By Jen Vanek

Building digital literacy skills with ABE students can seem like a never-ending process. Indeed, the open-endedness of learning to use technology can be frustrating for learners and teachers. Additionally, many learners have difficulty articulating the skills they possess and what they want to learn. The Northstar Digital Literacy Assessment (NDLA) can help address these issues. NDLA is a series of online, interactive assessments that help learners identify skills gaps in several categories of technology literacy: Basic Computer Use, Internet, Windows Operating System, Email, Word Processing/ Microsoft Word, Spreadsheets/ Excel, and Social Media.

The assessments are available in two ways. First, anyone with the link ( can take the assessments. Results pop up immediately upon completion of an assessment, listing the skills the learner has mastered, and providing language the learner can use to describe the skills to an employer.

A second way to take the assessments is at one of the many NDLA sponsoring sites. These sites are Adult Basic Education programs or community based organizations working to build the digital literacy skills of their learners and program participants. For a minimal fee, the sites get a unique URL, access to a database hosting information about assessments given, and the means by which to provide proctored assessments. If a learner successfully completes an assessment at a sponsoring site, he or she can claim a digital badge or be issued a certificate by the participating organization. Working toward the certificate has proven to be incredibly motivating for ABE students taking the Northstar Digital Literacy Assessments.

The battery of assessments best fits into programming when teachers use it to confirm skills mastered, rather than using it as a pure diagnostic assessment. Therefore, students should take the tests only after they have received some instruction and had ample time to practice the skills tested.

More information on the history of the assessment, assessment content, and details about how to integrate the assessment into programming can be found on the Northstar Digital Literacy Assessment website or in this online article: The Northstar Digital Literacy Project: Community Engagement Initiative.

Jen Vanek is currently a doctoral student in Curriculum & Instruction/Second Languages & Cultures at the University of Minnesota. She’s been working in the field of adult literacy since receiving her MA in Teaching English as a Second Language from the University of Illinois-Chicago in 1995. Her recent work centers on creating online content for Adult Basic Education (ABE) learners and supporting the professional development of ESL and ABE teachers in the area of digital literacy, distance learning, and adult career pathways.

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