Raluca Tunison

Ontario Tech University


This chapter provides a broad overview of the concept of digital literacy, and how it fits within the modern digital landscape. A historical overview from the concept of the “digital native” to the pedagogies underpinning digital literacies are discussed. Different conceptions and definitions of digital literacy are also provided, focusing on both career-oriented perspectives as well as civics and digital citizenship considerations. The definition of digital literacy differs depending on its scope or the lens through which it is viewed, and may also change over time as digital media and tools evolve.  The integration of digital literacy in the K-12 curriculum in Canada through the MediaSmart framework is analyzed, as well as several considerations for assessing students’ achievement of literacy skills.


digital literacy, digital citizenship, media literacy, 21st century skills


As digital technology has perfused our lives, the idea of a new type of literacy has emerged: digital literacy”. Access to digital technology has increased our access to knowledge and information, but has also provided the opportunity to develop new pedagogies (Law et al., 2010).  However, in order to effectively navigate the use of emerging technology and digital tools, learners need to develop a set of skills that enable the effective use of existing technologies and the ability to adapt to new digital tools.

Digital literacy isn’t limited to skills needed to operate digital technology. These skills can also relate closely to critical medial literacy as well as social and civic consciousness.  Developing digital literacy skills may help stoke civic interest and help support civic engagement in young adults (Martens & Hobbs, 2015).  Digital technology changes the way individuals can engage with their society. While previously local civic issues were most salient, citizens now have to ability to engage in civic and social activity on a broader scale (Buchholz et al., 2020).

By fostering the development of digital literacy skills, educators are providing learners with a toolkit that will help them navigate a complex and changing world. Still, rapid technological and social changes, from the development of smartphones, and social media to social shifts caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, have made it all the more important to understand the breadth of digital literacy skills that students need to develop.


A starting point for thinking about digital literacy can be Marc Prensky’s (2001) discussion of the difference between “Digital Native” students and their “Digital Immigrant” teachers. Within it Prensky argues that through exposure to technology, students are being socialized through technology, and thus interact with the world in a new way. At the time the view was that these students’ ability to navigate the digital world had become an innate part of their development. From a pedagogic standpoint, teachers were urged to create exciting media-rich environments to engage their students and keep their attention.

Digital literacy, on the other hand, looks at the skills required by the students to navigate the new media and technology landscape and directs pedagogy towards helping students build those skills effectively. This has shifted the assumption that digital natives innately adapt and adopt new technologies, to a view that they can be instructed in the development of a set of digital skills, known as “digital literacy” (Ng, 2012). While the perspective that digital natives adapt to technology innately may no longer hold, digital literacy skills can be built through a combination of the school curriculum and the student’s own exploration and use of digital media (List, 2019).

Defining Digital Literacy

Definitions of digital literacy are still changing and emerging. Digital literacy may be seen as an evolution of media literacy adapted for the digital age. Within this context, the key aspects of digital literacy are underpinned by the ability to process media information and use these skills to participate in work and civic society (Martens & Hobbs, 2015).

UNESCO takes a more holistic and career-oriented view. Within their 2018 UNESCO report on global digital literacy, Law et al. (2018) propose the following definition of digital literacy:

Digital literacy is the ability to access, manage, understand, integrate, communicate, evaluate and create information safely and appropriately through digital technologies for employment, decent jobs, and entrepreneurship. It includes competencies that are variously referred to as computer literacy, ICT literacy, information literacy, and media literacy (p. 6)

This definition captures the wide breadth of skills that encompass digital literacy. Digital literacy curriculums will vary depending on their context. Countries with emerging access to digital technologies may focus on the more technical skills of being able to navigate and operate within digital contexts, while countries with well-developed access to technology may put more focus on information and media literacy (Law et al., 2018).


The modern view of digital literacy typically assumes students are building upon a foundation of technical skills. From a pedagogical perspective, developing digital literacy skills can be viewed from a social constructivist lens:  digital literacy allows students to engage in learning communities or communities of practice where they can both participate and reinforce their knowledge (List, 2019).

A Canadian Framework

There is no national digital literacy strategy Within Canada, and its curriculum inclusion is determined by the provinces. However, a non-profit organization created by the Government of Canada and funded by both the government and private enterprise, MediaSmart (n.d.), has created a series of tools and guidelines for teaching digital literacy within Canadian K-12 schools, known as “USE, UNDERSTAND & ENGAGE: A Digital Media Literacy Framework for Canadian Schools – Overview.”

MediaSmart’s digital literacy framework assumes students already have the ability to navigate and use technology and primarily focuses on critical analysis and thoughtful participation in digital media. The framework incorporates the following topics: reading media, media representation, ethics and empathy, privacy and security, community engagement, media health, consumer awareness, finding and verifying, and mixing and remixing. Lesson plans, tools and online interactives are available for K-12 teachers, as well as lesson plans tailored to each province’s learning outcomes (MediaSmart, n.d.).

There are a few limitations to the MediaSmart framework: it does not address technical skills, it lacks the focus on some of the concrete competencies within the UNESCO definition, and its implementation may differ depending on each provincial curriculum.

For example, in Ontario, the MediaSmart (n.d.) content is taught specifically within the Physical Education & Health classes in K-12, where it shares space with sports, physical activity, sexual education, and other health topics. A curriculum that better reflects the digital world in which students live their lives would incorporate aspects of media literacy throughout in the same way it would incorporate critical thinking, problem-solving and other thinking, and basic literacy skills.

Digital Literacy Standards and Assessment

Although UNESCO has proposed a global digital literacy skill indicator tool (Law et al., 2018), most countries develop their digital literacy standards either by adopting enterprise-developed tools such as the Microsoft Digital Literacy Standard Curriculum (Microsoft, 2022) or set them through a national curriculum initiative, such as Canada’s MediaSmart framework. However, these frameworks differ in scope, some putting more emphasis on learning to use digital tools, while others emphasize critical thinking skills.

Other standards are also emerging. For example, a framework for digital competencies was developed at Ontario Tech’s EILAB: the General Technological Competency and Use (GTCU) (Blayone et al., 2018). While this framework does not specifically refer to digital literacy, it considers several different “digital readiness” skills that overlap strongly with the core digital literacy skills defined by UNESCO.

When designing assessments of digital literacy there should be a few considerations. Firstly, these assessments do not always match actual use cases within students’ careers and private lives. For example, students may be tested on their ability to perform digital tasks on a desktop computer, while in their work environment or at home they may comfortably perform these tasks on a tablet or smartphone (Law et al., 2018).  Similarly, Reichert et al. (2020) found that digital literacy is not a generic competence, and student performance may be tool and context-dependent. Thus, when designing assessments of digital literacy, familiar contexts should be used, and students’ prior use of technology and digital media should be taken into consideration.

Other aspects of digital literacy may be very difficult to measure and assess. For example, the impact of a student’s digital literacy skills on their civic involvement may be particularly opaque. Effective digital citizenship requires more than just the ability to engage with the technology—digital citizenship requires active participation and collaboration online while engaging with complex ideas of equity (Martens & Hobbs, 2015).

Conclusions and Future Recommendations

Most Canadians will need some level of digital literacy to not only succeed in their education and careers but also in their personal and civic lives. Digital technologies and algorithm-driven media are now heavily entrenched in our consumption of information both at home and at school. With this in mind, it is imperative to give students the tools to navigate this complex landscape.

However, teaching digital literacy is not an easy task—digital literacy encompasses a wide breadth of skills, and its definition may continue to shift as new technologies emerge. Furthermore, students enter the classroom with a broad range of digital knowledge and experiences. As a result, digital literacy would need to be integrated across the curriculum within a variety of subjects, while also ensuring students have the tools they need to adapt to future changes.


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Technology and the Curriculum: Summer 2022 Copyright © 2022 by Raluca Tunison is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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