in New Literacies

Buddha knows best, or why ‘digital literacy’ is so hard to pin down.

The more you try to pin down a concept, the more slippery it becomes. I’ve been collecting definitions of various terms relating to the topic of my thesis (‘Digital Literacies‘) on my wiki and have found almost as many definitions as there are authors. In fact, I’m considering beginning my thesis with this quotation from Buddha himself:

All things appear and disappear because of the concurrence of causes and conditions. Nothing ever exists entirely alone; everything is in relation to everything else. (Buddha)

Why is it, for example, that whilst everyone seems to know and understand what it means by good old-fashioned ‘literacy’, there is such confusion in the digital domain? Conceptions and definitions of ‘literacy’ in this regard range from the overly-simplistic:

[Digital literacy is] the ability to understand and use information in multiple formats from a wide range of sources when it is presented via computers. (Gilster, 1997)

(what about iPods? TVs?), to the laughably complex:

Information literacy is not a fixed or static phenomenon; rather, it is a self-renewing panoply of capacities using critical thinking, metacognitive strategies, and, perhaps most important, creative abilities, dispositions, and native talents to foster self-motivation, to construct new knowledge, to build up expertise, and to acquire wisdom. (Center for Intellectual Property in the Digital Environment, 2005)

The trouble is that all the definitions I’ve come across capture something of the essence of the nebulous concept that is ‘digital literacy’. Perhaps the problem lies with the fact that we conceive standard literacy as being a state that is achieved, rather than an ongoing process? If this were the case, then it would be easier to define digital literacy as being something akin to the ability communicate effectively using contemporary digital tools. But even that is a bit wishy-washy. Hmmm, more work needed methinks… :-p

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  • http://tracyrosen.com TracyRosen

    I think the difficulties inherent in trying to pin down a definition lies in the fact, as you wrote, that it isn’t a state but a set of processes to help in achieving literacy. I have become literate via many routes, one of which -> a collection of things digital.

    Digital literacy is less a destination (specific place on a map) than a route (multiple networks on multiple maps).

    • http://dougbelshaw.com Doug Belshaw

      Absolutely, Tracy. Just as my son Ben will become ‘literate’ (in the standard sense) by doing more than reading books. He’ll become more and more literate through TV, the Internet, and so on…

  • http://tracyrosen.com TracyRosen

    I think the difficulties inherent in trying to pin down a definition lies in the fact, as you wrote, that it isn't a state but a set of processes to help in achieving literacy. I have become literate via many routes, one of which -> a collection of things digital. Digital literacy is less a destination (specific place on a map) than a route (multiple networks on multiple maps).

  • http://dougbelshaw.com Doug Belshaw

    Absolutely, Tracy. Just as my son Ben will become 'literate' (in the standard sense) by doing more than reading books. He'll become more and more literate through TV, the Internet, and so on…

  • http://www.sheffnersweb.net/wordpress/ shefi

    What is literacy for? Perhaps a clearer definition can be devised if we consider what it is to be used for. Also, it is not clear to me that “digital” literacy differs fundamentally from “literacy”. Is it going to change every time some new digital technology appears? If it is fundamentally different, then perhaps “literacy” is not the best name. The two definitions quoted sound like something out of a teacher’s or administrator’s handbook, i.e. geared towards defining targets for testing, as if “digital literacy” has already been coopted by the authorities; has become yet another skill that the state, in its infinite wisdom, has decided must be mastered by all (those who do not will have their fundings cut off?), and that the definition and the mastery of the skill(s) cannot be achieved without the state’s “assistance”. How about: “People who are digitally literate …” followed by a list of things they can do?

    • http://dougbelshaw.com Doug Belshaw

      Interesting that you think the definitions sound like they’re targeted
      towards testing. The more I think about standard ‘literacy’, the more I see
      that it’s a process rather than a state. It’s just that we’ve devised tests
      that define cut-off points that say whether someone is ‘literate’ or not.

      I suppose it’s a bit like the English language proficiency tests that
      foreign students have to take before stuying at UK universities. There’s an
      arbitrary cut-off point, but that doesn’t mean that learning and development
      (and, indeed, regression) doesn’t take place.

      Perhaps a reasonable outcome for my thesis would be to define a similar
      cut-off point for ‘digital literacy’?

  • http://www.sheffnersweb.net/wordpress/ shefi

    What is literacy for? Perhaps a clearer definition can be devised if we consider what it is to be used for. Also, it is not clear to me that "digital" literacy differs fundamentally from "literacy". Is it going to change every time some new digital technology appears? If it is fundamentally different, then perhaps "literacy" is not the best name. The two definitions quoted sound like something out of a teacher's or administrator's handbook, i.e. geared towards defining targets for testing, as if "digital literacy" has already been coopted by the authorities; has become yet another skill that the state, in its infinite wisdom, has decided must be mastered by all (those who do not will have their fundings cut off?), and that the definition and the mastery of the skill(s) cannot be achieved without the state's "assistance". How about: "People who are digitally literate …" followed by a list of things they can do?

  • http://dougbelshaw.com Doug Belshaw

    Interesting that you think the definitions sound like they're targetedtowards testing. The more I think about standard 'literacy', the more I seethat it's a process rather than a state. It's just that we've devised teststhat define cut-off points that say whether someone is 'literate' or not.I suppose it's a bit like the English language proficiency tests thatforeign students have to take before stuying at UK universities. There's anarbitrary cut-off point, but that doesn't mean that learning and development(and, indeed, regression) doesn't take place.Perhaps a reasonable outcome for my thesis would be to define a similarcut-off point for 'digital literacy'?

  • http://carlanderson.blogspot.com Carl Anderson

    At what point is someone considered traditionally literate? Is it when they can read and write in their native tongue? Is it when they can read and write well in their native tongue? Is it when they can read and write in a variety of languages? To what degree does comprehension and critical analysis of text or a person’s poetic or rhetorical abilities play into the definition of traditional literacy? Is a person digitally literate when they know how to use one operating system or one application or do they have to have understanding of multiple systems to be digitally literate? Do they have to understand binary and all the complexities that it creates? To what degree does use of these tools to achieve something or communicate come into play?

    At what point is there no separation between the traditional notions of literacy and digital literacy? The open source movement clearly views computer code as a form of communication worthy of being given the attributes associated with a form of free speech.

    I would argue that the term digital literacy is a useless term. The digital as it relates to literacy is a medium for conveying ideas and nothing more. We don’t use the terms “Print Literacy,” or “Hand Written Literacy,” to differentiate between how well someone processes information in those different media. I don’t know, maybe there was a similar debate back in the early days of the printing press. To me it makes more sense to view these kinds of literacies as information literacies. That term encompasses both the vague notions that people use to define digital literacy and those that are present in our traditional concept of literacy as well as bringing in other forms of literacy that are not often brought to bear when this topic is discussed but warrant our equal attention: visual literacy, emotional literacy, auditory literacy (music, voice, etc.), and to some degree metacognition.

    • http://dougbelshaw.com Doug Belshaw

      All good questions! At the moment, I share your scepticism about
      definitions of Digital Literacy.

      However, there *is* something about being comfortable in digital
      environments. Perhaps it’s a ‘digital fluency’?

      • http://www.sheffnersweb.net/wordpress/ shefi

        I agree with Carl http://www.dougbelshaw.com/2008/08/18/buddha-knows-best-or-why-digital-literacy-is-so-hard-to-pin-down/#comment-1674770
        What do you call someone who’s “comfortable” programming a video or DVD recorder? Do you need a special term? And is it a particular skill that needs to be identified and named? Sorry to rain on your parade, but I suspect the search for a definition of digital literacy is a red herring.

        • http://dougbelshaw.com Doug Belshaw

          But Marc, that’s part of the point! If I spend time showing that ‘digital
          literacy’ (and other ‘literacies’) are no more than un-useful constructs, it
          saves a lot of time and argument for others… :-)

  • http://carlanderson.blogspot.com Carl Anderson

    At what point is someone considered traditionally literate? Is it when they can read and write in their native tongue? Is it when they can read and write well in their native tongue? Is it when they can read and write in a variety of languages? To what degree does comprehension and critical analysis of text or a person's poetic or rhetorical abilities play into the definition of traditional literacy? Is a person digitally literate when they know how to use one operating system or one application or do they have to have understanding of multiple systems to be digitally literate? Do they have to understand binary and all the complexities that it creates? To what degree does use of these tools to achieve something or communicate come into play? At what point is there no separation between the traditional notions of literacy and digital literacy? The open source movement clearly views computer code as a form of communication worthy of being given the attributes associated with a form of free speech. I would argue that the term digital literacy is a useless term. The digital as it relates to literacy is a medium for conveying ideas and nothing more. We don't use the terms "Print Literacy," or "Hand Written Literacy," to differentiate between how well someone processes information in those different media. I don't know, maybe there was a similar debate back in the early days of the printing press. To me it makes more sense to view these kinds of literacies as information literacies. That term encompasses both the vague notions that people use to define digital literacy and those that are present in our traditional concept of literacy as well as bringing in other forms of literacy that are not often brought to bear when this topic is discussed but warrant our equal attention: visual literacy, emotional literacy, auditory literacy (music, voice, etc.), and to some degree metacognition.

  • http://dougbelshaw.com Doug Belshaw

    All good questions! At the moment, I share your scepticism aboutdefinitions of Digital Literacy.However, there *is* something about being comfortable in digitalenvironments. Perhaps it's a 'digital fluency'?

  • http://www.sheffnersweb.net/wordpress/ shefi

    I agree with Carl http://www.dougbelshaw.com/2008/08/18/buddha-kn….. What do you call someone who's "comfortable" programming a video or DVD recorder? Do you need a special term? And is it a particular skill that needs to be identified and named? Sorry to rain on your parade, but I suspect the search for a definition of digital literacy is a red herring.

  • http://dougbelshaw.com Doug Belshaw

    But Marc, that's part of the point! If I spend time showing that 'digitalliteracy' (and other 'literacies') are no more than un-useful constructs, itsaves a lot of time and argument for others… :-)

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