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Standards and Techniques for Assessing Digital Literacy are Emerging

Digital literacy is like any other core curricular subject. It is no longer an option, just as reading and math are not. Students must be digitally competent if they are to be successful in school and in their professional and personal lives as adults. Indeed, 3 out of 4 of the best jobs for many years to come will involve digital expertise.

Educators have spent years developing reading and math curricula and crafting, as well, all sorts of assessment tools for these subjects. State departments of education have developed state-wide competency testing in core subjects; national testing services have spent years developing and refining assessments. Computer literacy, however, because of its newness, has not been an area in which standards and assessments have been articulated, codified, and developed.


Assessment tools cannot be universally developed until standards are, because it is those standards that will drive the assessments. To date, individual school districts and some national organizations have developed standards for digital literacy, and they tend to fall into three large categories:

  1. Application of Technology: Basic understanding of how to use digital tools (e.g., Microsoft Office, computer-assisted instructional software, Internet servers/browsers, and platforms for searching and communicating) in order to research, organize information, evaluate, and communicate.
  2. Proficiency with devices – PC’s, tablets, printers, media players, etc.
  3. Demonstrate an be able to apply the concepts of ethical/legal issues of using information technology

While there are also standards for computer science (e.g., programming), these do not make up the core curriculum to which organizations believe all students must be exposed in the classroom.

The International Society for Technology in Education has developed more specific standards in five categories which should give educators a skeleton as they address the issue of crafting their own standards. These categories are as follows:

  • Innovation and Creativity
  • Communication and Collaboration
  • Research and Information Gathering, Analysis and Evaluation
  • “Digital citizenship”
  • Technology Operations

And while this organization is an amazing resource for educators, institutions, and K-12 school districts, there are no assessment tools for educators to use.

The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) has a standing committee and task force on education and it, too has developed standards of digital literacy and provide reports on what state legislatures are doing all over the country with respect to digital literacy. Again, however, there are no discussion of student assessment tools.

Finding Assessment Tools for Digital Literacy

In a few words – good luck. Until students get into high school and college, that is. By this point there are two major standardized assessments of digital literacy:

  1. ETS: Educational Testing Service has a lengthy history of test development, and it is generally regarded as an organization that standardizes and norms its assessments. Its iSkills Assessment is outcome-based and features scenarios in which students demonstrate their skills of research, application, synthesis and evaluation in a digital environment. This is a one-hour long test and may be administered at any time so long as it is proctored.
  2. Project Sails: This assessment package has been developed for IT instructors/professors at the university level and is built around eight skill sets. Administration of the test is flexible with windows during the fall and spring semesters. Scoring and reporting is conducted by the organization.

There are organizations that are developing digital assessments for K-12 students, such as the Center for Digital Education, however these assessments have not yet been normed.

Reliance on Ed Tech Professionals

Developers of digital learning coursework have built-in assessments, and these are currently the best evaluation tools for student mastery. If middle school children need to learn Microsoft Office, for example, then there is software, physical and in the cloud, to teach them. And there are formative assessments all along the way to report student mastery.

If students want to learn basic coding, there is Khan Academy, and assessments are a part of each course.

Teachers Need to Use Assessments No Matter Where They Come From

In the world of digital literacy, instructors still have a very critical role to play, even those they may not develop those assessments themselves. They need to use the built-in tools that come with the curricular programs and use them wisely.

Pre-Assessments: All digital literacy programs have a built-in pre-test. All teachers are familiar with these. They will show exactly what a student already knows, and this information is valuable. If a student demonstrates an amount of mastery of the curriculum, then that student moves forward. If digital literacy programs are delivered digitally, then this moving forward is automatic, saving a great deal of time for the teacher.

Formative Assessments: These are also built in and it will be the teacher’s job to monitor those assessments to ensure that students are on track with mastery and to provide coaching for those who are struggling. The great thing about digital formative assessment tools is that they provide immediate feedback – no waiting for a test to be graded. Teachers who complain about time constraints should love these tools – with immediate and specific feedback, both teacher and student know exactly which elements of instruction must be repeated and the focus can be individualized and only on those elements.

Self-Assessment: when student work individually within a digital literacy curriculum, they will receive formative assessment, but they will also be encouraged to reflect on why they did not master certain elements. This type of self-reflection promotes a great life skill.

Benchmark Assessment: Every curriculum has benchmarks. Mastering multiplication facts is a benchmark in an elementary math curriculum; mastering diphthongs is a benchmark in reading. Digital learning curricula has benchmarks as well. And good digital literacy programs will assess at those benchmark points. These will pull together the content from the formative assessments and push the student to synthesize – another important life skill. Benchmark assessments will show gaps and take students back to fill in those gaps through re-teaching, just as a teacher would do in a traditional classroom environment.

Summative Assessment: consider the summative assessment the same as a final examination. Students will be asked to apply what they have learned by being presented with problems or scenarios. In a traditional learning environment, summative assessments are developed and administered by the teacher, and students wait (and wait) for the results. Summative assessments that are provided digitally can provide an immediate turnaround time, students know their mastery level right away, and teachers have the scores without taking tests home and grading them.

It may be difficult for some teachers to give up developing their own assessment tools. They have an “ownership” of their classrooms and they want to “own” how their students learn and how they are assessed. When they teach digital literacy, there may be a feeling that some of the “control” has been lost. For these teachers a paradigm shift must occur. The shift from “teaching” to “coaching” is a big one, and that is what happens in the “world” of digital literacy. Students must learn by doing, and that “doing” must occur independently or perhaps with a single partner, not the teacher. As the teacher receives information about student progress, s/he must then become an individual coach. It’s a new role for some, but a role that will be required.

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Tyler DeWitt’s FlipCon 2016 Keynote Speech was Inspiring and Fun, and Full of Truths we Need Embrace

When asked what he does for a living, Tyler likes to introduce himself to new people by saying, “I make YouTube videos” … and watch the horrified look on their faces. He clarifies, “I make educational YouTube videos, and a lot of people watch them”. Suddenly their faces light up.

They ask what his channel is. Then they go home and check it out, and they’re surprised again.

Tyler doesn’t make “edutaining” videos … these are serious educational videos that somewhat replicate one-on-one tutoring, as opposed to some flashy, silly, stick-figure efforts to give a high level introduction to science. These are for learning deep concepts, designed to help struggling students better understand challenging topics.

This is not to say they are jargon-laden, dense videos that are difficult to understand. Tyler uses low tech tools like cut out, colored pieces of paper. He is very passionate about understanding and leveraging how young students learn to learn.

Why the Flipped Classroom?

So why is Tyler so passionate about flipped learning? He starts with, “let me tell you a story …”

Tyler sat down at the piano and started playing a 1950’s boogie-woogie style riff, then he asked every one to stand up and dance! After shaking everyone up a little this way, he launched into a story about his dad. His father loved rock and roll and he wanted to become an R&R musician. He begged his mother to let him learn the piano. She eventually gave in and signed him up for lessons.

The teacher showed him scales and told him he was to practice them every day. This went on for a few weeks, and his father just couldn’t stand it – he wanted to learn a song! He complained to his mother and she asked the teacher, can’t he just learn a song? She said “no” – he needed a year of finger exercises, and then he could ease into classical music (and not that “rock and roll” stuff!).

Well, his dad ended up quitting lessons.

The moral of this story: a forced, rigid instructional method, burdened by tradition and a “this is just how it’s done” mentality (clearly not student-centered) resulted in the disengagement of a passionate student. His father came to the topic with enthusiasm and drive, and this old-school teacher and her archaic, “learning needs to be hard” approach only succeeded at squashing a young boy’s desire to learn.

We Need to Stop “Educationalizing” how we Teach

Unfortunately, this is an all-too-apt metaphor for how teaching works in too many situations today. There was a total lack of flexibility in terms of understanding how to engage the student, and a stubborn insistence on teaching the subject in what the teacher perceived as “the right way”.

We “educationalize” concepts. We add prerequisites. We require a linear progression. We obscure concepts with language and jargon. We build lessons as if “there is only one way to learn” a topic.

For example: We don’t start with fun aspects of animals and biology until we spend several chapters on how to classify all the animals in the animal kingdom. Or maybe we have students who have seen Jurassic Park and are jazzed to learn about DNA and genetics, but before they can learn about “cool”, engaging ideas, they must be dragged through nucleotides and other complex, dense technical concepts.

If you try to find textbooks and learning materials that provide introductions to this material from a higher level, in an interesting way, before getting into the deeper content, you’ll probably hit a brick wall.

Good teachers often attempt to break challenging topics down and do what the textbooks don’t. They figure out how to make it engaging and accessible.

Breaking it Down. Making it Accessible.

DeWitt explained how he was teaching a lesson on viruses. The text book had this to offer: “Bacteriophage replication is initiated through the introduction of nucleic acid into a bacterium”. Say what? A 13 year old is going to understand this? No.

How about we storify this to introduce it instead?

Tyler translated this to a story about Bacteria and Viruses – he made them characters.

Once upon a time there was a piece of Bacteria and one day Bacteria doesn’t feel so good. Soon he sees his skin ripping apart and he sees a Virus sticking his head through his skin! He soon falls apart as Viruses rip him to pieces! Terrifying! The Virus has to slip some of his DNA blueprint into the Bacteria. The Virus’s DNA carried instruction to the Bacteria that told it to destroy the Bacteria’s DNA, then he directed it to make lots and lots of copies of himself (the Virus). Eventually the Bacteria splits open and the new Viruses seek new Bacteria to replicate in.

Thanks to the effort he put into thinking through how to best illuminate this concept, we quickly come to understand the underlying idea: viruses can start to make copies of themselves by slipping their DNA into a bacterium.

Why is Education Like This?

DeWitt cited several elements of the mindset that has education mired in the staid approach that all too often still serves as common teaching practice.

  • The “cult of seriousness” – there is this deeply ingrained perception that education has to be serious business, that it can’t be fun.
  • “Finger exercise” pedagogy – the idea that every prerequisite has to be addressed in order for students to move through learning a topic, we can’t possibly teach B before we teach A.
  • The tyranny of precision – everything has to be exacting, no room for misinterpretation (hence no simplification). The sciences quickly expose the fallacy inherent in this approach, as over time our understanding of science continues to evolve and even the most “precise” explanation of a topic is subject to ultimately being inaccurate. Relax … getting students to understand something at a broad yet “incomplete” level is a fine place to start.

We need to break out of these limiting ways of thinking. We need to take dense materials and “unpack” them, storify them, have students get active and hands-on, break ideas down into simpler understandable terms, analogies, etc. The best teachers excel at this. This is what DeWitt referred to as “the vernacular of teaching”.

The Vernacular of Teaching

The majority of students learn through effective teachers’ vernacular approaches, not by reading dense textbooks. The vernacular doesn’t “live” anywhere. It exists in conversations in teacher’s lounges, in their thoughts and efforts to break down materials so they can be understood. It’s not in the textbook, it’s in teacher’s minds and thoughts, and it is passed on to students. Students will remember stories, analogies, not incomprehensible sentences in textbooks.

It takes detective work to even begin to understand the precise language of many textbooks.

With the flipped model, we’re able to explain these concepts with visuals and accessible language. For example, the conceptual vernacular model of ionic bonding taught by numerous teachers in flipped videos can’t be found in any text book!

“Flipped learning captures, preserves, elevates and champions the invaluable vernacular of teaching. It gives revolutionary power to teachers to forgo the overly formalized resources and make their learning materials that they know will work.”

By teaching the foundations through effective videos we can then explore the deeper concepts in class. This is where we can scaffold on top of the basic understanding we’ve built through effective flipped videos (whether they are ours or someone else’s). This is so much more effective than expecting students to wade through and comprehend a dense textbook.

“It’s too easy to understand … you’re going to make students lazy”

The quote above is actual comment that Tyler received on one of his videos on YouTube.

We need to get away from the assumption that learning isn’t good unless it’s hard. We need to do way with the underlying sentiment that learning needs to be hard, that school shouldn’t be easy, that it has to be a challenge.

Challenges are good, and students should push themselves and experience some failure, but not everything needs to be that difficult. It is the job of good teachers to make concepts understandable.

How many students are we turning off with the formalized constructs of education, by the required memorization of technical vocabulary before they come anywhere near understanding, by playing scales before they come anywhere near a tune? How many cures to disease, brilliant new ideas, innovative solutions to world problems, are locked in the minds of students who we’ve turned off with a rigid, frustrating, utterly un-engaging approach to teaching?

Much thanks again to Tyler DeWitt for this inspiring Keynote! He was a great addition to FlipCon 2016. Be sure to stop by and explore his highly popular Chemistry videos on YouTube, and share them with other Chemistry teachers (and any students that might benefit from them!).

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