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Knowing the Difference Between Digital Skills and Digital Literacies, and Teaching Both

By Maha Bali
 | Feb 03, 2016

Digital literacies are not solely about technical proficiency but about the issues, norms, and habits of mind surrounding technologies used for a particular purpose.

—Doug Belshaw, educational researcher

We often hear people talk about the importance of digital knowledge for 21st-century learners. Unfortunately, many focus on skills rather than literacies. Digital skills focus on what and how. Digital literacy focuses on why, when, who, and for whom.

For example, teaching digital skills would include showing students how to download images from the Internet and insert them into PowerPoint slides or webpages. Digital literacy would focus on helping students choose appropriate images, recognize copyright licensing, and cite or get permissions, in addition to reminding students to use alternative text for images to support those with visual disabilities.

Digital skills would focus on which tool to use (e.g., Twitter) and how to use it (e.g., how to tweet, retweet, use TweetDeck), while digital literacy would include in-depth questions: When would you use Twitter instead of a more private forum? Why would you use it for advocacy? Who puts themselves at risk when they do so?

Think of the use of social media during the Arab Spring. People used social media in a way that went far beyond knowing how to click and deep into civic uses and navigating ways to communicate with others under the radar of a communication-hindering government. It was a way of both encouraging one another to remain critical and supporting one another through adversity in creative ways.

If you are familiar with educational researcher Doug Belshaw’s eight elements of digital literacies, I have just mentioned the civic, critical, creative, and communicative. The other four are cultural, cognitive, constructive, and confidence. This last one is important and takes time to build. (For more on the essential elements, be sure to read W. Ian O’Byrne’s sidebar.)

Real-world learning

Teaching digital literacy does not mean teaching digital skills in a vacuum, but doing so in an authentic context that makes sense to students. It means teaching progressively rather than sequentially, which helps learners understand better and more clearly over time.

Instead of teaching how to use a hashtag and how to tweet and retweet, I give my students meaningful tasks to help their learning. (Twitter plays a large role in my teaching, but the essential elements can be applied in many technological contexts.)

After students have the skill to use multiple platforms, I allow them the choice of which platform to use for the support they need, but I make sure they ask questions. When is it best to do a Google search versus ask a question on Twitter? Why would students tweet to a particular hashtag or person versus another? When they tweet to people from another country in another time zone, what kind of context do they need to consider? What should they add, remove, or modify in order to communicate better?

Critical connections

When we encourage students to use technology, do we remind them of the risks of placing their information online and give them choices of how much personal information to reveal? Do our students recognize the ways in which Facebook’s privacy settings continually shift without user permission, and what posting a photo today might mean for their future employment opportunities? Do students recognize the importance of password-protecting their devices and having different passwords across platforms?

We also need to recognize the risks of blogging/tweeting, which include opening avenues for abuse. We should not be throwing students into the public domain to discuss sensitive topics without having conversations with them on what they might face and which of these risks they are willing to take, how they would handle it, and how they might support each other. Then we should give them a private option if they so choose.

To be honest, I avoid putting my students in high-risk situations, but this does not mean avoiding teaching digital literacy. It means discussing with them why they would post a real photo of themselves as avatars versus something more abstract. It means talking about audience—whom they are addressing and who are people who might accidentally come across their blogs or tweets. It means opening dialogue about why we write in public, to what end, and for whose benefit.

I place students in authentic situations as much as possible. When they tweet and blog, they have a public audience beyond our class. I ask students to tweet to other educators and learners (locally and internationally). They tweet about their burning questions and seek feedback on what they are working on for class. When working across cultures, we tackle questions of inequalities related to language use (English when my students aren’t native speakers but fluent) and infrastructure (the Internet is slower in Egypt).

Using judgment

It is important for students to recognize that although technology gives us a lot of power, it also restricts us in many ways, and we need to question how the affordances of technology modify our communication and our behavior.

For example, it is worth discussing the process of Wikipedia. Although Wikipedia is not a scholarly source, it is usually a good enough first stop to learn about something. However, students need to know how it is updated. They need to recognize that there are back-channel discussions about what ends up appearing on the site. These discussions can be fraught with power dynamics, resulting in controversial issues appearing unbalanced as more powerful authors block alternative viewpoints.

Moreover, it is worth discussing how to enhance accessibility of students’ digital content. Are they cognizant of using fonts that are easy to read? Are they conscious of accessible color schemes? Do they know to provide alternative text to images?

Digital literacy is not about the skills of using technologies, but how we use our judgment to maintain awareness of what we are reading and writing, why we are doing it, and whom we are addressing.

We can only begin to put the seeds of this critical literacy in our classes and hope students will transfer this beyond the classroom and into their increasingly digital identities and lives.

Maha Bali headshotMaha Bali is an associate professor of practice at the Center for Learning and Teaching at the American University in Cairo, Egypt. She is an editor at Hybrid Pedagogy, cofounder of, and cofacilitator of She has her own blog and also writes for The Chronicle of Higher Education’s ProfHacker blog.

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2016 issue of Literacy Today, ILA’s member magazine.

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