Open Thinkering


On ‘rigour’ in definitions of digital and web literacy.


Update: For the latest information on the Web Literacy standard work, head to

TL;DR version: If we define rigour as something that’s ‘unchanging’ and ‘objective’ then it’s almost impossible to be ‘rigorous’ about digital and web literacy. Instead, I propose that instead of being rigorous that we’re relevant, even if that’s at the expense of some objectivity.

Here’s an interesting one. I occasionally get corralled into Twitter conversations as someone who knows about something or other. Today, it was Miles Berry after being asked why the new draft National Curriculum should include ‘digital literacy’. The assumption by his interlocutor (Bruce Nightingale) was that in order for a subject to be included in a programme of study it should be ‘rigorously defined’ with a ‘body of knowledge’ behind it.

When I asked whether rigour means ‘has a definition everyone agrees on’ Bruce pointed me towards this blog post by Jenny Mackness on ‘academic rigour’. The conversation quickly became too nuanced to do justice in 140-character bursts, hence this follow-up blog post. I hope Bruce has time to reply.

In Jenny’s post she talks about finding definitions of ‘academic rigour’ unsatisfactory. I’d suggest that’s because it’s a kind of Zeugma, an ambiguous term. But let’s just focus upon ‘rigour’. The Oxford English Dictionary (probably the best place to resort when faced with knotty problems of definition) gives the etymology of ‘rigour’ as:

Etymology:  < Anglo-Norman and Middle French rigour, Middle French rigeur, rigueur (French rigueur ) inflexible severity, severity, harshness (12th cent. in Old French), strict application (of laws) (13th cent.), feeling of tingling or prickling (a1365 in medical context), (in plural) repressive measures (15th cent.), cruelty (15th cent.), harshness that is difficult to bear (end of the 15th cent., of cold, etc.), exactitude, precision (1580) and its etymon classical Latin rigor unbending quality, stiffness, rigidity, numbness, numbness of the body in fever, unyielding hardness, frozen condition, quality of being stiffly erect, tautness, inflexibility, sternness, severity, uncouthness < rig?re to be stiff (see rigent adj.) + -or -or suffix. Compare Old Occitan rigor (1461), Catalan rigor (14th cent.), Spanish rigor (13th cent.), Portuguese rigor (14th cent.), Italian rigore (a1320).

I can’t help but think when I see words like ‘harshness’, ‘cruelty’, ‘exactitude’, ‘precision’, ‘rigidity’ and ‘inflexibility’ that we’re using the wrong word here. Applying such stringent measures to an ambiguous term like ‘digital literacy’ is problematic as ‘digital’ pertains to many different referents. To talk of rigour (as defined above), then, is verging on the ridiculous.

But does a lack of rigour around a subject, topic or idea make it less valuable? I’d suggest not. Instead, I’d suggest it’s the terminology we’re using that’s problematic. Let’s take another example: the idea of academic ‘impact’. What, exactly, does that mean? You may well be able to draw up a framework or points for this or that, rewarding academics for performing certain activities and publishing in various places. But what about obvious areas of ‘impact’ that lie outside of that rigid framework? Rigour does not mean relevancy. Sometimes the problem is with the tools you are using rather than the thing you are trying to describe. It’s OK for things to be nebulous and slightly intangible.

Having spent several years of my adult life delving into the murky world of new literacies I’d suggest that (for example) helping young people learn how to use digital devices, how to think computationally, and how to stay safe online are extremely relevant things to be doing. Can we boil these activities down to things to be learned once for all time? Of course not. It’s hard enough when you’ve got a single referent (e.g. the Web)

So, in conclusion, I’ll see your definition of ‘rigour’ and raise you a ‘relevance’. Not everything that is valuable can be measured objectively. Nor should it be.

Image CC BY-NC-SA Josh Clark

9 thoughts on “On ‘rigour’ in definitions of digital and web literacy.

  1. Your comments of course apply not only to ‘digital literacy’ but the whole use of the word ‘rigour’ went used used by politicians to describe what is missing from our curriculum. Michael Gove probably means, “unbending quality”, but what we seem to be ending up with is “inflexible severity” or even “repressive measures” with a touch of “uncouthness”.

  2. Firstly I’d like to say thanks to Doug for taking time to reply to a twitter dialogue. A little background that Doug might not be aware. The twitter discussion relating to ‘Digital Literacy’ arose in connection with the draft PoS for Computing that was submitted by CAS/RAE/Naace to the DfE. The disapplied ICT PoS suggested replacement was made up of a third Computing, a third IT and one third ‘Digital Literacy’. The DfE did not accept the recommended PoS; the published PoS is based on Computer Science – no ‘digital literacy’. I argued that this might be because a PoS can not, and should not, be based on an ill defined term. Digital literacy is just that – ill defined. There is no academic consensus as to its meaning. It lacks rigour.

    My interest in the concept of digital literacy was triggered after attending the Brunel University e-start conference in 2008.One presentation in particular had a resonance with me ‘What may be the characteristics of the school in the 21st Century and what may be the role of digital media, tools, contents and equipment in this school?. This came about the time I was first involved with the Flatclassrooms project –

    Digital literacy, like the term ‘digital native’ is oft quoted but what does it mean? Put two or more teachers together and you’ll have an intelligent discussion on possible meanings and implications for 21st Century living. In California, under Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, they devised the ‘California ICT Digital Literacy Policy and Strategy’ for K-12 – our KS1 to KS5 equivalent. As teachers we can engage with this – for better or worse, it is a clearly expressed policy, dating from 2008 era of the first iPhone. Its old, but you can engage with it.

    The frequent uncritical use of terms like ‘digital literacy’ is problematic. There has been a recent tendency within educational policy to see technology as the ‘fix’ or ‘solution’ to many of the challenges the sector faces like the ‘Harnessing Technology’ strategy and there is a danger that the current popularity of statements about ‘digital literacy’ could increase the prominence of this deterministic view on the role of technology. The publication and discussion of empirical work on the realities of how younger and older generations learn through, and engage with, technology is needed. Studies such as Eynon and Helsper (2008) along with other research, such as that by Facer and Furlong (2001), Bennet et al. (2008) and Cheong (2008), are steps in the right direction but further research and greater awareness amongst Politicians and educational practitioners is necessary.

    While survey data goes some way to understanding these issues, more qualitative work would be beneficial to explore the dynamics of learning, what people actually do when they are online or using mobile technologies – smartphones, tablets etc, how learning can take place and the importance of cognitive development. Such research is vital in order to refine and advance existing theories of learning using new technologies. Prensky, Oblinger and Oblinger and others are right—we need to understand learners in order to teach them well.This is not to say education should not change, but debates about change must be based on empirical evidence and not rhetoric. What does ‘digital literacy’ mean and where is the empirical evidence to support that view?

    1. Thanks for taking the time to reply at length and so eloquently, Bruce. 🙂

      I am actually aware of the ICT PoS discussions – in fact I responded to the consultation:

      Although it’s quite an undertaking to read it all, my doctoral thesis ( is almost exactly on the area you’re talking about here.

      Although I was nodding along in agreement to most of your comment, Bruce, I disagree with you towards the end when you say, “debates about change must be based on empirical evidence and not rhetoric”. As it’s Valentine’s Day, let’s use ‘love’ as an example. Where is the ’empirical evidence’ that my wife loves me? There are various objects and activities, etc. but they could all be interpreted differently.

      I suppose what I’m saying is that to talk of ‘rigour’ kind of misses the point here. It pre-supposes that learning is a science rather than a messy journey that we take. Digital literacy may be ill-defined, but that doesn’t make it any the less important. 🙂

      1. As its Valentines day – don’t forget the chocolates!

        Some sources of information that might be helpful to other readers who are troubled/confused/intrigued/excited/passionate about this area:

        Buckingham, David. “Defining digital literacy.” Medienbildung in neuen Kulturräumen (2010): 59-71.

        Livingstone, S., et al. “Digital literacy and safety skills.” (2011).

        Cheers, Bruce

  3. Hi, and thanks for the discussion and insights.

    In my endeavour to explore in my own research what actually happens when students use digital tools in the classroom, I want to know how things – like writing assignments – get cobbled together, the judicious bricolage of it all. 

    As an educationlist, I have always been fascinated with the notion of people having a number of ‘literacies’ as oppose to a singularly conceived ‘literacy’. Time and time again, I have noticed people failing when it comes to the ‘literacy’ of the classroom/school/college, yet in their personal lives have an abundance of textual practices, or ‘literacies’, which are often not tapped in to as a resource. Literacy, therefore, is as much about access to a domain to ensure personal and professional progress as it is about learning a few skills. 

    Now the point about ‘digital literacies’ is relevant here as new materiality, new tools, bring new socio-material arrangements to our lives and classrooms, and ‘digital literacies’ to instantiate these new arrangements. In this respect, it’s not the mere instalment of computers and utilisation of devices which change or improve learning, but the ‘digital literacy practices’ enacted in and through their use which does. Using the connectivity of Cyberspaces people are able to mobilise resources (digital literacy practices) which they previously couldn’t; to me, therefore, it’s technology as ‘irruptive’ rather than the oftly stated ‘disruptive’, and digital literacies as socio-material bricolage. Yes – messy, fluid, and multilayered.

    More to say…


    Ibrar Bhatt

  4. Thanks for the interesting post Doug.

    I am just going to throw in my 2 cents. I think there are two different sides to the cry for rigor that I can hear in the air. We’ve got the establishment in the UK with a strongly ideological ‘Back to Basics’ agenda that has been trying to leverage ideas about more ‘rigorous’ assessment to push for a certain view of what an educated person should look like. The conservative view and Gove’s view will state that it sees an educated person as someone who can author their own future, but this ambiguity I think just disguises an ideological push and pull going on in the background. How you frame this question matters, how tightly you tie the pathways for authoring your own future to ‘subjects’ rather than the wider notion of areas, how flexible the assessment pathways are going to be matters. The back to basics camp tends to focus on the transmission of knowledge above the integration of knowledge. Stronger classification defines what counts as valid knowledge, the degree of boundary maintenance between contents I think sets boundaries in place more widely and particularly in a social context (like the UK).

    From a sociological view the structural aspects of pedagogy at the micro level (classification, framing and evaluation) are tied to consequences for different groups. From this perspective the demand for a tighter framing of knowledge to me seems to be part of that in the UK and tends to be behind a lot of the discourse about ‘rigour’ in the curriculum.

    But I think stepping away from that battle a bit is useful, because it is a different discussion going on globally about how to define this and clearly that call for ‘rigour’ seems to me more similar to your call for relevance.

    For literacy I guess there are many different models too that might be helpful in terms of dealing with conflating stronger classification and framing for ‘rigor’. For example Brian Street has the idea of autonomous literacy and ideological literacy. He explains that the autonomous model views literacy as evidence of human progress, intellectual thinking, as separate from its context and neutral and as a cognitive technical individual responsibility. It is mainly print-based and views reading and writing as fundamental to national economic productivity and encourages dominant ideologies and discourses.

    On the other hand, the ideological model views literacy as a social and cultural practice that is situated and recognises its own ideological assumptions. It recognises that there are multiple literacies and makes use of ethnographic and more participatory approaches to define it and encourages the interrogation of dominant ideologies and discourses. He says it also tends to see illiteracy as a social responsibility.

    These are both pretty ‘rigorous’ definitions it seems to me. The advocates of more autonomous model tend of course to favor this tighter framing and classification as the only reliable version of ‘rigour’. The multimodal and plural models favor more relevant and context based or situated learning, but neither is at all less precise in my view as long as you are clear about why you need a degree of ‘rigor’ in your definition.

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