Use, Understand & Create: Towards a Comprehensive Canadian Digital Literacy Curriculum

Matthew JohnsonWhether it’s to prepare for the future job market or just to manage the lives they already lead online, young Canadians need to be digitally literate. But what exactly is digital literacy, and how can we ensure that all Canadian youth are learning the digital skills they need? At MediaSmarts, our definition is based on the core principles of media literacy: just as a media literate person is able to understand and actively engage with media texts, and also knows the fundamentals of media production, a digitally literate person is able to use, understand and create digital media. Those outcomes are the basis of our latest resource, Use, Understand & Create: A Digital Literacy Framework for Canadian Schools (K-8).

As valuable as that definition is, it’s limited by the fact that it only describes outcomes, without showing how to reach them. To do that, we needed to find out what digital literacy skills Canadian youth were already learning in different provinces and territories. This issue is explored in our new research paper Mapping Digital Literacy Policy and Practice in the Canadian Landscape, written for MediaSmarts by Michael Hoechsmann and Helen DeWaard. This paper draws on policy and curriculum documents from across Canada to synthesize key concepts and best practices in digital literacy education. The paper also looks at the ways in which digital literacy is situated within the curricula of different provinces and territories, identifying four basic approaches: integration, in which digital literacy is made its own subject area; infusion, in which digital literacy is included in all parts of the curriculum; cross-curricular competencies, in which digital literacy skills are essentially parallel to the curriculum, seen as essential but not tied to any particular subject; and dispersion, in which aspects of digital literacy are spread through the curriculum in different subjects such as Language Arts, Health Education and Information and Communications Technology. Finally, the paper looks at best practices of digital literacy education that can already be identified in Canadian classrooms, ranging from using digital technology to empower students as media creators to the use of social media for instruction and professional development.

Based on this analysis, we developed a model curriculum that provides a framework for integrating digital literacy in Canadian schools. The framework draws on our research to identify six key aspects of digital literacy and provides 52 lessons and interactive resources, linked to curriculum expectations for every province and territory to help teachers bring them into the classroom:

  1. Finding and Verifying: Search and authentication rank first among the digital literacy skills students want to learn, according to our Young Canadians in a Wired World research, and it’s easy to see why: the same things that make the Internet such a valuable source of information can just as easily become pitfalls. Our new lesson So Many Choices! introduces students as early as kindergarten to the idea of narrowing searches and using kid-friendly search engines and filters to keep them from seeing unwanted content, while Taming the Wild Wiki teaches older students how to evaluate and improve articles on Wikipedia, Canadian students’ top source of online information.
  2. Ethics and Empathy: One of the key features of digital media is their interactivity. All of the most popular websites among Canadian youth have some interactive element, which are used to communicate with others – our friends, our families and people we’ve only ever known online. We have an ethical responsibility to treat those people with kindness and respect, and to do that we need to recognize the empathy traps that may prevent us from feeling empathy towards others in online interactions. The flip side of this is that we also have to learn to manage our own emotions when we’re communicating online: in the same way that digital media can keep us from feeling empathy, interacting with people through screens can also make it hard for us to recognize how we’re feeling. Both of these factors can contribute to forms of online conflict such as cyberbullying, which is why students learn how to avoid empathy traps in Avatars and Identity and how to recognize and manage “hot” emotional states in Ethics and Empathy. The ease with which we can copy and forward things online means that we also have to make careful decisions about how we use and share online content – whether it was created by artists or corporations or by our friends and families. In Promoting Ethical Behaviour Online, students in grades 7 and 8 learn to consider the morality and possible consequences of posting and sharing other people’s content.
  3. Privacy and Security: Another aspect of digital media is that we are nearly all producers as well as consumers, even if that production only takes the form of status updates or Instagram photos. Because of this we need to take steps to actively manage our privacy online, deciding both what to share and with whom to share it – while keeping in mind that it’s never entirely possible to control who will see content that we post. Our research shows that young Canadians are actively engaged in managing their online privacy and want to learn how to do so more effectively: students are introduced to the idea of digital permanence in Internet Time Capsule, and to the networked nature of the Internet in Pathways and Addresses. As well as the privacy risks that come with sharing content, though, we also face privacy and security risks when we go online in the form of things like cookies, data scrapers, viruses, spyware and data harvesting tools like quizzes and surveys. In Online Marketing to Kids: Protecting Your Privacy, students find out how to protect their privacy in commercial environments, and in Playing With Privacy they learn to make informed decisions about their privacy in online games.
  4. Digital Health: As we live our lives more and more through digital technology, it becomes more and more important to manage those aspects of digital media that affect our health. This has several aspects. Students learn strategies for managing screen time and balancing their online and offline lives in Game Time, where they keep a game and screen diary to help them develop mindful gaming habits. They also need guidance in accessing and evaluating information about physical and mental health and healthy sexuality, and dealing with representations of gender, diversity and body image: in Put Your Best Face Forward, students consider the effects of social media on gender, body image and identity by creating a “selfie” version of a historic sculpture, portrait or photo. Students in grades 7 and 8 learn another essential aspect of digital health – how to recognize and respond to risky situations such as unhealthy relationships and stranger contact – in That’s Not Cool.
  5. Consumer Awareness: One important thing that digital literacy and media literacy have in common is the need to recognize, deconstruct and respond to advertising. This may be even more important online than in traditional media: of the fifty most popular websites among Canadian youth, just one is not operated for profit. Research has repeatedly shown that children are heavily advertised to online; moreover, children’s online spaces are themselves often highly commercialized, with youth being encouraged to spend money in order to access the best content. Young people are also frequently exposed to branding, in everything from advergames to social profiles for beer brands and corporate mascots. Young students learn about advergames and other kinds of stealth advertising in Can You Spot the Ad? Students in grades 4 to 6 learn strategies for coping with in-app purchases and other “upselling” tactics in online games in Pay For Play. On a more positive note, digital media provide youth with opportunities to answer back to advertising: in Online Marketing to Kids: Protecting Your Privacy, students in grades 6 to 8 learn how to make their voices heard when they encounter sites that infringe on their privacy rights.
  6. Community Engagement: Digital media provide unique opportunities for youth to become involved, to speak out and to effect change both online and offline. As we develop our definitions of digital literacy and digital citizenship, it’s important to remember that citizenship brings with it not just responsibilities but rights as well. Helping youth to understand those rights – as consumers, as members of a community, as citizens and as human beings – is central to empowering them to take full advantage of digital media. Young children learn about ways that they can have a positive influence on the cultures of online games and virtual worlds in Rules of the Game, while older students learn ways to intervene when they witness cyberbullying in Cyberbullying and Civic Participation.

Young Canadians need to be able to make good choices about privacy, ethics, safety and verifying information when they’re using digital media, and they need to be prepared to be active and engaged digital citizens. Based on our ground breaking research on digital literacy education in Canada – and linked to existing curriculum outcomes for each province and territory – Use, Understand and Create provides tools for teachers, parents, administrators and policymakers to ensure that all Canadian students get the digital literacy education they need.


Use, Understand & Create: A Digital Literacy Framework for Canadian Schools (K-8) was made possible by financial contributions from CIRA through the .CA Community Investment Program. The framework and supporting resources are freely available at

Mapping Digital Literacy Policy and Practice in the Canadian Landscape was made possible by financial contributions from Google Canada. The paper is available at