Voices in Education

Improving Digital Literacy in the Classroom

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As you walk down the street, in any city or town, you would not be surprised to see children as young as 2 with a digital device in hand. Many of us have perhaps rued the day when we gave our children their first phone or tablet and wished for the “good old days” without devices. However, we are also aware that these devices have given us unprecedented access to information 24 hours a day from “how to” videos to news and entertainment. We are living in an era where digital media is omnipresent.

Improving digital literacy in the classroom

As a teacher, I have taken full advantage of using digital media to deliver content to differentiate my lessons and engage my students in a way that is familiar to them. I no longer have to wait to give feedback or correct a misconception. I can send a quick message and include a link to a video of an expert or a simulation aimed at clarifying a concept. By the same token, my middle school students have also taken advantage of this easy access, becoming YouTube and video game experts and making full use of the internet to engage with content that interests them. The difference between the two is the critical step of curation of information, and that is the crux of the matter. How do you convince 13-year-olds that have always relied on Google’s search screen to answer research questions that they have to actually open each search result, read the information, find the author and cross-reference the information presented with other sources? Or better yet, how can you ensure that your students have the necessary digital literacy skills to identify different types of media, think critically about them and understand the messages they're sending?

Students as consumers

In my science classroom, it is not unheard of for all students to be working with different media and sources of information. My delivery is project-based learning, which means that at any point a group may need to do some research on the water crisis in Flint, while another group is looking at infographics related to the drought in California. According to ISTE standards for students - 3, while doing this, both groups need to “critically curate a variety of resources using digital tools to construct knowledge, produce creative artifacts and make meaningful learning experiences for themselves and others.”

To prepare them for this type of information curation, at the beginning of the school year, I teach students two critical lessons:

  1. How to Google Search Like a Pro - While this lesson does not ensure that students will read their search results, it does help them become better at finding the information they may need and eliminate the distractions caused by random searches.
  2. Should I CITE IT? - This lesson and the use of its corresponding form (Form  and Form responses) is aimed at teaching students those necessary curation skills. Although the students may not always be very sophisticated in their analysis for a specific article when the tool is first introduced, its continued use proves beneficial not only for the thinking about the obtained information but also as a curated list of sources for use in future projects. It also forces students to actually open each of the resources obtained in a search, which for us is one of the biggest hurdles.

As the year progresses, I also add a media deconstructing analysis task to all research projects, rounding out the critical thinking about media skills that are necessary for my students to become media literate.

Students as creators

Opportunities for students to create their own media abound. Since most of our students have access to devices at home and in the classroom, and tech companies working hard to position themselves as the “go to” for all sorts of media creation, the options are limitless. In fact, several years ago, I began to open up the product choices for students, often electing to ask them to “choose the product type that you think is best to communicate your findings/results.” However, this meant that I had to hone my own skills on different media production techniques and teach the idea that, regardless of product, it needed to tell a story.

Teaching the Teachers: Free Digital Literacy Professional Development

I started looking for different courses I could take to learn from the  specific platforms my students were sharing with me when almost serendipitously I landed on KQED Teach - a site that offers free professional development mini-courses on exactly what I needed, digital media literacy skills. By now, I have taken most of their courses, and the skills I learned have proved invaluable additions to my curriculum and expectations for students.

I invite you to take a look at some of my favorite student created products:

Imperfect is still perfect in response to my Trash Talk unit.

Save the Giant Ibis created for the biodiversity project

Incremental Steps to Digital Success

As with all content, media literacy is not taught in one lesson or even one unit. It is a series of small steps and daily practice that, with careful planning, takes the students on a journey of empowerment to become active citizens in the digital world. Most of your lessons today could be augmented with a media literacy component, whether it be a think aloud about how you found the information you are presenting or using an infographic and showing students how to deconstruct it to determine its reliability. If you add a media literacy component to a lesson every couple of weeks, by the end of the school year, you will have devoted 10% of your time to teaching media literacy and your students will be well on their way to becoming the global collaborators their future jobs will require them to be.


Looking to expand your media literacy skill set? Your pathway toward certification starts with free online PD courses from KQED. Already mastered media literacy? Showcase your skills by becoming a PBS Certified Media Literacy Educator! Learn more at kqed.org/certification.

Mariana Garcia Serrato

Mariana Garcia Serrato STEM Teacher http://www.teachingabovethetest.com/ Twitter: MarianaGSerrato

Mariana Garcia Serrato is a STEM teacher at Oak Grove School District in San Jose, California. She currently teaches Science and Engineering in grades five through eight and most recently became a PBS Digital Media Certified Educator. Her goal of making STEM relevant to her students has inspired her to create a fully gamified, PBL classroom. She enjoys sharing her ideas in her blog, Teaching Above the Test, and connecting with other educators using the Twitter handle @MarianaGSerrato.

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