It took me almost a year to get over the trauma of writing this. I have a lot more empathy for my students for whom school assignments suck the joy out of things they normally look forward to doing.

With only a couple minor corrections (which are indicated with bolded font), here is the master’s paper I submitted in March, 2011. A hard rule separates sections/pages. We were required to use APA style, which I believe makes the text less readable. I may fix this later if enough readers confirm my opinion.

There is an accompanying prezi I used for my master’s presentation. It is located at Access to Opportunity on You can also go to and search for "Kathleen Stidham". I notice that some of the text and images have shifted from their original placements, and will have to go back and fix them eventually. Images (other than the two graphs from the Pew website) were either designated public domain or purchased for the presentation and are cited at the end of the presentation.

Access to opportunity:

Some digital literacy issues in education


This literature review examines the effect of inadequate home access to computer and internet technologies on academic digital literacy and the use of digital literacies in school. Professional organizations advocate for digital literacy instruction in schools to prepare students for employment, and government standards are in place to encourage and support such instruction. Studies around the world identify correlations between student familiarity with internet and communications technologies and student accomplishments in school-based digital literacies. Other studies consider whether specific uses of technology within classrooms are effective as well as uncovering at newly-discovered, technology-specific learning disabilities. There is evidence that home access is a strong predictor for student self-efficacy and skill, however schools have the task of helping all students learn to use ICT proficiently regardless of home access. Questions about the impacts of digital literacies and various computer applications are continuing to be explored as new technologies are developed and become part of the assumed funds of knowledge of the population in the United States and around the world. Based on this research, classroom teachers might consider surveying their students’ home computer and internet access and prior experience with classroom technologies before planning and conducting instruction that depends on those factors.

Access to information sources and distribution of information has long been a concern for teachers interested in social justice and literacy (Freire, 2005). Being literate has meant that a person had access to knowledge and the means to communicate and disseminate information. The power of communication was again made evident this year when cellular and internet communications were used to organize and then make public the results of large public uprisings in Egypt resulting in regime change (Olivarez-Giles, 2011). Literacy in these new technologies is demonstrably powerful.

Still, not everyone has access to these exciting and powerful communication technologies. Narcisse (2010) cited statistics from the Pew Research Center showing that 37% of lower-income households do not use the internet and that 48% of people without a high school diploma do not use the internet. The ability to use the internet, while not the totality of digital literacy, is nevertheless considered a key component of modern computer literacy. A mixed-methods study supports these data and asserts that adolescent familiarity with digital literacies is a predictor of adult employment opportunities (Robinson, 2009). The Partnership for 21st Century Skills (2011) promotes knowing how to use various technologies as important for workplace success. It seems clear that this is an important content area for today’s students and teachers.

To reduce confusion, in this paper the term “digital literacy” will be used to denote the ability to efficiently find, critically use and independently create content transmitted by Information and Communications Technologies (ICT), including computer and cellular systems. “Digital divide” refers to the gap in access and opportunity created by economic realities that constrain lower-income families’ decisions around purchasing technology or engaging in fee-based technology services. “Home access” refers specifically to student home access as explored in studies; where a study also considered library and internet-café access points “out-of-school access” will be used.

Widespread use of Internet and Communications Technologies (ICT) is less than three decades old (German, 2011; Computer History Museum, n.d.), but has become so important to the economy and modern life that in the most recent State of the Union address President Obama promised, “Within the next five years, we’ll make it possible for businesses to deploy the next generation of high-speed wireless coverage to 98 percent of all Americans” (2011). This could particularly impact rural residents. In 2010 the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission reported that only 50% of rural locations have internet access (as cited by White, 2010), only a slight increase since 2000, when 38.9% of rural households were estimated to have access (Mineta, 2000, p. xv). The importance of such access was highlighted in a speech by Secretary of State Clinton (2011) who said that the “internet can serve as a great equalizer. By providing people with access to knowledge and potential markets, networks can create opportunity where none exists.”

Although Secretary Clinton (2011) was advocating for freedom of access in other countries, the same holds true in the United States: opportunity is advanced for all when information is made available to all. According to the Washington State Superintendent of Public Instruction (n.d.(a)), “One of the goals of Title II, Part D of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) is to assist every student in crossing the digital divide by ensuring that every student is technologically literate by the time the student finishes the eighth grade, regardless of the student’s race, ethnicity, gender, family income, geographic location, or disability.” The importance of digital literacy and of student access to technology was made clear to this author during a student teaching experience in the autumn of 2010.

As a 7th grade Language Arts teacher, I expected students to use word processing to produce a final product, a digital literacy skill that is generally expected to be used by the 4th grade (Washington State Superintendent of Public Instruction, 2008). As products came due, I learned that many students’ homes did not have computers, printers, and/or internet access; others had only passing familiarity with the computer systems in the school. Some students didn’t understand how to interpret formatting instructions, nor how to save their work for later retrieval. Thus the assigned task was out of their reach. Clearly, even at the level of word processing, the digital divide was in play for my students. Recognizing that other educators face similar issues, I chose to explore the effect of inadequate home access to computer and internet technologies on academic digital literacy and the use of digital literacies in school.

Digital literacies are considered part of the modern set of skills in which students will need to engage both during their school years and once they are employed (Partnership for 21st Century Skills, n.d.; Washington State Superintendent of Public Instruction, n.d.(b)). The National Council of Teachers of English (n.d.) recommends as a goal that “students use a variety of technological and information resources (e.g., libraries, databases, computer networks, video) to gather and synthesize information and to create and communicate knowledge” (Standard 8).

Other organizations that include digital literacies as fundamental to a modern education are the Washington State Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), the United States Department of Education (ED), National Education Association (NEA), and the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE). The International Reading Association (2009) has placed ICT as driving the “new literacies” connected to modern technologies, and which are constantly undergoing modifications. The Washington State Superintendent of Public Instruction has defined technology literacy as including the ability to create as well as to critically consume information using ICT and states, “at the basic level, we know that computers help students improve their performance on basic skills tests, and is a powerful tool for problem solving, conceptual development and critical thinking” (n.d.(b)). Additional descriptions and uses of digital literacies or analysis of the digital divide can be found in the websites in Appendix 1, A Few Education and Digital Literacy Websites.

Despite the implementation of digital literacy instruction and computer training in schools, lack of adequate home access can negatively impact student readiness for certain tasks and thus limit academic progress (Greenhow & Robelia, 2009; Hargittai, 2010; Margaryan, Littlejohn, & Vojt, 2011; Robinson, 2009; Ward, & Wasson-Ellam, 2005; and Zhao, Lu, Huang, & Wang, 2010). In addition, not all technologies are equally valuable for instruction nor equally accessible (Kühl, Scheiter, Gerjets, & Gemballa, 2011; Sins, Savelsbergh, van Joolingen, & van Hout-Wolters, 2010; Thorvaldsen, Egeberg, Pettersen, & Vavik, 2010; Vos, van der Meijden, & Denessen, 2011; and Zhao, Lu, Wang, & Huang, 2011). These inequities can lead to poor outcomes for students, and maintain or increase the digital divide.

Research was conducted through the Evergreen State College’s Daniel J. Evans Library “MetaSearch,” and focused on locating electronic copies of peer-reviewed journal articles relating to digital literacy. Search terms included “digital literacy” and “technology education” and later expanded to explore the terms “computer, access and academic.” References from some sources were used to find others. To get a sense for current trends, online sources such as professional and government websites were consulted and search engines were used to locate additional resources. Sources that were primarily commercial in nature were not used. While the focus was adolescent use and access, where data was lacking research on adjacent age groups was used. Unexplored in this paper were examinations of computer software developed for classroom and home use or for assistive technology. Neither obsolete technology nor limited workstations in classrooms have been addressed in this paper.

Access to the Digital Age

A Digital Divide

As a person’s income increases, access to amenities increases. In the years 2009 and 2010, the Pew Research Center collected user and usage data on many of the newer technologies such as cell phones, internet and computers, and revealed that while up to 95% of affluent persons (income greater than $75,000) use the internet at least occasionally, usage drops to 57% for people earning less than $30,000. The number of people with broadband (high-speed) internet access at home is greater than 87% in the high-income households but only 40% for people earning less than $30,000. (Jansen, 2010). Income was isolated from race or ethnicity for this analysis. However, there is a correlation between race and income level in the United States.

Denavas-Walt, Proctor and Smith (2010) provide an historical view of incomes based on race. The United States Census tracked poverty levels over a 50-year period from 1959 to 2009 which revealed a consistent trend with Hispanic, Black and Asian/Pacific Islander families experiencing higher rates of poverty than White families. Native Americans were not represented. Thus, it is reasonable to assume that a higher percentage of non-White individuals are at lower income levels, and therefore have more limited access to technologies.

In 2000, the internet access rate among Black and Hispanic households was approximately 18 percentage points lower than the national average, only partly due to income. Additional groups that experienced diminished internet access were people with disabilities, specifically vision and dexterity-impaired people, and single-parent households (Mineta, 2000, p. xvii). At the same time, use of computer-based assistive technologies for specific disabilities is well established in schools (Mckenna & Walpole, 2007). Teachers of students in grades K-12 who wish to make instructional decisions for out-of-school tasks might consider student demographics (income, race, disability and location) as potential predictors of access to necessary technologies.

Digital “Natives”

Many researchers are interested in the connections between income, race, and location and inequities in education and digital literacies. The concept of “digital natives” or individuals born after 1980 who have grown up in a world surrounded by technology and who therefore easily engage new technologies is generally accepted. As will be explored here, not all students have equal access and experience, nor do all students with access and experience necessarily know how to use digital literacies for learning.

Margaryan, Littlejohn and Vojt (2011) tested the concept of digital natives in a study of college students in the United Kingdom. The study took place on two campuses and addressed only engineering and social work students. Their findings appeared consistent with other studies cited in their article. Specifically, they discovered that ownership of all types of devices was higher among engineering students and those termed “digital natives” compared to social work students and older students. Academic use of technologies depended in large part on the attitudes and support of the university lecturers (teachers) rather than on student ownership. Margaryan et al. suggest that rather than spontaneously taking advantage of digital literacies for studying that students more passively wait for instructors to require it. A teacher who wants to support the use of digital communications for schoolwork may want to provide additional scaffolds and encouragement for students who would not spontaneously know how or when to use digital communications for studies and coursework despite having apparent prior knowledge.

Reflecting the concern for access within the United States, Hargittai’s (2010) survey-based study focused on computer use among first year students at a university in the United States in 2007. This study specifically examined the effects of race, gender and socioeconomic status on student access to and use of Internet skills. Students were asked about a number of habits of internet use and their time spent online. This study found positive correlation between higher parental education and increased computer skills and ownership. Some gender differences were found in time online, skills and the numbers of types of websites accessed. African Americans and Hispanics had lower incidence of computer use than whites and Asian-Americans in most measures. Overall, however, a positive correlation was found between ownership of computers, number of internet access points and skill levels for students. Hargittai concluded that while there is potential for the internet and computer use to make education more equitable, access issues instead further increase the digital divide. It is reasonable, then, to consider how the digital divide affects opportunities and in what contexts students are actually using the Internet.

Robinson’s (2010) longitudinal study of teenage students in a central California community revealed the role of home internet access in student use of search engines, and explored the very different outcomes that result when a student has time and opportunity to engage in “serious play” and when they don’t. Both general internet use and the ability of students to conduct efficient, high-quality research using search engines were affected. This study was carried out with high school students from a community in the central valley of California who resided in an urban area with a high poverty rate and a high minority student rate (9% white, 82% Hispanic, 64% receiving free lunch based on low family income), which allowed some correlation of findings to low income and minority students.
Robinson (2010) found that students experienced difficulty as they attempted to meet the requirements of academic demands dependent on use of computer, coupled with their limited ability to gain access to internet-connected computers. According to the survey results, in that community one-third of the students reported consistent access to high-quality internet access from home, one-third had low-quality access and one-third had no home access. Only six percent of the students without home access spent more than seven hours online in a week, while 81% of the students with high-quality home access spent that seven or more hours online. Home access affected use for these students.

Robinson (2010) reported a further correlation between the amount and quality of home internet access with a person’s attitude and habits of use. Low-quality and limited access users tended to view internet and computer time with specific goals in mind and therefore didn’t take time to enhance peripheral skills, such as trying different web search engines or experimenting with ways to use search functions. Robinson suggested that time constraints put pressure on students to perform in more limited ways. Additional studies cited by Robinson support the conclusion that access and familiarity with technology are important factors in student performance on tasks that require the use of that technology. The findings of this study suggest teachers may wish to consider community habits of use and accessibility issues for students, and be ready to provide additional instruction and/or access for students who lack home access.

These three studies pointed to a lack of academic digital literacy among students who fit the stereotypical digital native profile. Not surprisingly, students who had better access to technologies and increased experience online appeared to be more highly skilled, although even the most skilled students benefit from additional attention from their instructors. All three studies referenced either personal ownership, home access or prior experience as important for student familiarity and use of digital literacy.

Home Access Supports Digital Literacy

The issue of access is found world wide. Zhao, Lu, Huang and Wang (2010) conducted a study on Internet use using over 3,000 middle and high school students in China. The focus was on the connection between student use and self-efficacy and the location(s) where students accessed the internet. Zhao et al. found that the more time students spent using the internet in unstructured ways, the more capable the students perceived themselves as well as the more competent their work. A major finding by Zhao et al. (2010) was that the Internet Self Efficacy (ISE) score is highest for the students with home access and home in combination with other access points. “Self-efficacy” is defined as “people’s judgment of their capabilities to organize and execute courses of action required to attain designated types of performances” and is predictive of actual performance (Bandura, and Roca & Gagné as cited in Zhao et al., 2011, p. 348). Urban high school students had greater numbers of access points to the Internet and higher ISE scores than those in rural areas, and higher parental education level corresponded with home access and support for use of the internet. Zhao et al. explained that there is a correlation between the ability to use the internet both at home and at school, with academic performance boosted when students use the internet to study at home and for exploration while at school. This study did not account for the effects of race, a factor of importance to teachers in the less-homogeneous schools of the United States. Zhao et al.’s results point to the need for teachers to be direct and thoughtful when assigning internet-based tasks. Teachers may want to ask how students access and use required technologies outside of the classroom in order to help set up learning opportunities.

As noted by Zhao et al. (2010), home access is only one potential out-of-school access point for students. In a small ethnographic study of computer use in a neighborhood library in Canada, Ward and Wason-Ellam (2005) investigated the socially mediated literacies of library users. During observations and interviews, the research team documented use of the urban library as well as how people thought about their use of the literacy opportunities available there. The authors described the difficulty of getting to the library being an impediment to access. Though the focus of this study was on literacy practices, the authors noted how the availability of computers at the public library affected patrons who used the internet as simply one more node to access information, situated within other, print-based and multi-media literacies. The placement of computers as one of many literacies students engaged in outside of school supports the idea of access to technologies as being valuable enough to go out of one’s way. Teachers who are aware of these possible non-home access points outside of school as well as reasons that students might not be able to use those locations may be able to adapt expectations for use of digital literacies.
The issue of where access to technologies is available as well as the quality and duration of that access is tied to student familiarity and comfort with digital literacy. For some students, while out-of-school access may be available it might be neither reliable nor sufficient for conducting academic tasks outside of school, thus increasing a digital gap for education. Teachers whose students lack quality home access may wish to incorporate additional, less-structured time in class to allow those students to develop their skills. The next section addresses student experience with digital literacy tasks.

Student Experience and Academic Success

Researchers are beginning to explore how factors such as out-of-school digital literacies relate to in-school practices. The studies in this section review some factors that can be considered when planning digital literacy instruction or considering how students support and augment schoolwork through digital communications outside of school.

Greenhow and Robelia (2009) asserted that “to engage in an increasingly Internet-mediated and participatory culture, students need a solid understanding of traditional print-based literacies, 21st century skills (Partnership for 21st Century Skills, 2008) and digital literacies of online reading, writing, and communication (Coiro, Knobel, Lankshear & Leu, 2008; Greenhow, 2008; Greenhow, Robelia & Hughes, 2009; Leu, O’Byrne, Zawilinski, McVerry & Everett-Cacopardo, 2009; Thurlow, 2004)” (page 1131). Their study of 11 low-income high school students from the United States followed out-of-school engagement in a social network site (MySpace) and looked at the students’ perceptions of their interactions online and how they related to in-school literacies. Although a small study, it suggested that students who engage in out-of-school literacies successfully, as measured by self-efficacy, are able to enhance their in-school work as well. In discussing social networking specifically, Greenhow and Robelia posited that using social media allowed students to establish their status and expertise outside of school through the use of a somewhat public forum. “Status” refers to the placement of a person in a situational hierarchy, based in part on self-concept and partly on their performance of tasks within the community (Cohen and Lotan, 2004). The multiple literacies involved in social networking thus not only afford out-of-school practice in traditional literacies such as reading and writing, but establish students in the wider community as producers of content and ideas.

In order to focus on students who had significant experience, Greenhow and Robelia’s (2009) study specifically excluded students who did not have internet access from home. Students were all from the same large metropolitan area. While participants were all low-income, issues that might apply to rural students or students without home internet are not addressed. However, along with many other benefits reported by students, a specific school-related effect of social networking was to enhance support for schoolwork by allowing out-of-school communications with between 50 and 150 others in the students’ extended networks.

One conclusion reached by Greenhow and Robelia (2009) was “communicative performances within MySpace demonstrated aspects of ‘academic’ literacy practices as well as unconventional practices” (p. 1151). Some of these practices included awareness of audience and subsequent modification of voice, tone and content, skills that are taught in Language Arts classrooms on a regular basis. Interestingly, students were unaware that such skills were directly related and applicable to school literacies. Teachers who survey their students early in the year might be able to tap these hidden skills and help students take stock of their areas of expertise, thus raising their sense of self-efficacy as well as their status within the classroom. The impact of self-efficacy and student perception of status can be useful for predicting skill level for academic tasks as the researchers in the next study described.

Zhao, Lu, Wang and Huang (2011) considered the idea that students who are “happy and curious when online” (article title) would see an increase in self-efficacy and effective use of the internet. Due to the difficulty of assessing actual online skills, they looked at Internet Self-Efficacy (ISE) which in this case stands in as a measure of student competence in using the internet. This study also investigated the specific impacts that parents, peers and teachers have on internet use. Limitations noted in this study were a possible lack of generalizability from the specific growing mid-level city they took their sample from and the difference in access to computers by high school students relative to younger children. They also noted that there are differences between China and the United States in how computer use is perceived and supported. Some conclusions they were able to derive included the importance of teacher support and encouragement to use digital literacies.

Zhao et al. (2011) found that teachers have greater influence than parents, perhaps because they assign tasks that require the use of exploratory practices. They suggest that as teachers are more familiar than parents with uses of the Internet and more aware of the need for students to experiment, teachers can support and motivate students to engage in exploration. They recommend that schools provide additional time with less-structured but still supervised access for students who lack access at home. Students will be better prepared to accomplish academic internet-based tasks if they are encouraged by teachers and parents to engage in some exploration and unstructured internet use and are given opportunities to access the internet freely. Such use can increase students’ ISE and skills performance. The impact of regular access to appropriate technologies in creating prior knowledge and interest agrees with the work of educators through more than a century, underlining the basic human need for repetition and engagement when learning (Dewey, 1997; Bruner, 1977; and Bransford, Brown & Cocking, 2000).

An intriguing connection between digital literacies and more traditional academic success was made by Plester and Wood (2009). They conducted a sequence of studies that explored how student familiarity with digital literacies transfers to traditional literacies. They investigated the effects of cell phone texting by pre-teen children in the United Kingdom. Their research focused on the way that student cell phones and text messaging fit into the overall idea of literacy and shed light on a way that teachers can increase student self-efficacy and performance. At the same time, concerns exist that written language in academic contexts might be negatively affected by the instantaneous, simultaneous, and casual contexts of chat communications. “Texting” and “chat” both refer to somewhat informal internet or cellphone-based written communications that can take place in real time, much as face-to-face conversations do.

Plester and Wood (2009) looked at the need for phonological awareness, considered a foundation for traditional literacy. They noted a sense of playfulness that is found in children’s spontaneous exploration of technology. Their research revealed that spelling errors in traditional literacy tasks did not increase markedly for students who used cell phones for text messaging relative to students who did not use text messaging. It also indicated that students who were more fluent texters scored higher on a verbal reasoning skills test. In the first two studies, “those who used the most phonologically based textisms were the best at spelling” (p. 1120). They also had fewer errors interpreting text messaging. Students demonstrated and articulated awareness of the differences between writing in a texting context and in more formal academic contexts. A third study indicated that the earlier a child received a mobile phone for texting, the better the student’s overall performance on standard spelling and texting tasks. Plester and Wood suggested a beneficial effect on traditional literacy in the study is a likely result of student proficiency in texting. They were careful to point out more research is needed to be clear what needs to be addressed, when, and by whom, as well as how to support students with specific learning disabilities.

Despite promising results seen in student academic progress when digital literacies are used, teachers may wish to keep in mind that new technologies need thorough investigation before deciding to use or reject any specific application. In the classroom, a teacher might choose to adopt a promising technology gradually, while supporting those students whose prior knowledge is limited. Thorough evaluation of the benefits of using technologies is warranted before wholesale adoption, as can be seen in the following set of studies.

Do Digital Literacies Support Student Learning?

Dewey (1997) wrote, “The belief that all genuine education comes about through experience does not mean that all experiences are genuinely or equally educative” (p. 13). This is perhaps especially true of the use of technologies in classrooms. Digital literacies, though highly promoted by both state and national organizations are not universally accessible for a variety of reasons, some of which have been explored above. While word processing, spreadsheets and internet research are common in many classrooms, and are expected components of technology education in Washington State (Washington State Superintendent of Public Instruction, 2008), other uses are still developing. As noted by McKenna and Walpole (2007), in-classroom use of assistive technologies in reading for students with disabilities is one use for digital technologies. The purpose of this section is to explore a few ways digital literacies might – and might not – support learning.

A common use for technology in education is in supporting initial acquisition of information. Kühl, Scheiter, Gerjets, and Gemballa (2011) studied university students in Germany to explore whether learning is easier and more effective when text is combined with dynamic (moving) images as opposed to static (still) images. Participants answered some questions of prior knowledge to eliminate results for those who already had significant experience, and later reflected on how difficult tasks seemed. A control group received instruction using text alone, without any images. Relative to the control, verbal recall was not improved in the two groups using imagery, however recall of pictorial information was enhanced. No significant difference was recorded between the two visualization groups perhaps because students using still images viewed them several times. It appears that, depending on the learning outcome desired, the use of dynamic images such as can be found on various websites and other video technologies might be useful to enhance recall of graphics. A classroom teacher might choose to enhance learning with either video or static images if the content to be learned involves visualization rather than fact recall.

Another proposed use for technology is to support recall through review activities. Vos, van der Meijden, and Denessen (2011) have studied the way that being actively engaged in using information to create a product can support learning. They cited Kim, Park and Baek whose studies indicate “game-based learning, when using meta-cognitive strategies can be an effective learning environment for increasing students’ performance” (p. 128). Based on studies by these and other researchers, Vos et al. postulated “games could thus enhance students level of deep learning, by appealing to critical thinking skills, problem solving skills, decision making, knowledge transfer and meta-analytic skills (Gee, 2003; Kirriemuir & McFarlane, 2004; Wideman et al., 2007)” (p. 128). Traditional game-play has been used in classrooms for this purpose for a long time.

Vos et al. (2011) studied students ages ten to twelve to determine how construction of computer games affected learning relative to students who merely played educational computer games. The specific task for students was to memorize unfamiliar proverbs. All students were engaged with “drag and drop” games, some as players others as creators. The students were screened for factors such as motivation, interests and perceived competence (related to self-efficacy). A pre-test of student knowledge was given to determine interest levels and whether students generally engaged in “deep learning” strategies, and a post-test was given to check for changes in those strategies. Simple game play by itself was less engaging than constructing the game, and students who constructed games did better on a post-test of proverb learning than those who merely played the game. Vos et al. did not study more complex game-play or construction, and they noted a clear correlation cannot be established between the learning and game play in this study. Still, the research cited in this article and the authors’ findings support the idea that more complex game-play and game construction may be useful tools in helping students learn material as they become producers of knowledge. Given time and access to appropriate technology teachers might encourage students to create interactive, even on-line games as a way to help them think deeply about the content they are learning.

A different use of technology has been explored for communications in classroom learning communities. Sins, Savelsbergh, van Joolingen, and van Hout-Wolters (2011) explored how chat communication can benefit partner communication for school partner-based tasks. This study focused on discovering “whether chat comprises an appropriate communication channel in a collaborative inquiry learning environment, or whether face-to-face collaboration should be preferred to enable deep reasoning during collaborative inquiry” (p. 380). The study of 44 sixteen to eighteen year-old 11th graders centered on a collaborative task requiring communication between students who were placed in mixed-ability dyads with identical tasks and instructions. Some students were asked to communicate verbally, others using only texting. The results indicated that the quality of reasoning was high for both groups, but off-task communications were higher for verbal interactions. Explicit language appeared to be enhanced when using chat or texting rather than verbal communications. Chat communications took more time than verbal. A teacher might consider using chat or texting if more explicit communication is a necessary component of the learning and when there is sufficient time.

As intriguing as studies that suggest benefits to the use of digital literacies may be, there is a growing awareness that as new types of cognitive demands and performances enter classrooms, some students who are skilled in traditional academic literacies struggle. Thorvaldsen, Egeberg, Pettersen, and Vavik’s (2010) study pointed toward learning disabilities that inhibit people from using digital literacies in effective ways. Inhibitions from “computer anxiety” are well documented in the literature cited, as is a medical diagnosis called dyspraxia which the authors describe as “an immaturity in the way the brain processes information and this results in messages not being properly or fully transmitted” (p. 313). Thorvaldsen et al.’s small study of 144 children in Norway (grades 5 and 6, ages 10 to 12) followed a pilot of 17 students of the same age. Students filled out questionnaires, test scores were obtained in core areas as were teacher grades for arts, and interviews were conducted with some participants. Specifically, Thorvaldsen et al. investigated social use, computer efficacy (skill in use), and language tools. The authors noted some limitations of the study, including the exploratory nature of the study, the removal of students who scored very low in appreciation of digital tools and the small sample size. Still, their results point toward useful areas to consider when teaching.

Thorvaldsen et al. (2010) found digital literacy was not significantly correlated with traditional subjects, with the exception of language skills. Interestingly, the students with the lowest skills who were not anxious about computer use were not affected by lack of access. Of the 144 students, three low-performing students functioned normally in school and had no other identified reasons for low digital literacy skills. The authors suggested this is a reasonable indicator that digital dysfunction is real and measurable, separate from other learning disabilities. For a classroom teacher, knowing that some students may struggle with computers even when there are no apparent barriers offers support for planning for differentiation in this area.
Digital literacies and computer technologies are well positioned in classrooms to support student learning when thoughtfully used. There are questions that deserve consideration, such as whether specific learning disabilities will emerge as students engage digital literacies, and when to use which technologies.

Teachers’ Dilemma

This paper has explored some issues of the inequities normally called the “digital divide” and the growing field of digital literacy in schools. Professional organizations and government regulations now advocate for or require inclusion of digital literacy skills in K-12 education (see for example the Partnership for 21st Century Skills and the Washington State Superintendent of Public Instruction web pages). The idea of “digital natives” which is often applied to students, is not only not supported by the research, but students who lack adequate home access are at a disadvantage with digital literacy tasks in the classroom (see Robinson, 2009; Zhang, Lu, Huang & Wang, 2010). There are also indications that even students who have extensive prior knowledge of digital literacies need careful guidance when being asked to perform similar tasks for academics (see Margaryan, Littlejohn & Vogt, 2011; Zhao, Lu, Wang & Huang, 2011). Possibilities for enhanced learning when digitial literacies are part of instruction and potential risk of harm are noted (see Sins, Savelsbergh, van Joolingen & van Hout-Wolters, 2010; Thorvaldsen, Egeberg, Pettersen & Vavik, 2010). Teachers have much to consider when designing instruction which includes digital literacy components.

Three categories can help teachers think about pedagogical use of digital literacies: access, experience, and application. Student access to current technologies varies widely, student prior experience is predictive of self-efficacy and skill level, and successful integration of technologies in classroom instruction requires planning. Classroom teachers can make effective use of technologies within the classroom when they are ready to pre-teach, re-teach or provide additional instruction for students with disadvantages (Leu, Castek, Henry, Coiro & McMullen, 2004). When possible, teachers might wish to find ways to provide students who lack home access with more time to informally explore digital literacy tasks.

What Isn’t Said

Studies that made clear connections between in-school digital literacies and later employment opportunities were not found, although several non-empirical sources asserted that school preparation must include these putatively essential employment skills. The studies are not well clustered around a specific age group. The issue of rapidly changing technologies has not been addressed except in passing. No single study clearly provided support for or against inclusion of digital literacies in classroom instruction. Computer-specific learning disabilities is an area of concern but still in its infancy in terms of research. While no clear link was made between modern communications technologies and academic success, this area of investigation is likely to continue yielding interesting data.

Appendix 1: Education and Technology Websites


  • Bransford, J.D., Brown, A.L. & R. R. Cocking. (Eds.). (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.
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