Digital Literacy: Helping Learners Learn in the Digital Era

Digital Literacy: Helping Learners Learn in the Digital Era

Digital literacy is a critical component of learning in the Digital Era. Organizational leaders in general and learning professionals in particular must understand the digital competencies required for learning success, create a digital learning culture, assess employees’ baseline competencies, leverage both formal and informal learning to help them increase their digital literacy, identify and promote subject matter experts and digital mentors, and create an infrastructure for ongoing digital development.

Last month I gave a presentation at Fleming’s 4th Corporate Universities and Corporate Le@rning Summit entitled “Helping Learners Learn in the Digital Era: Building a Foundation for Success.” Recognizing the increasing importance digital literacy plays in enabling workers of all types to learn how to be more efficient and effective, the presentation offered guidance for creating a culture and undertaking initiatives to increase digital literacy and enhance learning and development. The session topics were:

  • Understanding the digital competencies required for learning success, by function and level
  • Creating a digital learning culture
  • Assessing employees’ baseline competencies
  • Increasing digital literacy through both formal and informal learning
  • Identifying and promoting subject matter experts and digital mentors
  • Creating an infrastructure for ongoing digital development

I’ve embedded the presentation deck below, and it is also available on our SlideShare channel. This post recaps some of the key points from the talk.

Learning and Development in the Digital Era Requires Digital Literacy

Organizational learning begins as soon as an employee is hired and continues throughout the employee life cycle. Increasingly in the Digital Era, learning and development involves social and digital technologies. This in turn requires individuals to have sufficient digital literacy to use the tools, channels, platforms, and features through which learning takes place. Applications include:

  • New Employee Orientation: self-paced online orientation programs, virtual cohorts, digital buddy systems, and new hire wikis
  • Digital Learning: online learning platforms, tablet-based and other mobile learning, and simulations and games
  • Skills Management: online skills assessment, enhanced skills database through user-generated profiles, user generated learning and development plans
  • Social Learning: adding social elements to learning platforms and informal learning via private social networks, intranets and other internal business systems (e.g., via advanced search features, identified subject matter experts, digital communities of practice, and wikis)
  • Leadership Development: leadership blogs, support and mentoring groups, shared best practices, e-mentoring, and leadership wikis

In spite (or perhaps because) of rapid and ongoing technological advances, many individuals today are inadequately prepared to leverage available tools and technologies to learn. Traditionally, the digital divide was about access and cost, but it has increasingly become an issue of knowledge and use (see this post for more). Given that, it has become increasingly important for organizational leaders and learning professionals to directly address the issues of digital literacy and digital competencies. Specifically:

Organizations should no longer assume that an LIY (Learn It Yourself) approach to developing digital literacy and digital competencies is an effective strategy (if it ever was). People need help to climb their learning curves efficiently and effectively – and providing that help in both structured and unstructured ways is a critical investment that will pay dividends in both the short term and over time. A paradoxical reality of the Digital Era is that we need to teach people how to learn, in new ways and using new tools. We have to stop thinking about technology education and training as an (unnecessary) expense once people finish their formal education (adapted from Social and Digital Technology Trends: 9 Take-Aways for YOU; see also Transforming Talent Management: The Impact of Social and Digital Tech).

It’s also important to remember that the required training should not just focus on the literal aspects of how to use specific tools and platforms. Rather, there needs to be an emphasis on understanding the underlying logic behind new technologies and developing transferable skills that can be used across a wide range of platforms (see Digital Era Success: 5 Building Blocks for more on this idea).

Digital Literacy: Part of a Digital Competencies Model

I have been thinking about digital competencies since early 2011, when I developed a social media and online communities master’s degree curriculum for Northeastern University. Through my consulting and digital coaching, I am constantly reminded of the importance of digital literacy, and it has become one of my primary focal areas. As social tools and other digital technologies become more integrated into our work lives, it is increasingly evident that developing certain knowledge, skills and abilities is important for a wide range of professionals in multiple disciplines and at all levels.

These competencies, however, seem to get short shrift in articles and discussions about social business and digital transformation, which tend to emphasize the importance of cultural values like openness, transparency, flexibility and adaptability. As I have argued in different ways elsewhere (like this post), it’s possible to successfully leverage new digital tools and technologies even in organizations with more closed, traditional cultures. But it’s almost impossible to be successful if people don’t understand what those tools are and how they can use them. Culture may eat strategy for breakfast, but when it comes to digital technology, competencies eat culture for lunch.

I developed a Digital Competencies Model in 2011 and have been refining it since. I’ll take a deeper dive into the model in a future post, but for now I’ll provide a brief overview of its five dimensions and focus on the first three, which comprise digital literacy.

  • Digital Era Concepts: Ideas unique to the Digital Era, or that take on new meaning in the Digital Era
  • Social Technology Features and Platforms: Specific enabling technologies or applications of technology and the environments in which multiple social technologies are leveraged for specific purposes
  • Digital Engagement Skills and Tactics: Specific means of leveraging social and digital technologies to achieve goals and objectives
  • Management: Issues and challenges related to the development and implementation of social/digital engagement strategies and plans, as well as the use of these technologies by individuals
  • Leadership: Traits, behaviors and priorities that are unique to the Digital Era, or that take on new meaning in the Digital Era

Digital Era concepts include things like 3D printing, augmented reality, crowdsourcing, digital currency (e.g., Bitcoin), digitization, gamification, hacking (both positive and negative), platforms, channels (see the slide deck for more examples). As the most basic level of digital literacy, this dimension requires people to be able to recognize and define relevant terms, trends, and ideas, to understand their (potential) organizational applications, and to recognize the implications they have for jobs, work performance and careers.

Social technology features include things like blogging (and vlogging), chatting/instant message, customized aggregators, dashboards and portals, discussion forums/threads, media sharing, user-generated profiles, and wikis. Platforms and tools include obvious public networks like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and YouTube, but also tools like Disqus and ShareThis and more privately-oriented offerings like Ning, Yammer, Jive, and Interact Intranet (see the slide deck for more examples). As with Digital Era concepts, the focus is on basic knowledge and understanding of the organizational and individual applications and implications of these technologies.

The third level of digital literacy focuses on the skills to use social technology efficiently, as well as the necessary judgment to use them effectively. Examples include knowing the right channel to use for a given communication, creating and engaging effectively in discussion threads and forums, content curation and validation, and HTML basics (see the slide deck for more examples).

Helping Workers Develop – and Use – Their Digital Literacy

Facilitating the development and maintenance of digital literacy requires:

  • Creating a digital learning culture
  • Assessing employees’ baseline competencies
  • Increasing digital literacy through both formal and informal learning
  • Identifying and promoting subject matter experts and digital mentors
  • Creating an infrastructure for ongoing digital development

Creating a digital learning culture includes both organizational and individual elements. At the organizational level, there has to be a commitment to be(com)ing a digital organization (see Becoming a Digital Organization: A Three-Phase Journey to learn more), and it must be clear that digital competencies and digital literacy are important to organizational success. One clear implication of that commitment is that individual preferences are less important than what’s in the organization’s best interests. So, for example, the fact that an employee prefers to use the telephone or email doesn’t mean that s/he can be allowed to do so indefinitely, if leveraging something like an internal social network is more appropriate. Additional individually-focused cultural elements can include ideas like “technology doesn’t care how old you are” (i.e., you don’t get a pass because you’re not a Millennial), there’s no shame in not knowing something and it’s good to ask, the importance of developing a “hacker” mentality, and the value of sharing knowledge and expertise.

Assessing baseline competencies is critical to understanding an individual’s starting point, so s/he can pursue the appropriate plan of action to increase his/her digital literacy. Doing this can include tests of knowledge (e.g., concepts, features, functions, tools, and best practices), as well as skill assessments that measure capability, speed, efficiency, and effectiveness. It may also make sense to include peer assessments and feedback to understand how an individual’s digital literacy enhances and/or hinders the effectiveness of others with whom s/he has to interact.

Digital literacy can be increased through both formal and informal means. Formal learning can include remedial skills training, advanced skills training, and general digital education. Informal learning can include learning by doing (with caution, as people can develop and perpetuate bad habits and suboptimized approaches), participating in communities of practice, leveraging coaches and mentors, and capitalizing on teachable moments to correct errors and expand knowledge and skills.

Creating a supportive environment for digital learning can include the identification of subject matter experts and digital coaches, developing digital communities of practice, building responsibility for mentorship and coaching into jobs (including performance management and compensation), and communicating and promoting the services of digital experts.

Finally, organizations need to create an infrastructure for ongoing digital development by ensuring key leaders and other professionals (1) stay current with digital trends and the organization’s own digital transformation; (2) communicate organizational changes and impending competency expectations to employees; and (3) provide ongoing opportunities for employees to identify skill and knowledge requirements, continue learning via both formal and informal means, and become digital experts, mentors and coaches.

Helping Learners Learn in the Digital Era: Building a Foundation for Success

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