Digital Information Literacy is More Than Tech Savvy — it’s Critical Thinking

By Jesse R. Sparks

In August 2019, we saw devastating fires ravage the Amazon Rainforest. Immediately, social media sites became flooded with messages intended to raise awareness, but those messages soon fell flat. The images of the event itself were substituted by decades-old stock photos and, in some cases, images of fires from another continent entirely. While the fires continued to rage, false information and images being shared outshone the urgency for action to be taken. Well-intentioned individuals who shared these photos were not only exposed to –—but were inspired to act on — incorrect information.

Judging whether online information is accurate and trustworthy is incredibly challenging. The sheer volume of content is overwhelming and growing rapidly. Decisions about what can be believed are exacerbated by concerns about misinformation or so-called “fake news.”

We must develop the digital information literacy skills necessary to evaluate the veracity, relevance, credibility and argument quality of information to effectively learn, problem solve and make decisions in today’s world. This includes the ability to evaluate, transform, create, use and communicate digital information effectively and ethically. Beyond mere technical savvy with specific apps or software, being digitally literate involves applying critical thinking skills to achieve cognitively complex goals. Finding affordable housing, selecting a health insurance plan, or choosing what college to attend all require effective use of these skills.

We must develop the digital information literacy skills necessary to evaluate the veracity, relevance, credibility and argument quality of information to effectively learn, problem solve and make decisions in today’s world.

~ Jesse R. Sparks, Research Scientist at ETS

These skills are also important for success in the workplace. Today’s employers actively seek candidates with strong digital information literacy skills who can demonstrate the ability to research, organize and synthesize information, which can be shared with colleagues and key stakeholders. And these expectations are no longer limited to “desk jobs.” Digital information literacy skills are essential for many types of positions: consider the small business owner who manages an e-commerce site, fulfills online orders and promotes the brand on Instagram® — all via smartphone.

With the value of these skills being widely recognized, it is important to develop high-quality, reliable and valid assessments of what individuals know and can do with digital information. But what would this assessment look like? How can we identify those with the digital information literacy skills required to succeed in college and careers, or determine where these skills are lacking in order to better inform learning and instruction, workforce training, and public policy?

This next-generation assessment of digital information literacy would require high-quality tasks where people could actively demonstrate their digital competency in scenario-based environments. These scenarios would measure digital skills most relevant to solving specific problems, and would capture individuals’ ability to apply knowledge in order to achieve realistic goals, like conducting online research or creating responsible social media posts. Critical thinking skills, rather than technology skills, would take primary focus. These tasks would also present test takers with information that may be inaccurate, misleading, or unethical to use, in order to reflect the complexities of today’s information landscape.

We will continue to face the increasingly difficult task of distinguishing fact from falsehood in digital spaces. As we become ever more reliant on increasingly sophisticated, rapidly changing digital tools that offer new ways of working and communicating, we will be confronted with emerging and unforeseen challenges. To successfully adapt to these 21st-century challenges, developing and maintaining digital information literacy skills will be crucial.

Jesse R. Sparks is a research scientist in the Cognitive and Technology Sciences (CATS) Research Center in Research and Development at ETS. She holds a Ph.D. in learning sciences from Northwestern University and Bachelor of Science in psychology and Bachelor of Arts in journalism and mass communications degrees from Drake University. Her research examines and applies cognitively based approaches to learning and assessment of literacy skills in inquiry-based digital environments, including reading, critically evaluating and writing from multiple texts.