Mastering Digital Literacy
in College 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.

Meet the Expert

Gaëtan Juvin Chief Academic Officer, 42

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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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.


  • 5 Ways to Develop Your Digital Literacy Skills

    Rasmussen College provides this handy guide for learners looking to enhance their technology skills inside the classroom.

  • Adult Basic Education Computer Skills

    Madison Area Technical College provides a ton of useful resources ranging from how to practice with a mouse to developing speed in typing.

  • Closing the Digital Divide: 5 Digital Literacy Strategies to Help Adult Learners

    A great guide made available by Digital Promise for teachers of non-traditional students, this resource also includes a helpful video segment.

  • DigitalLearn

    This helpful nonprofit provides resources for individuals just starting on the path to digital literacy, with special tutorials on how to use a mouse and keyboard, navigate a website, perform a basic search and safeguard against online scams.

  • Digital Literacy Assistance

    The department of library services at Bethel University offers numerous tools for students looking to bulk up their digital knowledge and harness tools to make learning easier and more efficient.

  • Digital Literacy Curriculum

    This free resource provided by Microsoft is offered in 13 languages and helps students develop a foundational understanding of how computers work and how they can be used to enhance learning.

  • Digital Literacy Guide for Adult Education Programs

    Massachusetts’s Department of Education offers a range of tips, resources and support services for teachers and non-traditional students seeking more information about digital literacy.

  • Digital Literacy Initiatives

    Provide by LINCS, a program offered in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Education, the Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education, and the Division of Adult Education and Literacy, this website provides digital literacy resources for students, teachers and tutors.

  • Digital Literacy Resources

    Administered by the U.S. Department of Commerce, this helpful page provides resources on tasks such as setting up Skype, searching for jobs online, using Microsoft Office Suite programs and building digital communities.

  • Tips for Adult Students

    The Office of Distance Education and eLearning at The Ohio State University offers a number of tips for adult students before they begin their distance education journey.

  • US Digital Literacy

    This website is helpful for both students and teachers looking to gain more knowledge about the use of technology in the classroom, how to better engage technology and which websites/programs/platforms serve them best.

  • YouTube’s Digital Literacy Videos

    Non-traditional students can find thousands of online videos that teach students computer literacy skills ranging from basic to advanced.

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