Seven Elements of Digital Literacy for Adult Learners

September 20th, 2020 | Blogs


There are terms we often hear, buzzwords, that are used everywhere, and we know those words are of importance. These terms are so frequent that we may even pepper them into our conversations, even if we do not fully understand what the term means. Digital literacy is one of those terms – it is a buzzword used in law, curriculum, and professional development, but it can be evasive in meaning. Does it only mean one’s ability to work with all things digital at a basic level? Does it only mean focusing on a user’s proficiency in using digital applications such as word processors and spreadsheets? No. Those two examples are not enough.

The Definition

Digital literacy is defined by the International Museum and Library Services Act of 2010 as, “the ability to use information and communication technologies to find, evaluate, create, and communicate information, requiring both cognitive and technical skills” [1]. This is the definition adopted by The American Library Association Task Force and is referenced in the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act.

The Framework

In Maryland, and across the globe, digital literacy is vital to the success of our adult learners, but we lack the structure and definition that could support addressing the need. That is why the Digital Literacy Framework for Adult Learners was created – to provide structure and definition for the famed term of digital literacy. The Framework goes beyond defining digital literacy, it provides seven interconnected elements of a digitally literate adult learner along with guiding questions, descriptions, and situational examples for each.

The 7 Elements

The seven elements seen in the Digital Literacy Framework wheel cannot exist isolated from each other, and because digital literacy affects the life, education, and employment of adult learners, all are needed to facilitate success in each area. However, each element while interconnected is distinct.


The technical element consists of foundational digital skills, which includes powering on and off devices, accessing tools and applications from devices, using the mouse and touchpad, and troubleshooting. An example of this element in an adult learner’s life is using the touchscreen at the doctor’s office to check-in.


This element is similar to traditional citizenship where individuals have rights and responsibilities that need to be respected. Online safety, building identity, managing reputation, etiquette, and participation are all a part of the civic element. In academia, understanding the citation of sources found during online research is an example of the civic element.


With this element, Individuals share a variety of resources and materials with others using various platforms. In employment, writing a professional email or memorandum requires professional communication. In everyday life, individuals who post images and add comments on social media use the communicative element.


Strongly linked to the communicative element, it provides opportunities for individuals to work together synchronously or asynchronously to achieve common goals. This includes teamwork, problem-solving, and being engaged, which are all reflected when a learner responds to a discussion forum or thread.

Computational Thinking

When an individual desires to leverage digital media and technology to solve a problem and use critical thinking skills, the skills associated with the computational thinking element will prepare him or her to do so.  In life, adult learners need this skill when creating a spreadsheet for budgeting, analyzing a poem for structure, and putting together an agenda for a work meeting.


Similar to information literacy, the investigative element highlights an individual’s ability to search, identify, and validate the information. This is essential for adult learners to sort through the extensive amount of information provided in the digital space especially in employment if they are required to order office supplies of quality and reasonable prices.


The productive element highlights participation in the digital environment with content creation and curation of resources. This element requires an individual’s motivation and application of all the elements to be successful. In the digital environment, publishing content on a blog or creating a video for social media are all part of being content creation.

The Instructor Implementation Guide

Because the Digital Literacy Framework was developed for all adult learners, its flexibility allows it to fit many contexts inside and outside of the adult education classroom. Maryland understands, however, that instructors need additional support in implementing these elements of the Digital Literacy Framework, so a supplemental Instructor Implementation Guide is being developed. This Guide includes two parts: 1) lesson activities from adult educators and 2) lists and descriptions of curated resources to support each element of the Digital Literacy Framework.

Engage with the Digital Literacy Framework for Adult Learners.

To obtain the Digital Literacy Framework: Instructor Implementation Guide, monitor this webpage for the update.

The COVID-19 pandemic has only confirmed the importance of supporting our adult learners with limited digital access but also facilitating the growth of digital literacy skills. Now when we address digital literacy for adult learners in our programming, curriculum design, and instruction, we can use the guidance of the Digital Literacy Framework for Adult Learners to provide deeper discussion and targeted approaches.

Written by Jamie Harris, Adult Education Program Specialist at the Maryland Department of Labor

[1] International Museum and Library Services Act of 2010. Pub. L. 111-340, 22 Dec. 2010. Retrieved from

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