Open Thinkering


Why e-safety isn’t part of digital literacy (and never will be).

Increasingly, I’m realising that there are unsaid words that precede almost any statement involving a connotative element. What are those words?

Let me tell you a story…

Given the potential for almost any word in any language to be used metaphorically, storytelling is happening pretty much most of the time.

So here’s my story.

Digital literacy, despite the heated debate going on behind the relevant page at Wikipedia isn’t computer literacy. It isn’t media literacy either. And it’s certainly not e-safety.

Including e-safety as an input, as a constituent part of, digital literacy makes no sense at all. It’s like defining traditional (print) literacy by describing behaviour in libraries (or what you can do with a book). What lies behind this approach is the assumption that a collection of competencies makes a literacy, which isn’t true: a collection of competencies is a skillset. And one only has to refer to Searle’s Chinese Room argument to see the fallacy behind equating a skillset with any form of understanding.

No, e-safety is an output of digital literacy, something that flows out of it once an individual is fluent. Fluency is the top end of the literacy scale – and fluency is the result of practice. To divorce e-safety from practice, to conceive it as something that can be taught in isolation is ill-advised and, ultimately, futile.

So stop building your creepy treehouses, and start thinking holistically about literacy and education more generally. Avoid digital Taylorism, and start debating about what it is we’re trying to do here. If we’re truly trying to protect and educate our young people we need to know what it is we’re protecting them from, why we’re doing it, and the best ways of going about it.

Scaring people with statistics and horror stories perpetuates the wrong type of responses (e.g. blocking) and avoids the problem. Let’s tackle it head-on. Let’s start focusing on digital literacy.

Update: Fixed incorrect link.

16 thoughts on “Why e-safety isn’t part of digital literacy (and never will be).

  1. I find myself agreeing with much of what you say … many people have contextualised their discussions on e-safety and have made them pertinent to the age and experience of their audience.
    I think the argument that e-safety flows out of digital literacy when fluency is at the front is okay but there are issues with the problems as this fluency develops. There is a need for hand – holding on the approach … and I wonder how the concept that e-safety was actually a part of digital literacy arose. Are people saying that to be digitally literate you must, by definition be e -safe? Would love the references please … thanks

  2. Agree with your argument, but disagree with your conclusion (as regards e-safety) . Digital literacy is what we want, but feel you are missing that parents, children, everyone, approach computers with prejudice. Before you put hand to mouse you will have chatted to friends, parents, others, and start with an objective of some sort.

    To start on the wonderful journey of digital literacy, you need to tackle, head-on, the horror stories, the fears, the misunderstandings already present, including issues of safety. E-safety (when presented correctly) is about informing, not scaring people. It needs a context, but if you avoid or dodge it, you’ll end up either missing your intended audience altogether, or re-enforcing the fears people already have.

  3. Very interesting post, Doug. I agree with much of what you are saying. Like Marcus, however, I think that e-safety cannot be disregarded. In the minds of some parents, teachers and principals are the horror stories you refer to in your last post. This is the reality. Because of these existing fears and prejudices, many children face barriers to developing digital literacy. This can take many forms: the banning of mobile phones in schools, blocking of websites, filtering software, etc.

    In order to create the conditions for children to develop digital literacy, we must address the fears and concerns of those who may be constraining it. In many cases, these are individuals who may not be highly digitally literate, or “digitally fluent” to borrow your term. In my experience, openly discussing the concept of e-safety is the best approach. Once the horror stories can be deconstructed — and parked to one side — then the environment for creating digital literacy can be created, hopefully. So, while overt lessons in e-safety shouldn’t be the first steps in seeking to build digital literacy, understanding and contextualising e-safety is required in order to support it.

    1. Thanks Catherine. :-)

      I’m certainly not saying that the principles behind e-safety should be ‘disregarded’ – more that the contextualisation should be building towards a bigger picture.

      What is generally termed ‘best practice’ with e-safety is often stuff that the people who stand up and lecture don’t do themselves!

  4. Indeed! I’ve encountered so many different approaches to e-safety, digital literacy, media literacy. Most of the time, it’s possible to trace these to different assumptions, motivating factors, or levels of digital literacy on the part of decision-makers. It’s a complicated picture — thanks for beginning this important discussion. Hope it continues. :-)

  5. I think that the premise of the post is correct. Catherine and Marcus are correct in that it is now hard to ignore the prejudices and fears, they have become part of the narrative. This however, in turn, provides greater weight to Doug’s argument.

    Much of the focus on e-safety actually stunts the teaching of (digital) literacy in that the prejudices and fears are very real within a school context. For example, in my school, the right click function is turned off on the mice as there are security concerns about the students being able to access the internal school network. This results in many teachers either being unable to teach some of the most basic ICT literacies, like when and how to use context menus in numerous programs but also forces them to teach work arounds that they would never use on their home PC or in their future career, such as opening up a Word doc, to access the save menu to create a new folder, rather than simply right clicking and selecting new folder.

    This fear is born out of the prejudices of e-safety and does two detrimental things, it sends a message about lack of trust and inhibits learning. There should be no turning off of functions, blocking of websites or fear of games based learning. Why? Because like a scientist explaining why their students need to wear goggles or a tech teacher explaining how to hold a saw properly, when it comes to ICT, the World Wide Web and Video Games we should be teaching the students about the risks and empowering them to make decisions when faced with morally questionable content.

    When we simply block it, we say this is wrong and so they simply go home, access it and do it. To me this shows that we are being irresponsible in the teaching of (digital) literacy because we are allowing the prejudices and fears to not only be part of the narrative but to over run it. This is, I think, what Doug is getting at. The e-safety debate isn’t part of (digital) literacy or at least it shouldn’t be. We are making it part of it instead.

  6. I agree with you that e-safety isn’t part of digital literacy, in fact saying that it isn’t is like saying that cabbages aren’t anything to do with chocolate – obvious to everyone except those without taste buds. I don’t think e-safety is even an output of digital literacy. In my post on why I did safer internet day ( my plans for doing specific work on e-safety came at step three, before that the children should (1) have a purpose and (2) increase their self esteem – purpose and self esteem both have e-safety as an output.

    I’m doing a blogging project with five different schools this term and it’s really struck me on visiting many schools that the narrative behind the e-safety agenda isn’t actually about making children more safe, it’s about not being held responsible for the times when children are unsafe. I’ve been at schools this week where Google Image search is blocked, and where the Year 6 children have no school e-mail, or any other way to carry out online communication (and yet the same class all had Facebook accounts). Children want to be online – I know there are 6 year olds in my own school with Facebook accounts – the challenge is whether we can give them the purpose and self esteem to use that desire productively.

    1. e-safety awareness is not to be equated with just blocking. It’s educating learners how to move in the digital world, and is thus an essential element in DL.

  7. The last comment by Martin encapsulates the way we are trying to teach e-safety in the institution I work in. Being able to interact socially while having enough knowledge of the risks so they can be avoided is what we are aiming for. It is so much more than the use of a filter.

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