<span class='p-name'>What is digital literacy?</span>

What is digital literacy?

The Internet is the defining text of this generation. We use it as a space to read, write, communicate, socialize, and participate globally. This technology facilitates access to an unlimited amount of online information in a participatory learning space.

Literacy means many different things to different people. For me, literacy involves the knowledge, skills, and dispositions necessary to read, write, communicate, and participate in society. Many forms of literacy are changing as individuals need to be able to use traditional and digital texts for literacy practices to be fully literate now…and in the future.

CC BY-SA by mrkrndvs

I’ve had the honor of studying and writing about these intersections for some time. More to the point, I’ve had the honor of working with some brilliant people as we study what it means to use the Internet as a text in our lives. I helped work on the Web Literacies initiative with Mozilla.

I’m currently working with two teams to help revise, and redefine “digital literacy.” The first of these teams is from the International Literacy Association (ILA), and the second is with the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE). Together, these two organizations guide literacy education from elementary school on through adulthood. Working on redefining these two definitions, and their sets of standards is a monumental task, but it begs the question…What is digital literacy?

Ambiguity & understanding

As we combine literacy with the Internet and these new digital spaces, there are many challenges as we consider these new and ever-changing skills, competencies, and tools. Because of these regular changes, I agree with Doug Belshaw that we need to have some ambiguity, or wiggle room in our framing of these contexts. That is to say that we need to be a bit pliable, or malleable in how we examine and define the knowledge, skills, and practices necessary to be digitally literate.

CC BY-SA by mrkrndvs

There is also a challenge as academics and educators often think about digital literacy, and the various interrelated digital literacies (e.g., information literacy, multiliteracies, new literacy, media literacy, 21st century literacies). In academic contexts, these differing perspectives all have value, but for the practitioner, or citizen trying to become more digitally literate, they only seek to confuse. We spend more time thinking about the labeling and terminology, and not enough time about just thinking about how to read, write, and communicate using digital texts.

This is further complicated as a growing contingent of the field is asking whether or not we need to use the term “digital literacy” at all. At this point, is it just “literacy” and the inclusion of the term digital is not needed as most parts of our life are a mix of the digital and traditional.

Literacy in digital contexts

Is it possible to define digital literacy, while still remaining a bit flexible, and identifying these concepts in a way that is easy to understand and use? Let’s quick look at some of the framings of the intersection between literacy and digital contexts.

The American Library Association’s digital-literacy task force defines digital literacy as the “ability to use information and communication technologies to find, evaluate, create, and communicate information, requiring both cognitive and technical skills.”

NCTE’s definition of 21st Century Literacies identifies this as a collection of cultural and communicative practices that are “multiple, dynamic, and malleable” necessary for a 21st century global society.

The 2018 Literacy Leadership Brief from the ILA considers the use of digital and nondigital resources as individuals “produce, communicate, interpret, and socialize with peers, adults, & the broader world they will enter when they graduate.”

In his doctoral thesis, Doug Belshaw identified eight essential elements of digital literacy that lead to positive action (cultural, cognitive, constructive, communicative, confidence, creative, critical, civic).

CC BY-SA by mrkrndvsh

In the Web Literacy initiative, we originally identified a set of skills and competencies in three key areas (Exploring, Building, Connecting). This was modified in Version 2.0 of the web literacy initiative to focus on Read, Write, Participate.

What do you think?

As we work to define/revise/rewrite these definitions of digital literacy, we’re interested to hear from you. Please help us gain insight about how you define “digital literacy.” I’ll work to make sure your feedback is sent to the appropriate work groups at ILA and NCTE. We’re also interested in hearing back from individuals from across various groups. This means parents, educators, academics, developers, business, etc.

In a blog post, or in the comments below, please use the following prompts to guide your response:

  • In no more than three sentences, please define digital literacy.
  • Make a list of the skills that are a part of digital literacy.
  • What is the difference/relationship between digital literacy some of these other perspectives (e.g., information literacy, media literacy, etc).
  • What do you think of the definitions/statements provided above? What do you like? What is missing?
  • What are some perspectives that we left out above…but should include?
  • What are some ways you teach digital literacy?
  • What are some ways that students can best learn digital literacy skills?
  • What do you believe the most effective way to teach digital literacy?
  • How digital literate are you? In what ways are you “digitally literate”?

If it would be easier, please email me and we can set up an online chat.

Thanks in advance. Results will help inform presentations, engagements and dialogue with educators about the nature of these definitions. This will also inform our work as we more carefully frame terminology that elaborates on these technical competencies.

Cover image credit. The quote images in the post came from Aaron Davis’s incredible blog.

96 Comments What is digital literacy?

  1. Diane Kardash at UAF

    💡What IS the difference between Media Literacy and Digital Literacy? At UAF, I’ve suggested that we consider combining our “Teaching with Technology” class with the “Media Literacy” class…Could the new course be called “Digital Literacy”?

  2. Aaron Davis

    Thank you for the mention Ian. I think the best ways to learn (or teach) digital literacies are through experiences. The problem with this – and I guess a lot of learning when I think about it – is that there is not much room for mistakes. I wonder if this is what you were trying to capture with your post on anonymity. This is why I like the idea of starting out with closed spaces, before moving into the open.

  3. Jessica Mitchell

    Hi, Ian! I’m interested in following this conversation. I teach instructional tech for pre-service teachers, and as our state has moved to Digital Literacy and Computer Science standards for technology education, I’ve noticed this shift requires an increasing interdisciplinary awareness for practioners. It’s easier with elementary versus secondary audiences, but it appears authentic, particpatory pedagogy grounded in lenses such as inquiry learning brings disciplines together to achieve the common task at hand.

    My colleague and I at my university are currently editing a book on participatory literacy practices. We added “in the digital age” at the end of the title versus choosing to call for proposals on digital literacy not only because she has a social studies education background, but also because we believe the recognition of the purpose of literacy versus the medium itself is more important to emphasize in the current climate. If you haven’t thought about doing so already, you may want to hop over to the National Council for the Social Studies. Their C3 framework has some interesting correlations to the field of literacy and may also help you in your work of revisiting the definition of digital literacy.

    Hope this helps!

    1. wiobyrne

      Hey Jessica, this definitely helps. I’m thinking more about the participatory aspect of this, and the need to create safe, yet open, use of these literacies in digital spaces for our educators. Thanks for the feedback. 🙂


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