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Developing Digital Literacy as an Online Master’s Student

As an online master’s student, you may already identify as tech – savvy. After all, you have to have basic digital literacy to earn an online degree. However, there is a difference between being tech – savvy and digitally literate. Use this guide to hone your digital literacy as you pursue your online master’s degree.

Author: Stephen Porritt

Editor: Staff Editor

Two colleagues, a woman and a man, collaborate at a computer in a busy office setting, both focused intently on the screen.

We’ve come a long way from the days of double-spacing after periods in Word ‘95 and using a hyphen in “e-mail.” Back then, you could go pretty far with just a typewriter and a working phone number. That’s no longer true in an age when even your neighbor’s fancy new fridge can connect to the “World Wide Web.”

“Computer skills” are no longer solely under the purview of white-collar professionals. Truck drivers, grocery clerks, construction crews — pick a profession or an industry, and odds are they’re migrating to digital tools and processes. In fact, by 2030, it’s estimated that digital skills will be required in 90% of all jobs.

The technology skill gap is real, and those who want to stand out in the job market — today and in the future — will need to be on the far side of the gap. Here’s the good news: the importance of digital literacy means that being even a little tech-savvy puts you ahead of the pack. And developing digital literacy is easiest if you’re already getting an education, say, earning a master’s degree. If that’s you, then upskilling is simply a matter of knowing what skills to pick up along the way.

Pillar 1: Digital Information and Data Literacy

The first step toward digital literacy is data literacy. Computer systems are, at their core, designed to facilitate the creation, access, and sharing of information, so the most foundational skills are those related to searching, finding, and using information.

According to Harvard Business School, data literacy can be described as an individual’s ability to read, understand, and utilize data in different ways. If you’re a postgraduate student, you’re no stranger to research, and there’s more to be done before you’re finished. So as you conduct research, write papers, and complete projects, use these opportunities to practice leveraging digital tools to supercharge your academic efforts.

Searching, Browsing, and Filtering Data

If you’ve ever Googled something, then you’ve already practiced searching, browsing, and filtering data. As an online master’s student, it’s important that you know how to search specific terms, browse through these results, and filter them based on your needs, their relevancy, and their quality/reliability.

These skills will come in handy as you complete assignments that involve gathering data and citing sources. We’ve outlined some tips below to help you conduct accurate, reliable searches as you earn your degree.

Tips for browsing, searching, and filtering data:

  • Be persistent. Don’t be afraid to modify your search terms, check related searches, or switch to different platforms/search engines if your first few attempts come up short.
  • Search smarter. Use tools like filter functions to limit results, quotation marks to specify exact phrasing, and Boolean searches (plus or minus symbols, etc.) for better accuracy.
  • Know the limit. Some engines identify your search intent better than others, but none truly “understand” it. Not every search will yield useful results, and some questions even Google can’t answer.

Evaluating Source Reliability

While browsing and searching are the most common digital skills, far too many users stop short is vetting information and sources for accuracy. The internet is a veritable breeding ground for rumors, hearsay, satire, misinformation, and outright falsehoods. Even reputable publications aren’t exempt from occasional inaccuracy, so the best way to avoid citing a repost of an article from “The Onion” is to crosscheck facts and citations.

Tips for evaluating sources for reliability:

  • Check the URL. The beginning, middle, and end of a web address all contain pertinent information that can help identify sources as reliable, dubious, or outright fraudulent.
  • Watch for biases. Even reputable publications may be prone to bias on a given topic, so it’s important to compare against other sources, and to check citations.
  • Verify citations. Especially where academic research is concerned, you aren’t just looking for information, you’re looking for sources with some authority, and that means finding reliable points of origin for information. Never accept a citation or unsupported claim at face value.

Storing and Managing Digital Data

Information is only useful if it can be accessed when needed. That’s why it’s important to store and organize that information effectively. Well-organized files and data are easy to find, easy to reference, and easy to reuse as needed, meaning you won’t have to repeat research unnecessarily.

Along with that, proper storage ensures that information isn’t lost due to accident, mishap, device failure, and so forth. The last thing you need is your finished thesis draft to be wiped from a drive with no backup or notes.

Tips for storing and managing your digital data:

  • Get organized. There are a number of apps, platforms, and tools that can make it easier to store, sort, and search your own personal database, and they can make research work a lot less frustrating.
  • 3-2-1 storage. Ask any developer or IT pro, and they’ll give you the same answer for storage best practices: for any important file, have three different copies, in two different storage mediums, with at least one backup in a different location.
  • Avoid digital hoarding. It often comes as a surprise just how much data we collect over time. It can be frustrating disposing of old data, but regular disposal helps free up space and minimize privacy risks.

Pillar 2: Digital Communication and Collaboration

Even for in-person coursework, digital communication has become an integral part of the learning environment. For online master’s students, telecommunication and virtual collaborations are nearly unavoidable. Video calls, messaging apps, file sharing, and student portals are just the beginning. And with the professional environment similarly embracing distance work and asynchronous contributions, knowing how to use these tools will serve you well long after graduation.

Interacting and Sharing in a Digital Environment

Similar to using search engines, this is likely the portion of this pillar you’re most familiar with. Nearly all of us at this point use digital communication daily, in our personal lives if nothing else. Not everyone is as well versed in the sharing of files and information, however.

While sharing data has gotten easier over the years, it can still be surprisingly difficult to get a document, video, audio file, etc., into everyone’s hands, especially when there are issues with proprietary file formats. There are a few reliable workarounds, though, that should help overcome most hurdles.

Tips for successful digital interaction and sharing:

  • Cloud storage and shared drives. Email attachments will only get you so far (especially with bigger files). A shared folder on Google Drive, however, can make it a lot easier to centralize storage and democratize access.
  • Use free tools. Some file formats are a little finicky, and a few require expensive software to open or edit. PDFs are a common culprit, for example. That said, there are free and inexpensive tools that can make it less costly to share, view, modify, or convert these files.
  • Consider access controls. Sometimes you need to limit or restrict access to files. When access management is a major concern, look for sharing tools that allow you to adjust permissions, and grant or revoke access individually.

Engaging and Collaborating with Teachers and Peers

“Group projects” have long been the subject of education-centric humor, but in a post-pandemic world, a lot of the professional world closely resembles that oft-maligned mode of productivity. In other words, you’re better off learning to make the most of virtual collaboration, because it’s not going away anytime soon. The good news is, it’s never been easier to collaborate, track progress, or maintain transparency.

Tips for successful digital engagement & collaboration:

  • Coordinate smarter. Project management tools can make assigning and tracking tasks easier, and many have free versions for small groups or student users.
  • Communicate effectively. These days, video call apps have built-in recording features, messaging apps have built-in live calling, email clients have native scheduling functions, and so on. Don’t be afraid to dig deeper into the interface to see just how helpful the app can be.
  • Crowdsource troubleshooting. There are plenty of snags and hurdles to deal with when trying to get connected digitally. But there are also plenty of users who have already dealt with the problems you’re facing, and they’ve likely left videos, forum threads, etc., that provide the answer.

Practicing Good Netiquette

Telecommunication can be convenient, but it can also lead to a lapse in civil discourse. You don’t have to be familiar with the term “troll” to know that people are often insensitive, impolite, and inconsiderate online. It’s not always on purpose, though, and a little “netiquette” goes a long way, especially for master’s students and others sharing a learning environment.

Tips for practicing good netiquette:

  • Clarity is key. From texts, to emails, to Zoom calls, be aware that digital communication is not as seamless as it is in person. Do your best to minimize ambiguity and be clear about information, questions, expectations, and needs, even if it feels a bit awkward to address them directly.
  • Respect people’s time. When everyone is “available” 24/7, we tend to take for granted that not everyone keeps the same hours. Avoid pestering people after hours for non-urgent matters, send a heads-up text before calling, and don’t expect unreasonably short response times.
  • Stop to think. Too often, online discourse happens in the heat of the moment, and participants forget that there are human beings on the other end. Don’t let heated emotions get the better of you; write an angry text or email if you must, but let it sit overnight then reread it before hitting send.

Pillar 3: Digital Content Creation

Not everyone thinks of the things they write, record, or share as “content,” but broadly speaking, that’s what we’re doing a lot of the time we’re online. Posting, sharing, and commenting on social all counts, as does creating documents, slide decks, images, videos, and the like.

While not every master’s degree requires students to be a skilled writer, designer, videographer, or podcaster, knowing the fundamentals of content creation can make coursework — and eventually professional work — a lot easier.

Developing Digital Content

It may be as simple as writing a blog post (a.k.a. a research paper) or conducting a survey (a.k.a. running a poll on social). It may involve some video creation or transcribing an interview with an expert. Whatever the case, you’re likely to encounter some aspect of content creation in your coursework.

Luckily, the barriers to entry for many of these activities are lower than ever before. Even creating videos, websites, and other highly technical tasks can be accessible to a novice with the right tools.

Tips for developing effective digital content:

  • Consult the experts. You may not need to create a major motion picture for your coursework, but you still stand to benefit from learning best practices and tips from professionals in a given discipline. YouTube, Reddit, social feeds, and blog posts are all your friends in this regard.
  • Know what you have, know what you need. Take stock of what’s required to create the content in question, from software, to equipment, to basic skills. Some you’ll already have access to, while others may require some figuring out.
  • Don’t be intimidated. Once you start digging into different types of content creation, it doesn’t take long to realize just how deep those disciplines are. It can be overwhelming, but you don’t have to be an expert to get started. Start with the parts you know how to do or feel confident trying, and branch out from there.

Developing Digital Content

It may be as simple as writing a blog post (a.k.a. a research paper) or conducting a survey (a.k.a. running a poll on social). It may involve some video creation or transcribing an interview with an expert. Whatever the case, you’re likely to encounter some aspect of content creation in your coursework.

Luckily, the barriers to entry for many of these activities are lower than ever before. Even creating videos, websites, and other highly technical tasks can be accessible to a novice with the right tools.

Tips for developing effective digital content:

  • Consult the experts. You may not need to create a major motion picture for your coursework, but you still stand to benefit from learning best practices and tips from professionals in a given discipline. YouTube, Reddit, social feeds, and blog posts are all your friends in this regard.
  • Know what you have, know what you need. Take stock of what’s required to create the content in question, from software, to equipment, to basic skills. Some you’ll already have access to, while others may require some figuring out.
  • Don’t be intimidated. Once you start digging into different types of content creation, it doesn’t take long to realize just how deep those disciplines are. It can be overwhelming, but you don’t have to be an expert to get started. Start with the parts you know how to do or feel confident trying, and branch out from there.

Choosing the Right Medium

Depending on the class, the assignment, and other circumstances, the medium for your content may be chosen for you. But in the event that you have a little flexibility, it’s important to know what options are on the table, and how each will impact the process.

Writing documents tends to be the easiest in terms of required tools, but not everyone feels confident in their wordsmithing. Podcasts and videos can feel more natural for some when speaking off-the-cuff, but they can also be intimidating. Weigh the pros and cons carefully, and be sure to give yourself enough time to follow the process from start to finish.

Tips for choosing the right medium:

  • Avoid unneeded spending. While many of the best tools on the market for content creation come at a premium, there are plenty of free tools for video, images, audio, word processing, and more. If you’re only going to use it once, don’t drop money on it.
  • Mind the turnaround time. Some content takes longer to create than others. Most written documents can be created fairly quickly, while video takes time to set up, film, edit, and finalize. Give yourself enough breathing room to avoid deadline dilemmas.
  • Show your best side. Everyone has different skills for content development. Similarly, some content is better suited to certain uses than others. Videos work great for hands-on how-to explanations, while written content is best for documentation, research, and “showing your work.”

Following Copyright and Licensing Laws

Just as research papers require proper attribution, content creation must navigate issues of copyright and acceptable use. Depending on where your content will end up (your professor’s inbox, a YouTube channel, a public-facing website, etc.), you may need to account for licensing or similar permissions.

And even if you’ve double-checked to make sure your usage is protected, issues can still come up due to overzealous copyright enforcement, internet trolls, and so forth. You can’t control every variable, but you can — and should — do your due diligence.

Tips for following copyright and licensing laws:

  • Guiding principles. Citing sources will go a long way toward covering your bases, and content that isn’t publicly acceptable or used for profit doesn’t typically require the same level of compliance.
  • Look for public domain/royalty-free assets. Some visual, audio, and text assets are free to use without penalty, so start your search there, if possible. Even then, check terms of use to see if your intended usage falls within what’s acceptable.
  • Know your rights. Most countries have “fair use” policies that sidestep normal copyright regulations. In many cases, “education” is included in fair use exceptions, though the specific details can vary (e.g., for teachers rather than for students).

Pillar 4: Digital Privacy and Security

The advantages and conveniences of digital technology come with their fair share of risks, unfortunately. One downside to having access to your virtual “valuables” from anywhere is the threat of being burglarized from anywhere.

But unlike locking your front door, locking down your devices, data, and digital privacy requires more than just turning a deadbolt. Protecting your finances, your information, and your identity requires the proper safeguards and best practices.

Safeguarding Your Digital Devices

Privacy and security both begin with controlling direct access. In this way, cybersecurity is no different than guarding physical assets. You don’t leave money lying about, and you don’t leave your doors unlocked. It’s just as important to deny access to your mobile devices, laptops, computers, Wi-Fi network, and so forth, if you want to avoid potential issues with your digital wealth and valuables.

Tips for safeguarding your digital devices:

  • Don’t leave devices unattended. Context and location matter here, but in general, it’s best to keep track of any device that has your data on it. Leaving your phone on the counter or laptop on the couch at home is one thing. It’s different at a coffee shop, cafeteria, or auditorium.
  • Use robust passwords. A good password can do a lot of heavy lifting for your privacy. There are plenty of best practices here but start with something easy: don’t leave any device without password protection and use passwords that are longer but easy to remember (e.g., a string of four random words).
  • Practice digital hygiene. It doesn’t take much to compromise your device with malicious software, but it also doesn’t take much to protect it. Microsoft Defender, for example, is both robust and free, and avoiding suspicious links and files can minimize your risk.

Protecting Personal Data and Privacy

Cybersecurity is more than just passwords and device access. Often, the greatest risk factors are actions taken by authorized users. You can keep the thieves away from the device, but you can’t necessarily stop users from falling for social engineering, phishing tactics, and the like. That comes down to a user policing themselves. And it’s not always clear what’s risky behavior and what’s not, so here are a few reliable guidelines.

Tips for protecting your personal data and privacy:

  • Verify communication sources. It’s very common for criminals to gain access by posing as someone the user trusts (a friend, peer, boss, teacher, family member, etc.). They may spoof a trusted email, phone number, or other communication method, and ask for information, or send a compromised link. Your best bet is to check with the individual to make sure the message is legit.
  • Choose connection points wisely. Whether it’s public Wi-Fi or a shared device, be careful where and how you log into accounts. Don’t use unsecured Wi-Fi, leverage VPN services if you can, and never leave any account logged in on a device with public access.
  • Don’t be careless with physical records. Maybe you need to print an important document, carry your passwords on a sticky note in your wallet, or otherwise have paper records with sensitive information. Guard them like you would your physical devices, and don’t leave them where they can be easily seen and accessed by others.

Managing Your Online Identity

Finally, it’s important to police your own data and digital footprint. Going completely off-grid can be both difficult to achieve and troublesome to live with, so most of us just have to come to grips with a certain level of online visibility. That said, there are steps you can take to minimize unwanted visibility, protect sensitive information, and avoid problematic attention.

Tips for managing your online identity:

  • Principle of least privilege. Wherever you can, share the least amount of information possible to minimize your risk, and limit access where you can. Protecting privacy depends on keeping things private.
  • Use access management. You likely have public-facing data somewhere on the internet (social profiles, personal websites, even a name drop in a local news post). In many cases, you can control who can see this information, who can contact you directly, and how long the information is available online. Be aware of what you share, where you share it, and who can access it.
  • Get proactive. Users have more rights now than before, and more options for reclaiming ownership of their data. Don’t be afraid to take the bull by the horns. Managing your cookie settings, leveraging VPNs and data removal services, and even signing up for identity theft protection can help you maintain your privacy.

Pillar 5: Digital Problem Solving

Not everyone has a tech-savvy buddy they can call at a moment’s notice to get help troubleshooting issues and fixing things that broke. And you won’t always be able to lean on others to ease the burden of learning or using more complex digital tools. Sometimes, you’ll need to be self-sufficient, and the more effectively you can unclog your own virtual toilet (metaphorically speaking), the less stressful things will be.

Identifying Digital Knowledge Gaps

You don’t know everything about computers. No one does. And that’s not a bad thing. What can present a problem is a lack of self-awareness. Users who can identify gaps in their knowledge or skill sets can either ask for help or skill up to independence. And honestly, finding those gaps often takes trying to do the thing in question yourself. Don’t be afraid to tinker and try new things. It’s the best way to learn.

Tips for identifying digital knowledge gaps:

  • Give it a shot. Most design paradigms for user interfaces these days prioritize legibility, clarity, and ease of use, so even if a new device/tool/app/software seems intimidating, it may be more intuitive than you think, and you may find yourself doing just fine in short order.
  • Read the instructions. Tutorials, tooltips, documentation, and other instructional support features can make it a lot easier to learn new systems than just brute forcing them on your own. Treat it like an Ikea product assembly: you’ll figure it out faster if you read the instructions.
  • Promise vs. experience. If a device or app has stated functionality that you have yet to successfully make use of, it’s likely due to a knowledge gap. If you don’t know what features are available, try asking someone familiar with the tool, and compare against that.

Using Technology Creatively

There are plenty of obstacles to using technology that have nothing to do with skills or know-how. Sometimes, these problems are matters of assets, resources, and compatibility. That said, most issues have workarounds, and finding them requires a bit of creativity and persistence. Proprietary formats, outdated systems, unwieldy processes, and more can all be addressed with the right tools or approach.

Tips for creative technology use:

  • Get a free ride. Free tools, free versions, and free trials are all excellent ways to sidestep expensive software costs. And don’t forget the free help you can find online via YouTube, Reddit, and other libraries of crowdsourced wisdom.
  • Virtual machines. When compatibility is a concern, a “virtual machine” can help circumvent the problem. Put simply, running a virtual machine is like telling the computer to pretend to be something else (a Mac to be a PC, a newer OS to be something older), so that it can run otherwise incompatible programs. This is usually how video game backwards compatibility works.
  • Offload grunt work. Computers and human brains each have their strengths and shortcomings. Computers do better with calculations, scheduled actions, and information transfer, for starters. These are all candidates for types of tasks you can pass to the machine to minimize required effort, speed up progress, and reduce human errors.

Troubleshooting Tech Issues

Computer systems are complicated. Hardware, software, and everything in between require deep technical knowledge to build. You may not have that in your quiver, but you can still do a lot to solve problems yourself (and make getting help easier). Lots of common computer issues can be fixed with a little guidance, and knowing what to look for enables you to point an actual support expert in the right direction if needed.

Tips for troubleshooting tech issues:

  • Confidence counts. A lot of simple computer problems become easy to solve. It just takes a little confidence to start digging below the surface UI of the device/app in question.
  • Forums are your friend. When in doubt, go back to basics and search the web. Most technical problems are far from unique, and the right forum thread can point you in the right direction.
  • Know your limits. Some fixes require the right expertise to avoid making problems worse. The best troubleshooters can tell when they’re out of their depth, and who to go to for help.

Resources for Digital Literacy

The information above is far from comprehensive, and has, by necessity, glossed over or simplified a number of details for the sake of brevity (it was getting a bit long-winded as it was). But if you’d like to know more about some of these topics, the resources below provide deeper insights and advice regarding various aspects of digital literacy.

  • 7 Things You Should Know About Digital Literacies
    In this brief article, Educause outlines seven important questions, issues, and factors related to digital literacy in the 21st century, particularly with regard to higher education.
  • 10 Must-Know Tips for Keeping Your Personal Data Safe
    The National Cybersecurity Alliance, as the name implies, is a nonprofit organization focused on helping people practice better security habits online. This article contains 10 of their most foundational pieces of advice.
  • A Teacher’s Guide to Digital Literacy & Digital Literacy Skills in the Classroom
    This article provides a thorough breakdown of digital literacy, as it pertains to students and learners. It covers core definitions, why digital literacy is important, and includes additional resources for further study.
  • Computer Basics: Basic Troubleshooting Techniques
    This article from GCF Global provides a crash course on basic computer troubleshooting, including what the troubleshooting process looks like, common problems and solutions, and suggested approaches for better results.
  • Digital Content Creation: What It Is & how to Do It Successfully
    This article, from SEO and keyword analytics experts at Ahrefs, offers an overview of digital content creation, from common media and formats, to platforms, to effective content creation processes.
  • How to Find Credible Sources for a Research Paper
    Written by industry experts at Microsoft, this brief read offers guidance regarding strategies for identifying and verifying credible sources for those working on research papers (though these tactics would work for anything that requires research).
  • Tips for Better Online Collaboration
    Lucidchart is a diagramming and visualization solution designed to facilitate visual collaboration. This article, found on their Lucidspark blog, provides tips on how to achieve better virtual cooperation and contribution, no matter what the task or tools at hand.
  • The Data Privacy Tips Digital Security Experts Wish You Knew
    Found on CNET, a major tech industry publication, this article outlines advice from professionals regarding how to better protect your privacy on Apple and Android mobile devices.
  • The Digital Literacy Imperative
    Written by the Center for Strategic & International Studies, this brief tackles the pressing issue of digital literacy, specifically the widening gaps among different demographics, and how that can impact lives and professions in the years to come.
  • What Is Troubleshooting and Why Is It Important?
    A step-by-step process guide for troubleshooting problems in technology, complete with visual aids, this TechTarget article is a good place to start if you want to learn how to be more proactive about fixing computer problems yourself.

Interview with an Expert on Digital Literacy

Greg Rosenhan

Greg Rosenhan has more than 10 years of experience working in the digital landscape, starting as a Digital Art Director for a large ad agency in Chicago. Since then, he has worked with large and small businesses on web design and development, product design, advertising, marketing, and more. He enjoys using technology to improve processes and simplify the user experience.

Can you tell us a little about how your journey toward digital literacy began?

I started at a very young age. My dad worked at IBM, so we always had computers, internet, etc. in our home. I knew how to use it all at a very young age. I was always excited to learn something new about the computer or other devices like Palm Pilot.

What impact has your technology skills played in your professional career?

I am pretty sure that my skillset in technology is what has allowed me to excel at the level I have in my career. Even when I was working installing Coax and Cat-5 cable, I used technology to my advantage to make things easier. Now that I work solely in digital media, the ability to learn and use new technology to my benefit has been huge.

Have you seen any new challenges in recent years that might pose a significant barrier to entry for gaining digital literacy?

I think the only barrier to entry is not being connected or not taking the time to learn. There are so many options that help one learn and become more literate that it is up to the individual to put in the time and effort.

For master’s degree students looking to better prepare for their professional careers, what would you recommend to help them improve their level of familiarity with computer technologies?

The best way to become computer literate is to just do it. I taught myself more about Photoshop on my own than any class I took.

In your experience, are there any technical skills that have proven more indispensable than others?

A basic understanding of HTML and CSS will go a long way in my opinion. It helps one understand a little bit more about how things are built online and how to manipulate them.