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Why digital literacy is important for science teaching and learning

Wan Ng
Wan Ng is Associate Professor in Technology-Enabled Learning and Teaching (TELT) and Science Education at the University of New South Wales.

The original version of this article appeared in Teaching Science December 2011. Teaching Science is published by the Australian Science Teachers Association (ASTA). Republished with permission.

In recent years, the Australian Government has invested heavily ($2.4b) into the Digital Education Revolution with initiatives that aim at increasing ICT proficiencies in teachers and school leaders and equipping years 9–12 students with a laptop each. Such initiatives should be welcomed by the science education community, as ICT offers affordances that could benefit enormously the teaching and learning of science. This article argues that as part of the sustainable changes to using ICT in science education, there is the need to develop digital literacy in teachers and students.

We live in a science and technologically driven society. Being scientifically and technologically literate would help people live better-informed lives and enable them to make appropriate decisions and choices for themselves and their families.

The literacy associated with ICT is digital literacy. The availability of Web 2.0 technologies has meant that individual learners are able to create learning and social spaces that they control in terms of dissemination, collaboration and content creation. The availability of ubiquitous computing means that learning could take place both within formal learning environments and on the move (informally) with mobile devices. The multiple places in which learning can occur opens up questions about the relationship between the empowerment of the learners and the roles that teachers could/should play. An implication is that both teachers and students need to be digitally literate. This article will define digital literacy, discuss why digital literacy is important for science teaching and learning, and consider the implications for teachers.

Digital literacy

Digital technologies

Digital technologies include hardware and software that are used by students for educational, social and/or entertainment purposes at school and at home. These technologies include desktops, mobile devices (laptops, tablets, mobile phones, smartphones, PDAs, games consoles), resources on the internet (information, multimedia and communication resources; Web 2.0 technologies), digital recording devices (data logging equipment, digital microscopes, flipcams, smartpens, cameras, voice and video recorders), interactive whiteboards and the range of software that fosters learning and recreation.

Defining digital literacy

As discussed in Ng (2010), the definitions for digital literacy in the literature cover, singly or in combination, meanings that are technical, cognitive, psychological and/or sociological (Aviram & Eshet-Alkalai, 2006; Eshet-Alkalai, 2004). Eshet-Alkalai (2004) further suggested that digital literacy encompasses five types of literacies: photo-visual literacy, reproduction literacy, information literacy, branching literacy and socio-emotional literacy. Within the scope of this paper, a more general definition of digital literacy formulated by the European Information Society is adopted. The definition (Martin, 2005, p. 135) states that:

Digital Literacy is the awareness, attitude and ability of individuals to appropriately use digital tools and facilities to identify, access, manage, integrate, evaluate, analyse and synthesise digital resources, construct new knowledge, create media expressions, and communicate with others, in the context of specific life situations, in order to enable constructive social action; and to reflect upon this process.

The components identifiable within this broad definition are the technical, cognitive and social aspects of digital literacy which will be discussed below. These components are generic and applicable across all curriculum areas but the paper will focus on the educational technologies that support science teaching and learning.

The technical aspects of digital literacy

Digitally literate teachers and students should be able to carry out basic computer-based operations and access resources for everyday use. At the most basic level, a digitally literate person should be able to connect together a functional computer system for his/her own personal use; for example, a desktop to a printer. The ability to read manuals to conduct basic technical activities, or for troubleshooting, is part of being digitally literate. In addition to, or instead of reading manuals, digitally literate individuals are able to search for online resources that could assist with troubleshooting. Keying in the right questions in a search engine would enable the individual to retrieve responses in the form of text, images and videos that will assist with solving the problem. An understanding of the use of, and the regular updating of antivirus software to avoid spam and viruses, is also part of digital literacy learning.

Another aspect of being digitally literate is the ability to use educational software tools that enable the learner to learn, perform and accomplish specific tasks. The common types of educational software that are used for science learning include:

  • productivity software for: word processing (eg Word, Pages), constructing spreadsheets (eg Excel, Numbers), creating concept maps (eg Kidspiration, Inspiration and FreeMind), creating quizzes and other worksheets/tests (eg Hot Potatoes2 and SurveyMonkey), creating presentations (eg PowerPoint, Prezi, MovieMaker, iMovie, PhotoShop)
  • drill and practice, games, tutorial and problem-solving software
  • reference software eg Grolier Multimedia or Britannica Encyclopedia and dictionaries; online science encyclopedia (eg at http://www.encyclopedia.com/c/2977-science-and-technology.html )
  • simulation software eg Sim series such as SimLife and SimAnimal; Crocodile series such as Crocodile Clips and Crocodile Chemistry; other science simulation applets on the web
  • Web 2.0 technologies for collaborative work eg creating wikis for WebQuest tasks; VoiceThread to share science reports and assignments or science-related experiences through digital storytelling; GoogleDocs for creating and editing science assignments, presentations and spreadsheets online.

There are both technical and cognitive skills involved in using these software packages effectively. Technical skills involve installing programs or downloading them from the web, extracting (if zipped) and installing them into the computer. Other technical skills involve operating the software and understanding features of the piece of software and to navigate through them; for example when to click, double click on a function, or use highlight, drag, expand or drop features. There are specific functions for each type of software to be learned and the more practice an individual has with the software, the better skilled (s)he will be. With the enormous amount of information on the web, digitally literate individuals would be able to find information to help them learn about how to operate specific software.

For example, an individual could literally learn all about Excel on YouTube by him/herself. By typing 'using Microsoft excel' into Google and selecting 'videos', more than 6,000 results show up. There are two sets of tutorials that systematically take the learner through the functions of Excel. One set, produced by Motion Training, contains nineteen tutorials called Microsoft Excel Tutorials for Beginners with another additional three tutorials for Excel VLOOKUP. Similarly, ExcellsFun has produced a series of 23 tutorials called Excel Basics. These two sets of tutorials, singly or in combination, would provide all the information to beginners who wish to learn about Excel. By going through two sets of tutorials, the individual would be able to look at different examples and different styles of presentation to effectively learn about the functions of Excel.

The cognitive aspects of digital literacy

The digitally literate individual is able to evaluate and select appropriate programs with which to learn and, within each software program, to select the most appropriate feature/functions to solve problems or to demonstrate understanding of knowledge acquired. For example, instead of purchasing or downloading free graphics organiser software to draw a Venn diagram to show similarities and differences of science concepts (eg respiration vs photosynthesis), the use of the Venn diagram software in Word (from menu select 'Insert', 'SmartArt') would be adequate for the task.

The cognitive aspects of digital literacy are also evident when using information from the web. Much has been written about these skills that are needed to search, assess and use the information and resources from the web (eg McKenzie, 1998; Ng, 2006; Ng & Gunstone, 2003; Wallace, Kupperman, Krajcik & Soloway, 2000). The skills involve being able to critically evaluate contents of web pages in terms of accuracy, currency, reliability and level of difficulty. Apart from critical thinking skills, the digitally literate person has knowledge of the ethical, moral and copyright issues associated with using web-based materials.

The social aspects of digital literacy

Web 2.0 is becoming a lifestyle for young people who are accessing the internet to send emails, seek information, chat online, post photos, download games, videos and music, and write blogs and wikis. In science learning, the interactivity of Web 2.0 technologies enables collaborative learning in online communities; for example, joining blogs that discuss science topics of interest or contributing to wikis of a scientific nature. Inculcating privacy and cyber safety literacies, as well as online etiquette in students, is imperative for them to participate socially and safely in online communities. A digitally literate individual will:

  • observe 'netiquette' by applying similar rules to face-to-face communication such as respect and using appropriate language and words to avoid misinterpretation and misunderstanding
  • protect his/her own safety and privacy by keeping personal information as private as possible and not disclosing any more personal information than is necessary
  • recognise when she/he is being threatened and know how to deal with it; for example, whether to ignore, report or respond to the threat.

Why is Digital Literacy Important for Science Learning?

Digital literacy is important for science learning for two reasons:

1. It assists students to learn more effectively with the range of ICT-enabled affordances that have the capacity to motivate and enable better understanding of science concepts.

2. It lessens the working memory's cognitive load, while learning science that is ICT-based.

1. Digital literacy and ICT-enabled affordances in science education

Reimann and Goodyear (2004) proposed five ways in which ICT can support successful learning. These are (i) increasing motivation (ii) providing highly interactive experience and rich feedback to engage with learning (iii) providing tools that demonstrate what has been learned (iv) providing for communication and collaboration and (v) catering to differences in learning. In science education, the affordances offered by ICT benefit science learning by (i) promoting cognitive development (ii) enabling science to be related to students' real-life experiences (iii) increasing students' self-management of their own learning and (iv) facilitating data collection and presentation (Webb, 2005).

The ICT-enabled affordances that support pedagogies in science education include a range of hardware and software; for example, the interactive whiteboard, digital microscopes, simulations, interactive worksheets, the electronic laboratory notebook, science websites, multimedia editing tools, Web 2.0 technologies and data logging equipment and software. The ability to use these technologies for effective learning requires a sufficient degree of digital literacy from the teacher and the students in order to achieve the desired learning outcomes. An example of the level of digital literacy required for science students to utilise ICT in learning the year 8 science component of the Australian Curriculum, is shown in the Appendix.

Information and learning materials can be delivered in a variety of modes for science learning – visual, text, audio and multimedia (see Table 1). Multimodal representations in science learning are important due to the abstract nature of many concepts, particularly in chemistry and physics. The digitally literate student would be able to link the different modes of representations across multiple representations of the same concept (Prain & Waldrip, 2006; Waldrip, Prain & Carolan, 2006).

2. Digital literacy lessens the working memory's cognitive load while learning science

Research has shown that the working memory can process only a limited number of elements while learning (Miller, 1956). When the technical skills and knowledge related to the technology at hand become automatic, the student is able to focus his/her working memory on the task at hand rather than on the technology, reducing cognitive load. This is in accordance with the cognitive load theory (John Sweller, 1988, 2005) which states that there are three types of cognitive loads:

(i)  Intrinsic cognitive load. This is the inherent level of difficulty associated with the complexity of the interacting elements of the instructional material that has to be processed simultaneously in the working memory. People have limited cognitive processing abilities, and the number of elements that can be processed depends on the level of expertise and level of difficulty of the task.

(ii)  Extraneous cognitive load. This is dependent on how the instructor presents the learning material to the student and is the load imposed by poor design of the instructional materials.

(iii Germane cognitive load. Germane cognitive load is also implied as 'effective' cognitive load. It is the load imposed by instructional materials that fosters the process of learning eg motivational learning materials. Germane load is relevant, whereas extraneous load is not. Good pedagogy means that teachers design instructional materials to reduce the extraneous load and increase the germane load.

Digital lit science Table 2 revised

Depending on the science task and the technology being used with it, the attention that the student needs to give to the technical and cognitive aspects of digital literacy would vary. For example, undertaking quizzes, such as multiple-choice questions, would require minor technical skills and the working memory could focus almost entirely on the content of the quiz. On the other hand, cognitive load associated with using data logging equipment to collect experimental data could be substantial. It would require the working memory to deal with the technical aspects of digital literacy, that is, using the hardware (eg probes, meter) and software (eg platform, calibrating and graphing functions) and the cognitive aspects of the technical use; for example, why the need to calibrate, the interpretation of data displayed, including the less explicit but implied meanings of the data that are displayed on the screen. In order to reduce the cognitive load when using a more complex type of ICT resource, the student needs to develop some initial literacy with its use. This means being provided with the necessary time to explore the equipment.

The time taken to explore and learn the different functions of the technology is worthwhile because when these skills/knowledge become automatic, the students will be able to use the technology intuitively and intelligently to carry out the data logging task with more success and less frustration. The argument would be similar for using other software such as Excel, the Crocodile series, MovieMaker etc, where the student would need to be familiar with the range of features associated with each piece of software in order to work with it effectively. Familiarising means that the knowledge is stored at the back of the student's mind (ie in long-term memory) and is called upon by the working memory when it is required to support the learning undertaken.

Implications for teachers

It has often been said that teachers should let the pedagogy drive the technology and not the technology drive the pedagogy or the purpose of the learning. I would argue that it goes both ways, meaning that knowing about a tool and knowing how the functions in it can support the pedagogy is just as important. Just as a content expert will be able to move the knowledge around to explain a concept in a variety of ways, a student who knows the technology being used and its applications well, could make use of the available features, singly or in combination, to learn or to convey his/her understanding better. For example, in presenting what has been achieved for a team-based WebQuest task, the student with his/her team members will be required to decide on the best form of presentation. Do they create a PowerPoint or Prezi presentation, construct a digital story, build a wiki or make use of VoiceThread where in each case, each member will have the opportunity to explain the solution to his/her part of the quest? Being digitally literate means that the students know the features and limitations of each of these technologies well enough to select the one that would most appropriately represent the content that they wish to convey. The teacher could specify the use of a technology but she/he would equally need to know not only about the capabilities of the technology in comparison with other possible technologies, but also understand the purpose(s) for which each of these technologies was built. For example, she/he needs to be able to distinguish between what blogs, wikis, digital stories and VoiceThread content are and under what circumstances they would be best used. For instance, wikis are collaborative tools and would be appropriate for team-based project work rather than individual. Its suitability for team-based project work, where team members could edit each other's work, means that every member needs to be sensitive to the other members' feelings when editing their work. Working with wikis as online communities requires reasonably well-developed technical, cognitive and social-emotional skills.

An implication for teachers is that they need to be similarly literate as the students, in order to integrate ICT effectively into their teaching. This means developing good technical skills and knowledge of the capabilities and constraints of the technology of interest to design pedagogically sound uses of the technology in order to achieve the desired learning outcomes for their students. Hence, in the classroom, having set the purpose for using a specific technology for science learning, the teacher needs to ensure that using the technology will not consume the attention of the students and distract them from the real task of learning science. Students should be taught how to use the technology for the specified task and be given time to explore the technology as 'free play'. For example, in using WikiSpaces, to provide a period's worth of time for students to write on a newly created wiki that their team has created, explore uploading of images, inserting links and feeds (RSS), setting background themes/colours and exploring the various widgets in the software. At the end of the exploration, the wiki could be deleted and a new one created for the set task. For other software, such as the use of spreadsheets, it would be worthwhile structuring a series of small but explicit exercises that draw on the different features of the technology in which students can become familiar.

In exploring and familiarising with a new technology, the digitally literate teacher should know that applications these days are much better written than those produced a decade or two ago, in that they will not crash as easily. Hence, they should be able to proceed with confidence in exploring the applications by clicking on tabs, menu functions and hyperlinks at random, knowing that these actions would very unlikely cause the system to crash completely. The more teachers explore different applications, the more they will realise that there are many similarities between applications in the way the commands work. When teachers develop expertise with the technology, they will be able to assist with students' technical problems without too much effort and hence will not be distracted from the pedagogy and the teaching of the content that students need to learn. In this way, they can increase the germane load of students through the preparation of engaging and relevant activities.

Professional learning

Studies have shown that the level of ICT integration and its impact in classroom curricular remain low (ESA/DEEWR1, 2010; Kozma 2003, Romeo 2006). To address these issues, and as part of the Australian Digital Education Revolution, an ICT Innovation Fund which is part of the $40 million Digital Strategy for Teachers and School Leaders was established by DEEWR to support the professional development of teachers and school leaders in the use of ICT. Projects funded include Leading ICT in Learning (coordinated by Principals Australia), Anywhere, Anytime Teacher Professional Learning (coordinated by NSW Department of Education), ICT in Everyday Learning: Teacher Online Toolkit (coordinated by Education Services Australia) and Teaching Teachers for the Future (TTF) (previously coordinated by the Australian Learning & Teaching Council but currently under the management of Education Services Australia). An initiative targeted at students is The Australian Government's National Secondary Schools Computer Fund, where each year 9–12 government school student is being equipped with a laptop. These initiatives highlight the importance of, and need to develop digital literacy in students and teachers.

Research has also shown that one of the main barriers of effective and sustainable integration of ICT in schools is a lack of technical skills and knowledge in teachers and time required to develop them (Hew & Brush, 2007; Mishra & Koehler, 2006; Ng & Gunstone, 2003; Tebbutt, 2000). A model for effective integration of ICT in education is the Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge (TPACK) proposed by Mishra and Koehler (2006). The model which builds on Shulman's (1987) pedagogical content knowledge (PCK) includes technological knowledge as an integral component of teaching with technology. It posits that the relationships between technology, pedagogy and content knowledge are complex and as shown in Figure 1, where the three circles representing each of these elements intersect, that is the composite knowledge that teachers should possess in order to effectively integrate technology into their teaching. With at least a science bachelor degree (or equivalent) and with at least one year of intensive training in a teacher education course, qualified teachers entering the teaching profession are generally well equipped with content and pedagogical knowledge. However, within the crowded curriculum of teacher education courses, it is often difficult to find dedicated time to develop pre-service teachers' technological skills and knowledge – what I refer to as digital literacy in this paper. Similar to educating pre- and in-service science teachers about different strategies to engage students in learning science concepts, these teachers also need to be educated about the different affordances that ICT can offer in science learning. Providing ICT professional learning opportunities and time to practice and familiarise themselves with a range of digital technologies useful for science teaching and learning, is imperative to develop teachers' ICT knowledge. Studies have found that this is one of the most important factors influencing the successful implementation of ICT in teaching (Finger & Houguet, 2009; Jones, Harlow & Cowie, 2004). On the teachers' part, a willingness to invest time into the development of digital literacy is necessary to work effectively with digital technology and its integration into their teaching. Support from school leaders in providing the necessary mentorship (eg pairing up with colleagues who have ICT expertise) for the teachers, as well as providing the technical support so that problems are fixed immediately, would assist greatly with developing digital literacy in teachers.

Being able to demonstrate competency in the integration of ICT into teaching and learning is one focus of the National Professional Standards for Teachers (Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership [AITSL], 2011) in Australia. A teacher with a good level of digital literacy would be able to use ICT to differentiate the curriculum to cater for the diverse range of abilities and interests in the classroom, as well as engage students with more meaningful, contextual learning that is not confined to the four walls of the classroom.

Digital lit science Figure 1


Using ICT requires practice and opportunities to become more familiar with relevant technologies. The more use of ICT, the more familiar science teachers and students will be with the functions, applications, issues and responsibilities associated with its use. When familiarity occurs and the knowledge and skills gained from this familiarity are stored in the long-term memory, the use of ICT becomes intuitive and automatic. When this happens, the focus of the learning will be on the science tasks at hand and the learning attention will not be distracted by the technical difficulties, hence causing less frustration with the learning.

The development of digital literacy may require both the teacher and his/her students to be technology-centred for initial periods of time. As students develop expertise with operating the technology, they are able to take control of their own learning and learning becomes learner-centred. When fluency with digital literacy recedes to the background, theories of learning with ICT; for example, constructivist learning where the focus is on the engagement of learners with the content, come to the forefront.

While the notion of Prensky's (2001) 'digital natives' is being debated in academic circles, it would be safe to say, through general observations, that school students today are better handlers of technology, particularly mobile phones and games consoles, and are generally digitally literate technically with these devices. However, many would need to be taught about the cognitive and social aspects of using them. In addition, most students would be unfamiliar with educational technologies that are specific to discipline areas and would need to be taught explicitly about them, regardless of their levels of digital literacy. There is a role for all teachers to foster the development of digital literacy in their students. As access to computers, mobile devices and the internet becomes increasingly easier for young people, there is a lot of informal learning that students undertake whether consciously or unconsciously. Conscious and explicit informal learning are associated with structured learning; for example, science homework or research projects delegated by the teacher. Less explicit informal learning is associated with surfing the net for information of interest (eg about drugs, in-vitro fertilisation), or through conversations on social networks (eg discussion about carbon tax and its associated science, or a newspaper report on space travel) – activities that are not necessarily related to school (formal) learning. Teaching digital literacy to all students will ensure that the informal learning and socialisations online are safely and sensibly conducted. Lifelong literacy should be taught well in an increasingly technological and connected modern society.


1 Educational Services Australia/Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations.
2 Hot Potatoes is a freeware that includes six applications to create interactive worksheets eg multiple-choice, short-answer, jumbled-sentence and crossword. It can be downloaded from http://hotpot.uvic.ca/


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Digital lit science Table 1

Key Learning Areas


Subject Headings

Information and Communications Technology (ICT)
Technological literacy
Science teaching