Digital Literacy

Alex More

This summer 849 million students globally are learning remotely due to COVID-19. The internet has become a teacher of sorts, the source for knowledge in the absence of us, the teacher as we learn ‘together, remotely’. This presents its own problems as students need to be literate enough to navigate through the fallacies online and locate genuine knowledge. In this blog post, I explore knowledge and look at ways we can help students become digitally literate. 

The idea of ‘just Google it’ was popularised by Sugata Mitra and has become shorthand for the idea that we no longer need to know anything. Google seems a good place to start as it monopolizes the share of online learning with 40 million students globally using their classroom feature weekly. Google offers support to teachers also via their certification program. Part of the program outlines 3 smart basics every teacher should promote with students when setting work online:

  1. Choosing the right search terms
  2. Understanding search results 
  3. Narrowing a search to get the best results.

Google argues that these 3 steps support students in becoming digitally literate. Critics argue that ‘knowledge’ is the key and that students require knowledge to learn digitally. Let’s explore this concept in more depth.  

So what is the real value of knowledge anyway?

In her latest book ‘Teachers vs Tech’, Christodoulou illustrates why we need real knowledge to think. Her example below shows us that facts are ways to store and articulate knowledge and help us solve problems. Have a go:

I believed him when he said he had a lake house until he said it’s only forty feet from the water at high tide 

(Willingham, D.T., 2009 P.24)

To the knowing, we instantly recognise that lakes don’t have tides, so the statement must be false. Then as the mind conceptualises you use facts to make inferences, perhaps he is boastful, partial to hyperbole and clearly trying to impress others with his statement. If you have the knowledge of tides, you can do this and power to you. If you don’t make the tide connection and don’t possess this knowledge, then the statement would be taken at face value.

Perhaps we should place more value on how we use knowledge, rather than how we store it.

Another example; what do you make of this?

This brain scan is fuzzy. Probably, the patient was wearing make-up. 

The knowledge you need to make sense of this sentence is that the brain scans use magnets and that make-up contains trace elements of metal, which interfere with the magnets. Again, knowledge is key and you might struggle to find the answer to the question if you just typed it into a search engine. 

E.D Hirsch (1988) put forward the idea that educators should not treat reading and writing as empty skills independent of specific knowledge. Furthermore, Hirsch believed the documented decline in shared knowledge was fundamentally attributed to the popular view that progressive ideologies outweighed the importance of teaching knowledge through facts.

Christodoulou (2013) a modern advocate of Hirsch’s work and an influential author in UK education arenas supports the view that students require knowledge of a specific field before they can create and innovate in it. To extend and deepen this idea, she points to evidence-based practice in the fields of educational neuroscience, specifically long term memory (LTM) retention. On the question of how facts as forms of knowledge strengthen the LTM, her rationale centres on the notion that knowledge stored in the LTM frees up the pressures and limited space in the working memory (Kirschner et al 2006 and Willingham 2019). Christodoulou also offers a fresh stance on the knowledge through facts argument by highlighting the role deliberate practice of factual retention (Ericsson, 1993) plays in developing LTM as a knowledge resource – in other words that rote learning of facts contributes to the store of what we can call ‘knowledge’ as something which is somehow greater and more cohesive than the facts themselves.

In a digital world, being able to detect genuine knowledge from ‘fake news’ or fallacy is becoming increasingly important. 

In summary, progressives argue that it is no longer necessary to learn facts because we can ‘just look it up. This is wrong, for the following three reasons:

  1. We need facts in the long-term memory because we use them to think (see example above). Without these facts, our working memories would quickly get overwhelmed.
  2. Even when we are using reliable online sources, we need facts stored in our long-term memory to be able to look something up and made sense of what we find. 
  3. When we encounter unreliable online sources, relying on generic evaluation skills will not help identify them. 

Testing knowledge 

Evaluating the validity and reliability of knowledge in the digital world becomes so important. To emphasise this point, let’s consider whether our students could successfully answer these questions about the content we ask them to research: 

  • Who is the author(s) of the content? Do they have any special skills that qualify them to write on this topic? 
  • Is the content trying to make you believe a particular point of view? 
  • Are there ideas or opinions that are missing? 

The questions above are commonly referred to as ‘The Rule of 3’ 

The rule of 3 is a simple idea that students can apply when searching online. The rule encourages all students to compare three sources of information before coming to a conclusion on any given topic. 

The Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus

To illustrate the idea that we need facts to make sense of lies, let’s consider an interesting experiment: The Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus 

Take a look at the website:

This study was a fascinating one. It only involved 25 students initially. The website contains detailed and often amusing descriptions of an entirely fictitious creature: the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus. 

In 2007, researchers in the USA asked 25 students to evaluate the reliability of the website. All 25 students said they thought the website was genuine rating it ‘very credible’. Even after the researchers revealed the website was fake,  the students didn’t believe them. It’s unlikely that Google would have helped students detect the fallacy. The algorisms that govern Google’s search engines prioritise ‘Wikipedia’ for quick factual representation above all else. As we know, Wiki is unreliable as anyone can edit the content. 

A student who is digitally literate might  approach the task as follows:

Can you identify the author? Yes, it’s Lyle Zapato. A quick Google search reveals this chap is a conspiracy theorist, so I Googled that and found out what conspiracy theory means. It invokes a conspiracy by sinister and powerful actors, often political in motivation, when other explanations are more probable. Therefore, I don’t think the source is reliable or credible. 

Is the author connected with the organisation? Nope, I looked through the site and actually found that the organisation is called the ‘Kelvinic University branch of the Wild Haggis Conservation Society’. Hmmm!

Does the author include a works cited or references to further reading link? Yes, the website has lots of links but when you dig a little deeper most of them have nothing to do with sighting of these rare fictional octopus species. 


How many of your students have these skills and the knowledge to be digitally literate? 

To conclude, we need technology to help build memory, not replace it. Facts help us evaluate the authenticity of things we find online. Being digitally literate is being able to navigate online with savvy and avoid the pitfalls associated with fallacy and fake news.

Thanks for reading. Feel free to add you thoughts below.  

References & further reading

Beard, A., 2020. The Learning Revolution. BBC Radio 4

Christodoulou, D., 2020. Teachers vs Tech: The case for an ed tech revolution. Oxford University Press

Hirsch, E.D., 1988. Cultural Literacy: What every American needs to know

McPhetters, D., 2010. Cyborg Learning Theory: Technology in Education and the blurring of boundaries. World Futures Review. Vol.2(6)

Mitra, S., 2017. Child Driven Education and SOLE (Self Organised Learning Environments).

Presnky, M., 2001. Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants. On the Horizon. Vol.9(5)

Willingham, W., 2019. Ask the Cognitive Scientist: Should Teachers Know the basic Science of How Students learn? Blog post:

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