Having a video conference call from home

Why Digital Information Literacy Skills Are More Critical Now Than Ever

Jesse R. Sparks Research Scientist at ETS
Irvin Katz

Now several weeks into working and learning remotely coupled with social distancing due to the global coronavirus pandemic, we’ve had to rapidly adapt to as new way of living and communicating through virtual means. While work and school have long required many of us to be digitally literate, the ability to effectively leverage those skills has never been more critical than it is now. Successfully applying these skills requires a balance between both digital information literacy’s technological and human elements to be most effective.

Knowing what’s real

The stakes are high, and the health and livelihoods of ourselves and our loved ones are on the line. If COVID-19 has exposed one thing, it is the need for accurate, reliable information to inform our personal decisions about how to behave in response to this crisis. You are hard pressed to turn on a television news program, open social media or browse the internet without seeing or hearing mention of the current crisis being faced around the world, and the rapidly evolving, uncertain situation increases the potential for misinformation to be widely shared before it can be appropriately corrected by fact-checkers, journalists, or experts.

As noted in a recent BBC® article, misinformation is often perpetuated deliberately by purveyors of fake news who can make their message feel “truthy” through a few simple tricks – such as including appealing images or using familiar designs to make the information easier to process. These tactics discourage us from applying our critical thinking skills to analyze the veracity of the message, evaluate the credibility of its source, and compare it against information from a broad variety of other reliable sources.

Whether we’re working on school projects or taking part in a virtual business strategy meeting, it’s important to be able to understand and effectively use the tools we have at our disposal to get things done and keep business and learning moving forward.

Working together while apart

The need to be digitally literate in our current environment is also evident in both work and school. Since our communications are now taking place strictly online through digital methods including email, video-conferencing, and instant messages, many of us are adapting to new methods and contexts for exchanging information and ideas. Whether we’re working on school projects or taking part in a virtual business strategy meeting, it’s important to be able to understand and effectively use the tools we have at our disposal to get things done and keep business and learning moving forward. Workers and students are leveraging digital literacy skills as they learn how to use new tools and technologies that enable them to learn and work collaboratively with each other, to engage in real-time co-creation, and to continue working toward their shared goals as uninterrupted as possible. This shift highlights both the fundamentally human aspects of the way we communicate and how we can readily adapt our communication skills to suit emerging methods and modes of expression.

While digital collaboration technologies allow us to replicate, to some extent, the human interaction we are accustomed to in face-to-face settings, learning how to hold a virtual meeting on a certain platform does not itself ensure that effective collaboration will take place in the digital space. There is also a need to develop strategies, norms, and procedures for virtual collaborative work to ensure that all participants have the means and opportunity to usefully contribute to group discussions. For example, establishing a norm to use video calls instead of teleconference can foster greater group engagement and sense of presence.

Hearing each other

Understanding and valuing multiple perspectives is also essential to learning and collaborating effectively when working across multiple platforms and modes of communication. Group members or teammates may each have different perspectives on an idea or problem, which may lead to disagreements or conflicts. To productively resolve these issues, we must acknowledge and provide opportunities for consideration of our different perspectives, work to establish common ground, and engage in reasoned discussion to build consensus on what approaches or actions to take despite our differences. Especially now, it is critical to take time to check in with one another – to make space for others to share where they are coming from, what they are going through, and feel that they are being heard.

Working, learning, and communicating digitally can be taxing for many of us, as we thrive on in-person human interaction. While digital information literacy skills are critical for getting through this situation, empathy, perspective taking, and a level of humanity shouldn’t be removed from the equation. Success in this new environment is achieved through sustained effort, sensitivity, and for some, a learning curve that comes with adjusting to a fully digital way of working and learning each day.

Jesse Sparks is a research scientist in Research & Development at ETS. Irvin Katz is a senior research director in Research & Development at ETS.