Teaching critical digital literacy

Critical digital literacy is a set of skills, competencies, and analytical viewpoints that allows a person to use, understand, and create digital media and tools. Related to information literacy skills such as numeracy, listening, speaking, reading, writing and critical thinking, the goal of critical digital literacy is to develop active and engaged thinkers and creators in digital environments. Digital literacy is more than technological understanding or computer skills and involves a range of reflective, ethical, and social perspectives on digital activities.

See also studies of "Critical Media Literacy."

This article is based on work done by Robin Davis as part of the Folger Institute’s Early Modern Digital Agendas (2013) institute. We welcome the addition of resources and readings, particularly those focused on teaching digital literacy from an early modernist perspective and critically analyzing the digital tools related to early modern studies.

Multi-literacies of digital environments

Juliet Hinrichsen and Antony Coombs at the University of Greenwich propose a "5 Resources Model" for articulating the scope and dimensions of digital literacies. The five resources are:

  • Decoding: Learners need to develop familiarity with the structures and conventions of digital media, sensitivity to the different modes at work within digital artifacts and confident use of the operational frameworks within which they exist. These skills focus on understanding the navigational mechanisms and movement of the digital landscape (buttons, scrolling, windows, bars); understanding the norms and practices of digital environments (safety and online behavior, community norms, privacy and sharing); understanding common operations (e.g. saving, upload and download, organizing files); recognizing and evaluating stylistics (e.g. the social codes embedded in color, font, transition, and layout choices); and recognizing that different modes of digital texts (twitter streams, video, immersive games) have different characteristics and conventions.
  • Meaning Making: This aspect maps onto other well-recognized literacy concepts in recognizing the agency of the learner as a participant in constructing meaning. This dimension of digital literacy focuses on reading, the fluent assimilation of digital content and the ability to follow a narrative across diverse semantic, visual and structural elements; relating, or recognizing relationships between new and existing knowledge and adapting mental models; and expressing, or the capacity to translate a purpose, intention, feeling or idea into a digital form.
  • Using: Learners need to develop the ability to effectively and creatively deploy digital tools. This includes finding the tool and the requisite evaluation of different tool options, effectively apply tools and techniques, employ problem solving, and have the confidence to explore, experiment, and innovate to create solutions with imaginative approaches, techniques, or content.
  • Analyzing: Learners need to develop the ability to make informed judgements and choices in the digital domain. This includes deconstructing digital resources to analyze their constituent parts, selecting resources and tools, and interrogating the provenance, purpose, and structures that affect digital content and influence its output.
  • Persona: Sensitivity to the issues of reputation, identity and membership within different digital contexts. In identity building, learners develop a sense of their own role in digital environments; reputation management emphasizes the importance of building and maintaining both individual and community reputations as assets; while participation focuses on the nature of the collaborative (both synchronous and asynchronous) contributions that make up many digital projects and their ethical and cultural challenges.

Teaching critical early modern digital literacy

Students encounter early modern texts, images, and objects through an increasing array of digital tools and sources. By reading an edited version of Macbeth via the Folger Digital Texts, critiquing a digital facsimile of a pamphlet on Early English Books Online, or navigating the Agas Map at the Map of Early Modern London, digital texts and tools allow for interactive and expansive exploration of early modern topics. In encouraging students to engage with early modern literature and history through these tools, we also need to provide them with the skills to analyze the tool, its intended audiences, its affordances and limitations. By teaching students how to assess digital editions and tools critically, we can prepare them not only to select the best tools for their purpose, but also provide the skills necessary for further development of digital texts, tools, and resources. Critical digital literacy is the first step towards digital authorship.

Pedagogical settings for digital literacy

Critical digital literacy, writ broadly, is taught in a variety of settings, including humanities and information courses; public, academic, and special collections libraries; and K-12 classrooms and after-school programs. The articles listed below present a variety of perspectives on the benefits of critical digital literacy and point to some of the fields in which discussions of critical digital literacy are taking place.

  • JuliAnna Avila and Jessica Zacher Pandya, eds. Critical Digital Literacies as Social Praxis: Intersections and Challenges. New Literacies and Digital Epistemologies. New York: Peter Lang, 2013.
    • High school education and postsecondary education; English, Art, Preservice teacher education.
  • JuliAnna Avila and Michael Moore, "Critical Literacy, Digital Literacies, and Common Core Standards: A Workable Union?" Theory into Practice 51, no. 1 (2012): 27–33.
    • High School, Academic standards and student attitudes.
  • Robert Schroeder and Ellysa Stern Cahoy, "Valuing Information Literacy: Affective Learning and the ACRL Standards," Libraries and the Academy 10, no. 2 (April 2010): 127–46.
    • Undergraduate education; Academic libraries.

Teaching resources and exercises

Many digital literacy exercises are designed to make the affordances of specific tools visible. Many students treat digital humanities tools as "black boxes": opaque systems in which a user provides input and receives a product, but does not have information about what happens in between. The goal of many of these exercises is to make the box a little less opaque and open up digital humanities tools, programs, and databases to criticism. We want students to question the assumptions and choices made in the selection, organization, and presentation of content and understand what their tools are doing for them.


http://dhbox.org/: streamlines installation processes and provides a digital humanities laboratory in the cloud through simple sign-in via a web browser.


  • How to see through the cloud: using traceroute to walk through the physical network of the Internet
  • Governing Algorithms: Provocation piece: short essay split into 38 provocations concerning algorithms, policy, and practice. #21 is a great discussion starter, courtesy of Solon Barocas, Sophie Hood, and Malte Ziewitz.
  • Teaching with Lingfish: Using the Early Modern Recipe Archive, Luna, the OED, and EEBO to examine how different repositories deal with fish, courtesy of Nancy Simpson-Younger.

Information about tools and infrastructure

  • The Basement: what an internet hub for a major American city looks like, courtesy of Cabel Sasser.

Further reading


  • Folgerpedia's Glossary of digital humanities terms
  • "Digital Literacy," National Telecommunications and Information Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce
    • A career-focused and skills-focused list of resources by the Department of Commerce. This page allows practitioners in service-oriented organizations—such as libraries, schools, community centers, community colleges, and workforce training centers—to find digital literacy content.
  • "Digital Literacy Fundamentals," MediaSmarts: Canada's Centre for Digital and Media Literacy.
    • This section looks at the various aspects and principles relating to digital literacy and the many skills and competencies that fall under the digital literacy umbrella. The relationship between digital literacy and digital citizenship is also explored and tips are provided for teaching these skills in the classroom.
  • Kellner, Douglas and Jeff Share, "Toward Critical Media Literacy: Core concepts, debates, organizations, and policy," Discourse: studies in the cultural politics of education. 26, no. 3 (September 2005): 369-86.

Short reads

Long reads