve been starting that shift myself. I predicate that over the next 2-5 years most individuals will be moving their storage, and other computing needs to the cloud and will be using more handheld devices to access that rather than desk top computers. To be relevant is increasing meaning managing your on-line presence.

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