K–12 schools teach digital literacy because students need to know how to use computers and the Internet to be successful in the digital economy. But they need to update their curriculum to account for the rapid evolution of artificial intelligence (AI).
As new AI tools like ChatGPT have grown in popularity, some schools have taken a reactionary approach by enacting bans to prevent abuses, such as cheating. But banning these tools does not help students learn how to use them appropriately. Instead of keeping students away from new technologies, schools should update their digital literacy curriculums to include modules on AI literacy to help students better understand, use, and evaluate AI-driven tools.
Paul Gilster popularized the term “digital literacy” in the 1990s, referring to it as “the ability to understand and use information in multiple formats from a wide range of sources when it is presented via computers.” Since then, digital literacy has come to encompass a wide variety of skills related to information and communication technologies. The Common Core State Standards in the United States incorporate digital skills into its academic subject areas. Likewise, the nonprofit International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) offers a set of widely-adopted standards that guide schools in teaching key digital literacy milestones. These targets include using technology to take an active role in the learning process, using a variety of digital methods and platforms for communication and collaboration, and leveraging technology to understand, solve problems, and test solutions.
States use different models for digital literacy, but all with the shared goal of preparing students for a digital world. For example, the Massachusetts Department of Education has one of the most robust curriculums nationwide, with specific targets for each grade level covering computing and society, digital tools and collaboration, computing systems, and computational thinking. Students in grades K-2 might learn about different types of devices and their components, while students in grades 3-5 might work on typing at a standard pace. Grades 6-8 might learn proper etiquette for online communities and the basic ethical issues of hacking, while their high school counterparts learn to generate and evaluate questions and perform research using digital sources.
Digital literacy curriculums evolve over time. As technology develops, state policymakers want to keep students on track for success and have proposed new types of curriculums, including media literacy and data literacy. For example, policymakers in New Jersey have mandated media literacy courses in public schools for all K–12 students to address concerns about misinformation and online extremism. These courses aim to teach research and critical thinking skills and differentiating between fact and opinion in media messaging. Likewise, federal lawmakers introduced the Data Science and Literacy Act of 2023, stating that “data literacy is an integral skill for understanding data-driven claims and making personal decisions in the 21st century.” The bill aims to support students in using data for problem-solving and bolster their understanding of statistics.
Digital literacy should also evolve to include AI literacy. AI literacy teaches students to understand and use AI-enabled technologies. AI literacy involves understanding how technologies like machine learning work, how they can be used for problem-solving, and the technology’s consequences. For example, whereas existing curriculums might teach individuals how to use a search engine effectively, how to evaluate different sources, and how to interpret statistics, AI literacy would help students understand how to spot deepfakes and whether to verify the results of a ChatGPT prompt are necessarily factual or not. School districts in some states have incorporated the MIT DAILy Curriculum into their digital literacy classes, teaching key concepts in AI and how it relates to students’ futures.
Students who are AI-literate can make more informed decisions about how and when to use AI and better understand its development. For example, they can better critique claims about AI and objectively assess its potential advantages and disadvantages in different use cases. As a result, AI-literate students are more likely to become ethical and effective technology users.
AI literacy also prepares students for a future in which AI tools will be a component of many sectors. By teaching students about the fundamental principles and concepts behind AI, they gain a better understanding of how these technologies work and their potential applications in various industries and jobs. In developing these skills, students are better equipped to adapt to the rapidly changing technological landscape, contribute to the implementation of new AI-based tools, and learn how to use these tools responsibly.
As the technological landscape rapidly advances, students need to be AI literate. When thinking about digital literacy, state policymakers should update their curriculums to include AI literacy and keep America’s students informed and empowered in an AI-driven future.
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