The history of ‘new literacies’.

This section of my Ed.D. literature review is nearing completion, so I thought I’d share it! (although, of course, the whole thing is available via

No single, unitary referent for 'literacy'

The field of ‘new literacies’ has a relatively long history; it is a term that has evolved. Its beginnings can be traced back to the end of the 1960s when a feeling that standard definitions of ‘literacy’ missed out something important from the increasingly visual nature of the media produced by society. In 1969 John Debes offered a tentative definition for a concept he called ‘visual literacy’:

Visual Literacy refers to a group of vision-competencies a human being can develop by seeing and at the same time having and integrating other sensory experiences. The development of these competencies is fundamental to normal human learning. When developed, they enable a visually literate person to discriminate and interpret the visible actions, objects, symbols, natural or man-made, that he encounters in his environment. Through the creative use of these competencies, he is able to communicate with others. Through the appreciative use of these competencies, he is able to comprehend and enjoy the masterworks of visual communication. (Debes, quoted in Avgerinou & Ericson, 1997:281)

Dondis in A Primer in Visual Literacy (1973) made explicit the reasoning behind considering visual elements as requiring a separate ‘literacy’:

In print, language is the primary element, while visual factors, such as the physical setting or design format and illustration, are secondary or supportive. In the modern media, just the reverse is true. The visual dominates; the verbal augments. Print is not dead yet, nor will it ever be, but nevertheless, our language-dominated culture has moved perceptively toward the iconic. Most of what we know and learn, what we buy and believe, what we recognize and desire, is determined by the domination of the human psyche by the photograph. And it will be more so in the future. (quoted in Barry, 1997:1)

Those who espoused this doctrine were careful to stress the importance of both being able to both decode and encode, creating and communicating via images. Considine (1986) championed visual literacy as being ‘the ability to comprehend and create images in a variety of media in order to communicate effectively,’ leading to those who are ‘visually literate’ being ‘able to produce and interpret visual messages’ (quoted in Tyner, 1998:105). More recently, with the explosion of what I shall term ‘micro-literacies,’ the concept of ‘visual literacy’ has been re-conceived of as ‘media grammar literacy’ (Frechette, quoted in Buckingham & Willett, 2006:168-9). That is to say it stresses the medium as being at least as important as the message.

In essence, the notion of ‘visual literacy’ is an important corrective to the idea that it is only textual symbols that can encode and decode information and meaning. As Lowe (1993:24) puts it, ‘visual materials in general are typically not considered to pose any reading challenges to the viewer.’ This is considered in more depth by Paxson (2004:vi), Sigafoos & Green (2007:29), Bazeli & Heintz (1997:4) and Kovalchik & Dawson (2004:602). As Raney (quoted in Owen-Jackson, 2002:141) explains, coupling ‘visual’ with ‘literacy’ not only prompts a debate about the metaphorical use of language but, by using ‘literacy’ suggests ‘entitlement or necessity, and the need to seek out deficiencies and remedy them.’

Hijacking the term ‘literacy’ for such ends has, however, worried some who believe that it conflates ‘literacy’ with ‘competence’ (Adams & Hamm, in Potter, 2004:29). Whilst some in the early 1980s believed that ‘visual literacy’ may ‘still have some life left in it’ (Sless, in Avgerinou & Ericson, 1997:282), others considered the concept ‘phonologically, syntactically, and semantically untenable’ (Cassidy & Knowlton, in Avgerinou & Ericson, 1997:282), as ‘not a coherent area of study but, at best, an ingenious orchestration of ideas’ (Suhor & Little, in Avgerinou & Ericson, 1997:282). Each writer on the term has written from his or her viewpoint, leading to a situation akin to the apocryphal story of the six blind men tasked with describing an elephant, each doing so differently when given a different part to feel (Burbank & Pett, quoted in Avgerinou & Ericson, 1997:283). The feeling from the literature seems to be that whilst there may be something important captured in part by the term ‘visual literacy’, it all too easily collapses into solipsism and therefore loses descriptive and explanatory power.

The concept of ‘visual literacy’ continued until the late 1990s, eventually being enveloped by ‘umbrella terms’ combining two or more ‘literacies.’ Parallel to visual literacy from the 1970s onwards came the development of the term ‘technological literacy.’ It began to gain currency as a growing awareness took hold of the potential dangers to the environment of technological development as well as economic fears in the western world about the competition posted by technologically more adept nations (Martin, 2008:158). ‘Technological literacy’ (or ‘technology literacy’) was a marriage of skills-based concerns with a more ‘academic’ approach, leading to a US government-funded publication entitled Technology for All Americans. This defined ‘technological literacy’ as combining ‘the ability to use… the key systems of the time,’ ‘insuring that all technological activities are efficient and appropriate,’ and ‘synthesiz[ing]… information into new insights.’ (quoted in Martin, 2008:158) This literacy was one defined and prompted by economic necessities and political concerns.

Although stimulated by competition with non-western countries, a growing awareness in the 1980s that computers and related technologies were producing a ‘postmodern consciousness of multiple perspectives’ with young people ‘culturally positioned by the pervasiveness of computer-based and media technologies’ (Smith, et al., 1988, quoted in Johnson-Eilda, 1998:211-2) reinforced the need for the formalization of some type of literacy relating to the use of computers and other digital devices. Technological literacy seemed to be an answer. Gurak (2001:13) dubbed this a ‘perfomative’ notion of literacy, ‘the ability to do something is what counts.’ Literacy was reduced to being ‘technology literate’ meaning ‘knowing how to use a particular piece of technology.’ The ‘critical’ element of literacy, which Gurak is at pains to stress, including the ability to make meta-level decisions judgements about technology usage, were entirely absent from these 1970s and 80s definitions. Technological or technology literacy is too broad a concept as ‘nearly all modes of communication are technologies – so there is no functional distinction between print-based literacy and digital literacy.’ (Eyman, no date:7) Discussions about, and advocates of, ‘technological literacy’ had mostly petered out by the late 1980s/early 1990s.

Growing out of the perceived need for a ‘technological literacy’ came, with the dawn of the personal computer, calls for definitions of a ‘computer literacy.’ Before the Apple II, ‘microcomputers’ were sold in kit form for hobbyists to assemble themselves. With the Apple II in 1977, followed by IBM’s first ‘Personal Computer’ (PC) in 1981, computers became available to the masses. Graphical User Interfaces (GUIs) were developed from the early 1980s onwards, with the first iteration of Apple’s ‘Finder’ coming in 1984 followed by Microsoft’s ‘Windows’ in 1985. There is a symbiotic link between the hardware and software available at any given time and the supposed skills, competencies and ‘literacies’ that accompany their usage. As computers and their interfaces developed so did conceptions of the ‘literacy’ that accompany their usage.

The term ‘computer literacy’ was an attempt to give a vocational aspect to the use of computers and to state how useful computers could be in almost every area of learning (Buckingham, 2008:76). Definitions of computer literacy from the 1980s include ‘the skills and knowledge needed by a citizen to survive and thrive in a society that is dependent on technology’ (Hunter, 1984 quoted in Oliver & Towers, 2000), ‘appropriate familiarity with technology to enable a person to live and cope in the modern world’ (Scher, 1984 quoted in Oliver & Towers, 2000), and ‘an understanding of computer characteristics, capabilities and applications, as well as an ability to implement this knowledge in the skilful and productive use of computer applications’ (Simonson, et al., 1987 quoted in Oliver & Towers, 2000). As Andrew Molnar, who allegedly coined the term, points out ‘computer literacy,’ like ‘technological literacy’ is an extremely broad church, meaning that almost anything could count as an instance of the term:

We started computer literacy in ’72 […] We coined that phrase. It’s sort of ironic. Nobody knows what computer literacy is. Nobody can define it. And the reason we selected [it] was because nobody could define it, and […] it was a broad enough term that you could get all of these programs together under one roof” (“Interview with Andrew Molnar,” OH 234. Center for the History of Information Processing, Charles Babbage Institute, University of Minnesota, quoted at

Later in the decade an attempt was made to equate computer literacy with programming ability:

It is reasonable to suggest that a peson who has written a computer program should be called literate in computing. This is an extremely elementary definition. Literacy is not fluency. (Nevison, 1976 quoted in Martin (2003:12)

In the 1980s applications available from the command line removed the need for users to be able to program the application in the first place. Views on what constituted ‘computer literacy’ changed as a result. The skills and attributes of a user who is said to be ‘computer literate,’ became no more tangible, however, and simply focused on the ability to use computer applications rather than the ability to program (Van Leeuwen, et al., in Cunningham, 2006:1580). On reflection, it is tempting to call the abilities that fell within the sphere of ‘computer literacy’ as competencies – as a collection of skills that can be measured using, for example, the European Computer Driving License (ECDL). By including the word ‘literacy,’ however, those unsure about the ‘brave new world’ of computers could be reassured that the digital frontier is not that different after all from the physical world with which they are familiar (Bigum, in Snyder (ed.) 2002:133). Literacy once again was used to try to convey and shape meaning from a rather nebulous and loosely-defined set of skills.

Martin (2003, quoted in Martin 2008:156-7) has identified conceptions of ‘computer literacy’ as passing through three phases. First came the Mastery phase which lasted up until the mid-1980s. In this phase the computer was perceived as ‘arcane and powerful’ and the emphasis was on programming and gaining control over it. This was followed by the Application phase from the mid-1980s up to the late 1990s. The coming of simple graphical interfaces such as Windows 3.1 allowed computers to be used by the masses. Computers began to be used as tools for education, work and leisure. This is the time when many certification schemes based on ‘IT competence’ began – including the ECDL. From the late 1990s onwards came the Reflective phase with the ‘awareness of the need for more critical, evaluative and reflective approaches.’ (Martin 2008:156-7) It is during this latter phase that the explosion of ‘new literacies’ occurred.

The main problem with computer literacy was the elision between ‘literacy’ as meaning (culturally-valued) knowledge and ‘literacy’as being bound up with the skills of reading and writing (Wiley, 1996 quoted in Holme, 2004:1-2). Procedural knowledge about how to use a computer was conflated with the ability to use a computer in creative and communicative activities. The assumption that using a computer to achieve specified ends constituted a literacy began to be questioned towards the end of the 1990s. A US National Council Report from 1999 questioned whether today’s ‘computer literacy’ would be enough in a world of rapid change:

Generally, ‘computer literacy’ has acquired a ‘skills’ connotation, implying competency with a few of today’s computer applications, such as word processing and e-mail. Literacy is too modest a goal in the presence of rapid change, because it lacks the necessary ‘staying power’. As the technology changes by leaps and bounds, existing skills become antiquated and there is no migration path to new skills. A better solution is for the individual to plan to adapt to changes in the technology. (quoted in Martin, 2003:16)

Literacy is seen as fixed entity under this conception, as a state rather than a process.

It became apparent that ‘definitions of computer literacy are often mutually contradictory’ (Talja, 2005 in Johnson, 2008:33), that ‘computer literacy’ might not ‘convey enough intellectual power to be likened to textual literacy,’ (diSessa, 2000:109), and with authors as early as 1993 talking of ‘the largely discredited term ‘computer literacy” (Bigum & Green, 1993:6). Theorists scrambled to define new and different terms. An explosion and proliferation of terms ranging from the obvious (‘digital literacy’) to the awkward (‘electracy’) occurred. At times, this seems to be as much to do with authors making their name known as provide a serious and lasting contribution to the literacy debate.

As the term ‘computer literacy’ began to lose credibility and the use of computers for communication became more mainstream the term ‘ICT literacy’ (standing for ‘Information Communications Technology’) became more commonplace. Whereas with ‘computer literacy’ and the dawn of GUIs the ‘encoding’ element of literacy had been lost, this began to be restored with ‘ICT literacy.’ The following definition from the US-based Educational Testing Service’s ICT Literacy Panel is typical:

ICT literacy is using digital technology, communications tools, and/or networks to access, manage, integrate, evaluate, and create information in order to function in a knowledge society. (ETS ICT Literacy Panel, 2002:2)

The skills outlined in this definition are more than merely procedural, they are conceptual. This leads to the question as to whether ICT literacy is an absolute term, ‘a measure of a person’s total functional skills in ICT’ or ‘a relative measure’ – there being ICT literacies, with individuals on separate scales (Oliver & Towers, 2000). Those who believe it to be an absolute term have suggested a three-stage process to become ICT literate. First comes the simple use of ICT (spreadsheets, word processing, etc.), followed by engagement with online communities, sending emails and browsing the internet. Finally comes engagement in elearning ‘using whatever systems are available’ (Cook & Smith, 2004). This definition of literacy is rather ‘tools-based’ and is analagous to specifying papyrus rolls, fountain pens or even sitting in a library on the classical definition. A particular literacy is seen as being reliant upon particular tools rather than involving a meta-level definition.

The problem is that, as with its predecessor term, ‘ICT literacy’ means different things to different groups of people. The European Commission, for example conceives of ICT literacy as ‘learning to operate… technology’ without it including any ‘higher-order skills such as knowing and understanding what it means to live in a digitalized and networked society.’ (Coutinho, 2007). This is direct opposition to the ETS definition above – demonstrating the fragmented and ambiguous nature of the term. Town (2003:53) sees ‘ICT literacy’ In the United Kingdom as

a particularly unfortunate elision’ as it ‘appears to imply inclusion of information literacy, but in fact is only a synonym for IT (or computer) literacy. Its use tends to obscure the fact that information literacy is a well developed concept separate from IT (information technology) literacy.

As Town goes on to note, this is not the case in non English-speaking countries.

(Please see for references/bibliography. To avoid making a long post even longer, I shall post separately my section on ‘information literacy’) 🙂


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  1. Doug, would it be daft to request a hard copy of this when it’s done?

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