Mastering Digital Literacy in College

By Staff Writers

Published on August 18, 2021

Mastering Digital Literacy in College is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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Support & Resources for Non-Traditional Students

Learning how to use digital devices may seem daunting when starting from scratch, but non-traditional learners can easily gain these skills from a variety of different places with a little time and effort. As more adult students consider online degree programs, digital literacy is becoming increasingly crucial. The following guide helps these learners understand the various components of digital literacy and offers helpful resources for engaging fully inside and outside the classroom.

Why Digital Literacy is Important

While most of today’s traditional college students grew up surrounded by technology and are considered “digital natives”, a growing body of non-traditional learners are considering the possibilities and merits of completing a degree online. The problem many face is an uneasiness about engaging with peers and professors primarily through digital means. Knowing how to use a computer and its various programs is necessary in the virtual classroom, but these skills are also increasingly necessary for many different career paths.

A 2016 study by the Pew Research Center found that 52 percent of adults consider themselves “relatively hesitant” when it comes to using digital technology, and the common thread among the group was age. Women and men aged 50 or older consider themselves largely illiterate in digital terms, stating they don’t have confidence in their computer skills, possess little knowledge about education technology and aren’t sure they can find reliable information online.

Although non-traditional learners didn’t grow up in a digitally-driven era, by learning the skills necessary to fully engage in this emerging world, their options for employment, self-enrichment, and connections with others greatly multiplies.

Digital Literacy 101

The phrase “digital literacy” may seem vague or overwhelming at first as it covers many different facets of using a computer or other technological device proficiently. To better help non-traditional learners understand the various parts of digital literacy relevant inside and outside the classroom, the following section breaks the term down into individual components and provides examples for each category.

Computer Basics What it is A firm understanding of computer basics allows users to take advantage of all the hardware associated with them and perform basic tasks. Individuals who master computer basics are able to write text into a document, organize files according to their needs, keep track of data, create and deliver presentations on a variety of topics and send/receive email messages. Skills involved To accomplish these tasks, users must know how to turn a computer off and on, navigate the screen using a mouse and type on the keyboard. In the case of a laptop, it’s also important to understand how to use the power source properly to keep the computer charged. Common tools/programs used Common tools include monitors, processing units, operating systems, memory for storage (external or internal), speakers, keyboards, a mouse and a laptop.
Internet Basics What it is Also known as the World Wide Web, the internet has only been around since 1990 but has dramatically changed virtually every aspect of society. By accessing a connection with the rest of the globe via network, users have the world at their fingertips. Common uses for the internet include researching and sharing information relevant to other users; communicating with friends, family, and colleagues via email, video conferencing platforms, or chat programs; undertaking education with other students from across the globe; enjoying entertainment through video, music, and other streaming services; and selling/buying products and goods. Skills involved Users must understand how to connect to the internet via broadband or Wi-Fi and repair the connection if it goes out. They must also know how to access web browsers to complete searches and find websites, download web-based programs and software, and interact with websites allowing selling and purchasing. Common tools/programs used Internet Protocol (IP) addresses, web browsers, web pages, email servers, online communities, blog platforms, streaming services, learning management systems, cloud-based programs and apps.
Common Programs What it is When talking about the common activities completed on a computer, most are done through the use of programs – some of which require the internet. Common Microsoft programs include Word for creating documents, PowerPoint for making presentations, Excel for developing spreadsheets, and Outlook for sending/receiving emails and managing calendars. Apple users sometimes integrate these programs on Mac operating systems, but can also rely on programs such as Pages, Numbers, Keynote, and Mail for similar services. Programs created outside of Microsoft and Apple are also common, such as QuickBooks for managing finances. Skills involved Users must understand how to navigate each program to maximize its potential. As an example, those using Word or another text-editing program should know how to use the toolbars to set font type and size, use the bold, italic, and underline features, and set up paragraphs to their needs. Individuals using Excel or Numbers should understand how basic formulas work, while those creating presentations should understand how to integrate different slides, themes, and outside media. Common tools/programs used Microsoft: Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook Apple: Pages, Numbers, Keynote, Mail Others: QuickBooks, Safari, Firefox, Chrome
Cloud Computing & Peer Sharing What it is Cloud computing may seem like a complicated concept, but most users can simply think of it as off-site storage. Rather than downloading individual songs, TV shows or movies, cloud computing allows users to stream them from a cloud storage area. Cloud storage also allows you to save emails and files off your computer to keep your hard drive from filling up. Peer sharing allows individuals to send documents, presentations, photos and other media back and forth without using valuable email storage. Users may choose to download those materials from the sharing platform, but they don’t automatically take up space. Both services are extremely helpful as they allow users to access files from anywhere rather than them only being accessible to a single device. Skills involved Users must understand how to download and upload files to the various clouds, how to create safe and secure logins for each and how to share files with their peers. Common tools/programs used Dropbox, Google Docs/Sheets and AirDrop/Bluetooth sharing are all great for sharing and working together on school projects. Gmail provides easy access to all electronic communications from any location, while services like WeTransfer make it easy to electronically send large files quickly.
Privacy & Security What it is Many – if not most—individuals rely on computers to store their most valuable data. Examples include information about finances and taxes; correspondence related to employment or their business; personal emails to friends, families, professors and colleagues; personal photographs; passwords to bank accounts; and secure logins for student loans. Because computers aren’t impervious to damage or loss, protecting the information stored in your computer and on the internet is critical. In addition to protecting against natural disasters such as lightning or fire, individuals must also consider human threats. Learn more about protecting yourself against hackers, scammers and online predators in our guide on Identity Theft Protection for College Students. Skills involved Users looking to protect their privacy and security must know how to install various tools to protect against natural disaster, understand how to safely back up and/or encrypt their data, install antiviral and antispyware programs, install a firewall and ensure all these are regularly updated and checked for security. Common tools/programs used Smoke detectors, surge protectors, secure internet connections and networks, external hard drives, cloud storage, data encryptions, firewalls, security programs.
Lifestyle Tools What it is For many years, bulky personal computers were the only tools available for creating documents, connecting to the internet, interacting with media and sending emails. In the last decade, however, more and more devices have been introduced to make completing these tasks simpler and able to be done from anywhere. Laptops, tablets, and smartphones perform all the same tasks as a personal computer but offer the substantial benefit of portability. Some of these tools have also integrated other electronic devices, including cameras, video recorders and media players, making it possible to have just a few devices rather than different ones to perform each task. Skills involved Many of the same skills needed to use a personal computer translate to portable digital devices, although the skills often must be modified. Rather than typing on a traditional keyboard, individuals use digital keyboards that appear on the screen. Rather than using a mouse to click on links or tabs, individuals use their fingers to touch relevant parts of the screen. Because other types of technology are integrated in these smaller, more portable digital devices, users must also understand how to use those individually. Examples include opening the camera app to take photos, navigating social media apps and making use of text messaging features. Common tools/programs used Most tablets and smartphones come with stock programs and tools such as a camera, video recorder, text messaging, internet capabilities and a web browser. Users then download apps from the device’s app store to personalize their experience. is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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How Digital Literacy is Used in the Classroom

While many older students may have turned in handwritten papers the last time they attended classes, today’s modern classroom demands digital literacy from students planning to succeed and thrive – whether they study in-person or online. The following section takes a look at specific points throughout higher education where students are required to possess at least a working knowledge of digital technology.

In Online Classrooms Non-traditional students are increasingly choosing online degree programs as they provide more flexible learning environments for those who have work or family commitments. While distance learning offers an excellent alternative for students who can’t visit a physical campus multiple times per week, many non-traditional learners may initially feel intimidated by online classes if they aren’t up-to-speed with digital skills and tools. Here are some common online classroom activities which rely on digital literacy. Signing up for classesUsers must be familiar with their college’s website and familiarize themselves with the online portal used for class registration. Failure to understand these procedures may result in losing out on desirable classes or not registering for required courses. Accessing course materialsColleges use Learning Management Systems (LMS) to administer course materials and ensure students can access required materials. These platforms tend to be multifaceted, making it necessary for learners to have a full grasp on where different parts of the course are housed. Viewing live or archived lecturesWhether coursework is delivered synchronously or asynchronously, all students must be able to access lectures to keep up with the course material. Some lectures are archived on the LMS while others require students to sign-on to a web-conferencing platform for live discussion. Using class chatrooms and forumsBecause online students don’t have the opportunity to interact with peers and professors in a face-to-face format, the use of chatrooms and forums is critical for discussing readings, sharing opinions and seeking answers from others in the class. Users must be able to access both platforms and understand how to use forum threads. Creating digital contentBecause distance learners don’t stand in front of classrooms and give presentations in the same way as their brick-and-mortar counterparts, many of the assignments require students to develop digital websites, blogs or other forms of web content to demonstrate their learning. Taking advantage of tutoring and academic support systemsRather than visiting the academic help center or the math lab, online students take advantage of these services digitally. Learners must be able to navigate academic support platforms and programs to their fullest to receive optimal assistance. Using career servicesEven if online students can’t go sit in the office of the director of career services, that doesn’t mean similar resources aren’t available online – if they know how to take advantage of them. Skills may include taking a career quiz, reviewing job boards and chatting with the director about internship/job opportunities via web conferencing.
On Campus Students may initially think online learning requires a higher level of digital literacy, but today’s brick-and-mortar classrooms often have just as many digital learning initiatives and reasons for needing a solid understanding of technology. Using cloud software for projectsIn addition to individual projects students are required to complete themselves, many group projects are assigned in college. With busy schedules and outside responsibilities looming, lots of groups find it easier to use programs like Dropbox or Google Docs where learners can work together on a project in real-time without being in the same place. Evaluating the validity of informationAnyone can upload information to the internet and present it as fact, an issue that continues to grow. Especially when creating research papers or other academic assignments, it’s vital for students to ensure they have authoritative sources. The University of Wisconsin at Green Bay provides some tips for deciding if a website is credible. Creating in-class presentations or assignmentsNo matter if the class revolves around accounting or philosophy, most require some type of digitally-driven presentation or assignment throughout the course of the semester. Students hoping to thrive in these settings must be familiar with all the major programs that help accomplish these tasks, including Word, PowerPoint and Excel. Forming a resumeSome non-traditional students possess existing resumes from former job applications, but chances are they’ll be required to update them while in college. In addition to having basic knowledge of Word, learners need to be able to set up tables, create bullet points, properly set margins and know how to add page numbers to accomplish this task successfully. Developing career websitesMany professors and career advisors require students to create a LinkedIn page (if they haven’t already) in their junior or senior year to help with finding internships or jobs. Digital literacy skills involved in carrying out this task include being able to set up a user profile, upload resumes, ask for recommendations and connect with companies and job seekers through the platform. Signing up for graduationMost schools use an electronic system for graduation, requiring students to sign-in to their learning management system, find the appropriate tab or section of the platform and enter relevant information. They may also be required to pay a fee or sign up for graduation robes, requiring knowledge of how to make payments online.

Best Ways to Hone Your Digital Literacy Skills

Becoming digitally literate may feel like an overwhelming task for non-traditional students, but the good news is that countless ways exist to cultivate these skills. Here is how you can get more comfortable with digital technology, even if you’re starting from scratch.

Create benchmarks According to digital literacy expert Gaëtan Juvin, it’s important to use the “learn by doing” method when trying to achieve digital literacy. “I encourage people to create goals for themselves, even if they are small,” he says. “Create a project to work on or decide something you want to research online.” By creating mini goals along the way, non-traditional students set themselves up for success by learning small tasks regularly.
Don’t give up. “Practice, practice, practice,” encourages Juvin. “My grandfather taught me a Nelson Mandela quote that says, ‘I never lose. I either win or I learn,’ and I couldn’t agree more.” Juvin is quick to point out that, inspirational quotes aside, learners must stay focused. “You have to be able to motivate yourself to achieve success, it doesn’t just come to you. The secret key of education is motivation, and motivation comes from fully understanding the ‘Why?’ for what you are doing.”
Take a class in-person Students who feel they need to see demonstrations and be able to ask questions on the spot often benefit from in-person classes, at least initially while building their confidence. Many community organizations offer a range of classes designed to familiarize learners with computer basics, including local colleges, local library branches and community centers. Examples of classes include the basics of Excel, how to manage files and folders, and using PowerPoint effectively.
Take an online tutorial While this option may be best for those already comfortable using a computer, there are tons of free and low-cost online tutorials for students who prefer to learn from the comfort of their homes. These classes cover a wide spectrum of topics, ranging from basic subjects like using Microsoft Word to more advanced subjects like building websites and using social media. A few places students can find free or low-cost classes include GCF Learn Free, Alison and Lynda, a service from LinkedIn.
Visit a campus resource center Even if students enroll as distance learners, they can still visit the campus to gain help. Almost every college and university offers some type of information technology services department that provides support and assistance with digital learning. Aside from teaching students how to use computers in-person, these offices often provide services online and over the phone.
Ask a friend to tutor you If classes aren’t your style, consider asking a friend, family member or peer to teach you about using a computer. This style of learning often allows learners to build skills more quickly as they’re able to learn on a one-to-one basis and can ask questions as they go. “Learning from others and asking how they go about doing things on a computer is a great way to study,” says Juvin. “It also helps generate feedback for students, as they can ask their teachers how they are progressing.”
Google it When all else fails, a quick Google search often helps non-traditional learners find answers to their questions. Not sure how to format a PowerPoint slide to include a graphic? There’s an answer on Google for that. Having trouble accessing course materials via the learning management system platform Blackboard? There’s help for that, too. Google is an endless wellspring of helpful tips, tutorials, webinars and guides on nearly any topic imaginable – including digital literacy.
Banish your fears Many non-traditional learners – especially those who didn’t grow up using a computer and haven’t used one in a previous job – express hesitation that they’ll press the wrong button or click the wrong avatar and all will be lost. Meanwhile, digital natives (those who grew up with computers) know that the best way to figure out new technologies is to simply play around with them, push buttons, explore folders and get a sense of how it all works. Don’t be afraid to click on tabs, use the “Help” feature available on many programs, and test out different settings in an effort to teach yourself.
Take a computer skills test Available at many local libraries, community centers, high schools and colleges, as well as online, these free tests help students set a learning baseline and figure out in which areas they need the most help. By understanding their weaknesses, students can better hone in on problem areas and address them.
Keep practicing Unlike riding a bike, digital literacy takes concerted effort and dedicated repetition. Even though you spent hours learning about basic formulas used in Excel or how to transfer documents via Dropbox, that knowledge can be easily forgotten unless used regularly. Make a point to sharpen those skills throughout your education and even after graduation to ensure they’re fully engrained.


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