Talking teaching: How to Improve Digital Literacy in Course Design

Hello, I'm Bryce. I'm an Instructional Designer for Lt at ADInstruments. Every month our team of Instructional Designers meets for “Talking Teaching” – sessions where we share and discuss interesting articles, methods, and pedagogies.

This month, we discussed an article that examines how the pedagogical design of a course can increase students’ technical prowess, self-regulation skills, and their sense of ownership of taught material. This article was published in The Internet and Higher Education, Issue 45. Unfortunately, the article is behind a paywall so it’s not free to download like the ones last month. We’ll go over some of the main points here, but I do recommend checking out the paper if you are able to.

The article we’d like to share with you this month is:

How does the pedagogical design of a technology-enhanced collaborative academic course promote digital literacies, self-regulation, and perceived learning of students? 
This article details how students responded to implementing a digital learning framework over four consecutive online courses and suggests areas of learning to emphasize when building an online course. 

Related: How to teach anatomy online »

So what’s this article all about?

Blau et al. examine how online course design can help students get better at using technology, build self-regulatory skills, and develop a sense of ownership over the information presented in the course.

These skills are essential to be successful when taking an online or blended course and include things like:

  • Photo-visual learning: learning new technologies by using visual information
  • Real-time thinking: the ability to process information from multiple sources simultaneously
  • Information thinking: the ability to find, evaluate, and compile information
  • Branching thinking: the ability to navigate in non-linear environments
  • Reproduction thinking: creating original outcomes and new interpretations of learning content through digital tools
  • Social-emotional thinking: understanding and following ‘internet etiquette’

A Digital Learning Framework (DLF) is a framework used to build these digital literacy skills in students and is the focus of relating these skills to course design.

The DLF investigated by this article was proposed by Eshet-Alkalai (2012) and was chosen because the skills it emphasizes include learning new technologies, self-regulation, and communication.

Self-regulation skills are important for students to develop, especially for online courses. The additional freedom to access content at any time can lead to loose schedules and a more lax approach to learning, which can negatively affect students’ performance if they don’t regulate themselves.

The framework ranks digital literacies according to complexity (least to most complex):

  1. Photo-visual thinking
  2. Real-time thinking
  3. Information thinking 
  4. Branching thinking
  5. Reproduction thinking
  6. Social-emotional thinking

Related: Helping Your Students to Bloom – Fostering higher-level thinking in introductory biology »

Did the digital learning framework help students develop the desired skills?

YES!! Incorporating the DLF into the course design helped students develop skills needed for being successful in an online course. 78 students took four consecutive online courses and were asked to keep a journal of their thoughts about the course. They detailed what exercises and activities they found useful and which they did not.

Feedback from students

Overall, students recognized value in learning new tools to build knowledge and understanding of course material. They recorded a positive attitude toward information sharing. However, few students demonstrated group ownership and most thought of information as being either theirs or others. Insights on both cognitive (new concepts and links to known information) and emotional (how learning new concepts felt) perceived learning were recorded.

These insights highlighted how students felt when they were presented and engaged with new information. A few students comments that demonstrate this are: 

  • “Today I learned how to use a tool which creates concept maps … I felt anxious working with the new tool and it took me a long time to understand how I could use it in order to create meaningful representations. Learning how to use this tool gave me the confidence to search for other digital tools and learn how to use them.”
  • “Designing a digital conceptual map was challenging and creative.”
  • “Sharing information in an online community capitalizes on the wisdom of crowds. However, sharing also raises questions about the quality of information and ethical issues.”

Related: The benefits of blended learning – A student-centered approach ».


The feedback and comments from the students suggest that the DLF should be tweaked a bit. Some categories, like photo-visual thinking and reproduction thinking, are definitely fundamental skills and should be emphasized, perhaps more than they already are.

The revised DLF should be updated to include the following items (again from least to most complex):

  1. Photo-visual thinking (same spot)
  2. Branching thinking (down from #4, replaces real-time thinking)
  3. Information thinking  (same spot)
  4. Self-regulation strategies (new category)
  5. Social-emotional thinking (down from #6)
  6. Reproduction thinking (up from #5)

Any tips for me as an online educator?

Indeed! The pedagogical design of an online or blended learning course can promote a collaborative digital environment conducive to learning. After reviewing the feedback from their students and how it fits in with the DLF, Blau et al. suggest the following roles for four aspects of a course: 

Students should:

  • Actively learn either individually or in small groups.
  • Share learning outcomes with peers.
  • Assist each other in lessons and in the course learning community.
  • Feel that they belong in the course community.
  • Follow online etiquette (respect, openness, patience, etc.).

The lecturer should:

  • Participate in group discussions.
  • Scaffold how students learn.
  • Be available for students’ questions.
  • Encourage interaction and teamwork.
  • Share learning outcomes with peers.
  • Demonstrate online etiquette (respect, opening, patience, etc.).
  • Be open to students’ feedback about learning outcomes.
  • Use different methods to communicate with students (face-to-face, synchronous, asynchronous, etc.)

The course and assessments should:

  • Cultivate a community among students.
  • Stimulate critical thinking and creativity through activities.
  • Incorporate activities that require collaboration in small groups.
  • Design activities that build experience with multiple digital tools.
  • Present clear assessment criteria and learning outcomes.
  • The content within the course should:
  • Be flexible so students can access it anytime, anywhere.
  • Adapt to each students’ interests and backgrounds.
  • Include auditory, verbal, and visual presentation.
  • Integrate online lectures with face-to-face meetings.
  • Integrate well- and loosely structured activities.

Please note that this list is not a definitive list. It should be a starting point for course design and hopefully will give you some new ideas for things to include should you need to teach online or run a blended learning course. 

Five Tips for Teachers: How to create effective online lessons! » 
10 Tips for Teaching Online – How to successfully teach remotely and keep your students engaged »

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What do you think about these suggestions? Have you found that these, or similar, methods work for you? Have you tried these out and it just hasn’t worked out well? Join us on our community pages and let us and other educators know your thoughts!

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