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The 4 C's of digital literacy, and how _you_ think about it

Hello Integrating Technology, Program Management, and Professional Development Colleagues,

I recently mentioned in a presentation at the COABE 2019 conference a way that I think about digital literacy that many thought was useful, so I'll share it and update it here. I would also like to know how you think about digital literacy, and how you describe it to other teachers, program administrators, and adult learners.

The Four C's of digital literacy.

The first two C's were introduced many years ago by a Massachusetts adult education and technology integration colleague, Kenny Tamarkin. In the context of developing an Adult Basic Education state technology plan he casually said that what he thought we ultimately were trying to accomplish was to help adult learners become comfortable with and competent in using technology. These 2 C's were simple to understand, easy to remember, and made a lot of sense. They became part of our state's adult basic education technology plan. Since then, I have added a third C, courageous. It is now especially important because technology is so pervasive in our lives and continues to accelerate in both utopian and distopian complexity;  the Internet and a proliferation of new portable digital devices have provided fabulous opportunities for accessing information, accessing a world of points of view, for learning, and for problem solving, but it also has risks to privacy, misinformation,  it may be accelerating rapidly shifting politics, economics and cultural change across the world, and the technology itself creates new problems for both teachers and learners to solve. Aldous Huxley may have seen this coming when he wrote Brave New World; It's not just that our world is bravely new, but that we must also be brave in this new world. Alvin Toffler certainly saw it coming in his book Future Shock.

In yesterday's LINCS community interview here with Jen Vanek about distance education and blended learning she suggested that a key to teachers' success in using and integrating technology is curiosity, and I agree, for teachers, program administrators, and adult learners.

For me, it's now the 4 C's of digital literacy -- for teachers, program managers and adult learners: Curiosity, Comfort, Competence and Courage.

You probably didn't miss that only one of the 4 C's was mine, that, this way of thinking about digital literacy -- for teachers, program administrators, and adult learners grew out of discussions and dialogues with adult basic skills colleagues who were actively thinking about and working on the same issues and challenges. That collaboration is at the heart of the LINCS Community groups, an opportunity for us, across the country and the world, to think together, learn from each other, meet new challenges and solve new problems.

How are you thinking about digital literacy?

David J. Rosen, Moderator

LINCS CoP Integrating Technology and Program Management groups



Julie Neff-Encinas's picture

We are finalizing our digital literacy curriculum using so many ideas from so many wonderful sources.  I think one of the great pieces that our Life Skills teacher added was how to look inside of a computer and know what you are seeing.  Of course it isn't a GIANT emphasis and we're not trying to generate manufacturers because most of that happens in Asian countries anyway.  But it helps build courage to know what's inside.

David J. Rosen's picture
One hundred

Thanks Julie. When your digital literacy curriculum is done, I wonder if you would be able to share a link to it with us. I am interested in seeing it. I am also interested in seeing other examples of digital literacy curricula.  If you want to see examples of technology assessments and curricula, including a few digital literacy curricula, here is link to a section of The Literacy List that I have recently updated called Computer and other Digital Literacy Assessments and Lessons .

I am curious about the section of your curriculum on looking inside a computer. In the context of digital literacy, I assume this is not necessarily for computer repair, but that seeing and naming the parts and knowing what they do might help in understanding their functions and importance, and be good background knowledge for the tasks of computer care. An obvious example is the fan. Seeing it might raise the question of why it is needed, and provide an opportunity to learn which parts of the computer are vulnerable to overheating. It's also an opportunity for understanding computer troubleshooting. It's helpful to understand the difference between hardware and software problems, and computer and Internet problems. Within a computer it's helpful to consider both electrical and mechanical problems.  Even when help is needed from repair technicians, it's usefull to know the names and functions of various computer parts just to talk with them and understand what may be wrong and what needs repair or replacement. Should we add another Digital Literacy C -- (computer) Care?

David J. Rosen, Moderator

LINCS CoP Integrating Technology gropup

JenVanek's picture
One hundred


I appreciate your thinking, David, and the categories you supplied. Having worked with English language learners for most of my practitioner years, I'd like to add language as a competency to consider. I did some research a fews year ago that showed that when teachers spent more time teaching the language of using a computer, the learners were able ask better questions and describe their skills, success, and skill needs.   In response, I worked with a group of AmeriCorps members to create a learner-friendly web resource:  You'll notice that we included a glossary.  This was used by the corps member as part of blended learning approach, that included a focus on vocabulary.  

Jeff Goumas's picture

David....thank you for the question! I have a feeling this is going to be a great, productive thread!

I love Jen's point about language because the way I approach digital literacy development (any literacy/skill, for that matter) is to always put language to what you are doing—both as a learner and as an instructor. When we put language to what we are doing when leveraging technology for any task, it helps learners to internalize the steps of and purpose for what they are doing. 

To David's original question—Jennifer Maddrell of Designers for Learning and I do a workshop that looks at realistic strategies for integrating technology into everyday practice. We begin with a homegrown "taxonomy" of sorts for categorizing digital skills so instructors consider the skills they are actually developing for learners when integrating technology. It's not scientific by any means and I know there are numerous others that I hope are shared in this thread that are far more scientific, but we wanted something simple to organize skills in a way that considered continuums for both level of application as well as required levels of cognition/strategy. Quite honestly if I recall correctly, we modeled it a bit after the taxonomy for Evidence Based Reading Instruction (EBRI), which has similar way of structuring the four components for literacy. Here is a link to an image that shows these taxonomies because for some reason this text editor isn't allowing me to add an image :). 

We feel this is helpful because it asks instructors to consider what skills are required for any digital task being asked of students. So, instead of saying "My students use Khan Academy" and considering this digital literacy, we ask them to consider—"Yes, there are digital skills required for using Khan Academy. Students need to (a) type in a URL or click a desktop icon, (b) login to Khan Academy, and (c) navigate the website to the lesson or practice activity (all "hard" skills). But, once they are at the lesson they are supposed to do, they essentially become consumers of information. They are not being asked to evaluate the information; they are not being asked to independently find something that will help them learn the math concept they don't know.

Does this mean that Khan Academy is useless? Absolutely not. It simply means that the "digital skills" they are developing revolve around using technology to consume information from a single source, one they are TOLD to use. Much of what we do in our day-to-day lives, however, requires us to use technology to find something out for which there isn't a Khan Academy or any single source to access. For this type of learning/accessing information, there are added layers of strategic thinking and problem solving that need to be applied. 

I'm interested in reading how others approach this!!!!!

David J. Rosen's picture
One hundred

Hi Jeff, Jen, and others,

You wrote, "When we put language to what we are doing when leveraging technology for any task, it helps learners to internalize the steps of and purpose for what they are doing." I wonder if you can give us some examples of this from your work with teachers, from accounts you have read or from your own teaching. What would it look like for a teacher to "put language to what s/he is doing when leveraging technology for a task?"  Can you give us an example of a task and what the teacher would be doing, what the student(s) would be doing, and that included "putting language to it." Can you give us examples from English language learning for immigrants, from ABE, and/or from HSE (GED, TASC, HiSet) Prep?

Jen, and others, if you can give us examples of this, please share them. I would like to better understand what this looks like.

David J. Rosen, Moderator

LINCS CoP Integrating Technology group

Jeff Goumas's picture

Absolutely! Active instructor application of "the language of skills" to me is taking opportunity 1) to call out and put vocabulary to the skills students are exhibiting in any situation, and 2) modeling appropriate language when reading, thinking, writing, working through math procedures....anything, really. Here are examples from my experience of applying the language of skills in these two ways: 

1) A student in a re-entry program was in a class where the instructor was teaching the skills of copy-paste and using word processing templates to create a job application template. The goal was for  students to create a completed application they can use as a guide in the future as they apply for jobs. One student finished early, and I noticed he hadn't filled out the address of his high school. Upon asking him, "How could you find that out?" he hopped onto Google (he was on Facebook b/c he was "done" early :), typed in the name of his high school, saw the map listing one gets when doing a Google search, and copy-pasted it into his application. Within the course of instruction, this type of thing happens all the time and might be replied to with a "nice job." I interjected and asked the class how many people had filled out the address of their high school; not a single one had. I asked the student to share what he had done to find it. Students then did that, and we talked about the skills taking initiative and resourcefulness These are not digital skills per se; but they most definitely are two very important employability skills, facilitated by technology, and it was important for everyone to putting words to "looking something up" in a situation where they might not know an answer. 

2) When we do tech integration trainings, we always begin with some question we are confident nobody in the audience will know the answer to, such as "What famous person was born today?" or, sometimes a location-related question such as "In what years have the Boston Red Sox won the World Series?" Participants immediately take to their phones to find the answer (again, initiative and resourcefulness). We then walk through a series of questions:

"How did you find the answer?"

"What type of application is Google?"

"What web browser did you use?"

"What key words or search terms did you use?"

"On what website did you find the answer?"

"How do you know it is a valid source?"

This line of questioning puts a series of steps to the process of finding and evaluating information online with the related vocabulary. You or I may follow these steps subconsciously; but for someone learning digital skills, language is required in order to internalize those steps. Similar to this, when we are teaching writing, we ask students to consider format, audience, topic, and purpose before writing something....things you and I may do naturally, but that someone learning to write effectively needs to internalize.

Coincidently, I'm doing some spring cleaning as we speak (although, it is SNOWING in Chicago!!!!), and I came across something in a box that might be useful for this. It's called A Google a Day, and it's a series of search challenges that serve as a great tool for instructors to have students look up information and then facilitate discussions around the various processes they followed. While that site might be a bit advanced (though, it's definitely fun and challenging!), Google also offers Google Search Education, within which are lesson plans to support "Google a Day" style searches. (By the way....I had never heard of this til I started writing this, so thank you for initiating this conversation!!!!)

Adding to my original post (thanks for sending me down a Saturday afternoon rabbit hole, David!!! :) On Google Search Education, they have this great lesson plan map I think is FANTASTIC for guiding the process of identifying skills and considering the questioning that should be used to in the process of developing these skills. 

David J. Rosen's picture
One hundred

Thanks Jeff for these examples. It sounds like new terms (vocabulary) can be part of the language of skills:

1) My understanding so far is that new terms can be part of the language of skills especially if they are introduced after the meaning and context is already established, ideally through the learner's direct experience. For example, a teacher might say, "What you have been using to find information on the web is called a 'search engine'; in this case it's called 'Google', but there are other brands of search engines, too, whose names are.... The 'search engine,' the 'window' where you type in the question or information you are looking for, is on a particular kind of 'web page'. Anyone know what that's called? ..... yes it's a web page, but a particular kind called a 'web browser' because, when using it, by typing in a 'web address' you can get to another web page or a group of web pages called a 'website.' Try typing this 'web address' (e.g. or a different URL or URLs) in the 'web browser window' and tell me what you see. Incidentally, sometimes you will see a 'web address' referred to as a 'URL'. You may not need to know this, but that stands for Universal Resource Locator, a term that is almost never used now."

Then, the teacher could put the terms on the board, or display them using a computer and multimedia projector,  or s/he could pass out a handout with the terms and with images or descriptions that indicated what they mean.

However, Jeff, I sense that you are including much more in "the language of skills" , that a teacher might:

2) Explain the why or how of an action or operation

3) Model how to do something while talking about the what, why, how or when of what they are doing

4) Observe if each learner is performing the task or operation correctly and give feedback

5) Ask a learner who s/he knows can correctly demonstrate a particular operation to show learners who are struggling how to do it (and talk about the what, and why) with the class

6) Introduce the terms " taking initiative" and "being resourceful" to describe when students have just demonstrated those traits and, at some point, possibly explain why initiative and resourcefulness are important, for example if there is a work-related context or other problem-solving context for the instruction.

Jeff, I chuckled at your second example because, as it turns out, I experienced that directly as a participant in a COABE conference session you did in New Orleans this month!

I took a quick look at the Google Search Education web pages you suggested, and also thought these could be useful for some adult basic skills teachers in some contexts, for example in some HSE preparation classes.

This reminds me that if, at some point, HSE or other standardized assessments can be moved to secure websites, it could create the opportunity to inexpensively and directly assess adult learners' digital literacy skills. I wonder if any commercial test-makers have been thinking about doing this. Does anyone know?

Jeff, Jen -- and others -- more examples of the language of skills, please, and everyone, your thoughts about Jen's, Jeff's or my comments so far!

David J. Rosen, Moderator

LINCS COP Integrating Technology group

David J. Rosen's picture
One hundred

Thanks Jen, I like this addition. If we want to add it as a 6th C, perhaps "Command of language" would work,

For some reason the clickable link didn't work in your post -- for those who want to look at this great website, I believe the link should be

David J. Rosen, Moderator

LINCS CoP Integrating Technology group

Alison Ascher Webber's picture

Hi all,

I appreciate the adding of the new C's but am not sure about the use of Computer as it's limiting for those who use other devices - and in reality I'm not sure understanding the insides of a computer is that relevant anymore as we can't open them up as we used to be able to do. But "Care" of our devices could be the C....


David J. Rosen's picture
One hundred

Hi Alison,

Sure. I didn't mean to exclude portable digital devices, just used  "(computer)" because it starts with a "C".  I really had in mind all electronic devices that might be used for adult learning, and specifically digital literacy. They all need maintenance (care) although, from my experience, my computers seem to need much more than my electronic tablet and smartphone. Is that true for others here? Are you finding, for example, that tablets and smartphones need anti-virus apps, periodic checks for malware, and other maintenance that computers need?

David J. Rosen, Moderator

LINCS CoP Integrating Technology group