in New Literacies

Nobody knows what digital literacy is.

A request for information series

I’m currently in the latter stages of my Ed.D. thesis focusing on the concept of ‘digital literacy’. It’s been a long haul – 6 years (spanning 4 jobs, 2 supervisors, and the birth of 2 children) working part-time in a quickly-moving digital world and, to be honest, I’m rather glad it’s coming to an end.

One of the reasons I’m glad that I’ll finish my doctoral thesis this year is that it’s clear just how much we need some alignment and operationalisation around the term ‘digital literacy’ rather than the endless squabbles, petty niggling and swamping of agendas by large organizations. I outlined these problems in 2009 and, unfortunately, they haven’t improved any. The fact that we’re still debating what is meant by the traditional term ‘literacy’ says a lot about how far we’re able to get on with operationalising notions of ‘digital literacy’ in the current climate. I’ll be explaining my notion notion of a ‘trajectory of ambiguity’ in an upcoming journal article: discussions of ‘digital literacy’, I believe, have become mired in endless debates half-way through this trajectory.

During my studies I’ve read countless reports and watched a myriad of presentations claiming (or at least assuming) some kind of authority when explaining what constitutes digital literacy. Many of these elide at least two agendas – usually e-safety or media literacy – with almost all of them missing the main point: digital literacy isn’t the ‘aftermath’ of literacy at all.

We don’t need to be told what digital literacy is, we need to discuss, build consensus, start aligning around a reasonable definition. Granted, there might be a difference in emphasis here and there, but only through such alignment will we able to start operationalising the concept of ‘digital literacy’ and use it for the benefit of learners.

And ulimately, after all the academic churning and grandstanding, isn’t that what it’s all about?

Image CC BY-NC Pulpulox !!!

  • http://twitter.com/universityboy Martin Hughes

    Agreed, there is no possibility of being *told* what ‘digital literacy’ is. Terms are subjective, we’re uncertain where they originated, and so on.

    But after all this time you’ve been working on ‘digital literacy’, you must be in one of the best positions to help align reasonable definitions.

    I haven’t spent 6 years working on ‘digital literacy’, but I won’t let that stop me weighing in. A 20-second thought led me to this:

    Digital Literacy = Access + Focus + Critical Thinking

    Just another 5 years 11 months 29 days 23 hours 59 minutes and 40 seconds before I’m up there with you. Woo!

    By the way, I keep meaning to check out your thesis…that might just be a good place for me to start now. :)

  • http://twitter.com/universityboy Martin Hughes

    Agreed, there is no possibility of being *told* what ‘digital literacy’ is. Terms are subjective, we’re uncertain where they originated, and so on.

    But after all this time you’ve been working on ‘digital literacy’, you must be in one of the best positions to help align reasonable definitions.

    I haven’t spent 6 years working on ‘digital literacy’, but I won’t let that stop me weighing in. A 20-second thought led me to this:

    Digital Literacy = Access + Focus + Critical Thinking

    Just another 5 years 11 months 29 days 23 hours 59 minutes and 40 seconds before I’m up there with you. Woo!

    By the way, I keep meaning to check out your thesis…that might just be a good place for me to start now. :)

  • http://twitter.com/camaxwell Colin Maxwell

    It’s similar to defining ‘teaching’. There are so many theories & ideas, but they don’t always work in every situation. Each student is individual, each class with seperate dynamics & challenges, each teacher with their own ideas. As soon as people are added to the mix there can be no single answer. Teaching is more about adaptability & having an arsenal of tools & resources to use in different circumstances rather than having lesson plans & rigid curriculum.

    • http://dougbelshaw.com Doug Belshaw

      That’s true, Colin, but the strange thing about ‘digital literacy’ is that it’s predicated upon two notions – ‘digital’ and ‘literacy’ – that we *think* we intuitively grasp. Unfortunately, not only do I think we fail to understand these concepts individually, but when we put them together it becomes and entirely different beast.

  • jfb57

    This is one of those phrases like emotional literacy that is thrown out by folks assuming everyone has their definition of it. We do some concensus but we need to get on ‘doing’ rather than ‘debating’!

    • http://twitter.com/universityboy Martin Hughes

      Yes, some debates need to end when they reach a point in which consensus cannot draw closer.

      A relevant question would therefore be to ask if the term ‘digital literacy’ is ready for operation. Can we, as Doug mentions, start operationalising the concept or is further discussion necessary?

      • http://dougbelshaw.com Doug Belshaw

        This links in rather nicely with my ‘trajectory of ambiguity’. More on that to come. :-)

  • @adgibbs

    Dear Doug,

    without reading more of your thoughts it’s hard for me to pin down what you’re getting at. One theme that starts to emerge is that of ‘operationalising’ digital literacy. I think we are in agreement here – there is quite a lot of navel-gazing around the finer meanings of the term, while thousands more children pass out of the education system without their teachers engaging in critical thinking skills built on practical knowledge, social intercourse and safe practices (a quick and simple, working definition, of digital literacy).

    I have tried to make some progress in this direction by matching video-related activities broadly in line with Blooms taxonomy of the cognitive domain, to a spiral curriculum that can be picked up by any teacher. While the resulting website is far from easy to access (ever tried managing a semantic wiki?) there is postive feedback from many quarters, reporting that this has made the first steps for practitioners a little less opaque. The website can be seen here: http://www.inspiralit.org

    Futurelab have also worked with lots of teachers for whom Dig Lit is an operational element of their planning and delivery. Their latest report on the subject is at http://futurelab.org.uk/sites/default/files/Digital_participation_strand_1_final_report.pdf

    I’m so releived to see others out there who are no longer happy to toss the concept of dig lit around academically, but are committed to practicising it in the classroom.

    Dave Gibbs,
    Sheffield West CLC

    • http://dougbelshaw.com Doug Belshaw

      Thanks Dave, looks like you’re doing good work there! I’m familiar with the Futurelab stuff having worked with them on a couple of projects – always useful resources. :-)

  • http://twitter.com/veecam Vanessa Camilleri

    No we don’t want people to tell us what digital literacy is… we need to provide solutions and options for adoption in schools. What we need are policy makers, legislators and politicians who provide all the support for educators at schools to go for these solutions and to have an easier to adopt option when educating.

    • http://dougbelshaw.com Doug Belshaw

      Yes – or even just agree/align on a broad definition so that work can get started. There’s far too many vested interests (BFI/Ofcom/DWP) involved for coherent action to take place at the moment…