Open Thinkering


Tag: Gregory Ulmer

Forms of Literacy

As with Literacy, last week’s post after time spent doing some research, this blog post is a synthesis of some of the issues I have been looking at as part of my studies. I’m aiming to investigate the concept of ‘digital literacy’ and issues surrounding it in my Ed.D. thesis. You can read my proposal at

As evidenced in my last post relating to my Ed.D., ‘literacy’ is not a stable concept with a fixed meaning. In fact, since the 1960s, literacy has been deconstructed and re-cast into many different forms. This has followed a change in education, from the imparting of academic knowledge, through to more constructivist theories of learning (Martin, 2003:3) By many, literacy is no longer seen as merely the ability to ‘read and write’, but instead to make sense of the world through wider competencies and abilities.

It has been estimated (Grov Almås & Krumsvik, 2007:481) that by the age of 21 the average person will have spent 20,000 hours watching television, 50,000 hours in front of a computer screen, and only 15,000 hours in formal education. Clearly, if literacy is the ability to communicate with, and make sense of, the wider world, it is more than simply the ability to ‘read and write’ texts.

The problem is that, until recently, ‘visualisation [was] seen as an unproblematic kind of ‘translation’ from one semiotic mode into another – as a simplistic kind of translation from one language to another’ (Kress, 1998:55). As a consequence,

…the idea that visual literacy is necessary for reading visual materials [was] not as widely accepted as the self-evident fact that textual literacy is required for reading text. This is partly because visual materials in general are typically not considered to pose any reading challenges to the viewer. (Lowe, 1993:24)

Since the 1990s when these writers were working, however, I believe there has been a shift in thinking. Schools have been urged to consider the different ‘learning styles’ of students, suggesting at least various aspects of literacy. In my own academic career I have had to shift from being an undergraduate working primarily from the books of ‘dead white men’ to working almost exclusively in the digital realm. There is no longer a ‘canon’; information and knowledge are everywhere. Literacy in this digital realm needs to include at least some sort of reference to trust and the ability to critically analyse sources of information.

Given the need to describe competency in various areas and the ability to work with some ease with the material present in those domains, many different forms of ‘literacy’ have emerged. ‘Media literacy’, ‘Visual literacy’ and ‘Information literacy’ were popular terms in the late 1980s/1990s, with their proponents urging the need to include more of it in our schools. However, when looked at in more detail, there are very close similarities between them – as Tyner (1998:104) notes,

The similarities between the stated competencies of information literacy, visual literacy, and media literacy are so close that separating them seems unnecessarily artificial.

The need to set one literacy apart from another can only be explained by a need to use the concepts for other reasons, that is, to strengthen the professional status of its constituencies, or to take issue with the approaches used by proponents.

The tendency is for these proponents to decide that their term – say, ‘information literacy’ – is an umbrella term under which other forms of literacy belong. For example, ‘media literacy’, ‘visual literacy’ and other literacies may make up ‘information literacy’. Meanwhile, proponents of the other literacies do exactly the same thing. Potter (2004:33) gives a perfect example of this, when he states,

Reading literacy, visual literacy and computer literacy are not synonyms for media literacy; instead, they are merely components.

It is as if they are trying to grasp for something in common but falling short of describing it adequately. Johnson (2001:1), Rodríguez Illera (2004:58-59), and Søby (2003) illustrate this desire to move away from literacy to a new concept that involves communication, context and competence. They wish to stress procedure over prose, reforming literacy as a series of literate practices.

Seemingly realising that ‘literacy’ is to this new conception what ‘horseless carriage’ was to ‘car’, Søby (2003) attempts to use the German word bildung in conjunction with ‘digital’ to refer to a state which is difficult to describe, is very complex, and can only be approached with a holistic understanding of the field (Prange, 2004:502). As a result,

…digital bildung suggests an integrated, holistic approach that enables reflection on the effects that ICT has on different aspects of human development: communicative competence, critical thinking skills, and enculturation processes, among others. (Søby, 2003)

In the hunt for a new term to define this digital realm that is both similar to, yet very different to print-based media, some have stumbled across somewhat clumsy terms. For example, Electracy, originally coined by theorist Gregory Ulmer, which is, supposedly, ‘to digital media what literacy is to print’ (Ulmer, 2003). Erstad (2003:11) clarifies Electracy to some extent, stating that it is, ‘something young people develop by growing up in a digital culture,’ being, ‘literacy for a post-typographic world.’

These conceptions remain rather vague as they try to describe the literate practices of some individuals within an increasingly heterogeneous society. In fact, as Koltko-Riviera (2004:249) notes, some research has shown that certain ‘personality types’ are more or less likely to demonstrate ‘digital competence’,

[Dr. Schaab’s] results are at least compatible with the notion that digital competence (i.e., competence in working within a highly computerized environment) is not equally distributed across personality types; rather, some personality types are simply more digitally competent than others. Such a finding, if replicated, would have profound consequences for human factors theory, research, and practice.

The last word in this post, however, will go to Suzanne Stokes (2001) whose lengthy quotation can be justified by its insight. In the end, literacy is a reflection of society. The fact that we have multiple forms and conceptions of literacy upon which we cannot agree tells us a lot about the kind of world in which we live:

A culture’s predominant mode of literacy depends on the technology and mass media it embraces (Sinatra, 1986). In education’s continuing mission of meeting the needs of learners, an apparent shift from the long-standing process of reading, writing, counting, and text memorization skills that may have been appropriate for the medieval clerk, are giving way to skills of analysis and innovation that are considered desirable in today’s modern cultures (West, 1997). Proficiency with words and numbers is insufficient and must be supplemented with additional basic skills as new and emerging technologies permeate activities of daily living. Viewing change with fear and skepticism often accompanies shifts such as these that can revolutionize society.

It’s time to stop making the academically-equivalent error of calling a car a ‘horseless carriage’… but I’m not convinced that ‘electracy’ is the answer! :-p


  • Grov Almås, A. & Krumsvik, R. (2007), ‘Digitally literate teachers in leading edge schools in Norway’ (Journal of In-service Education, 33(4), pp. 479–497)
  • Johnson (2001) quoted in W. James Potter Theory of Media Literacy), 2004, p.30-1
  • Koltko-Riviera, M.E. (2004) ‘Personality Theory and Human Factors Research’ (in Vincenzi, D., et al. (eds.), Human performance, situation awareness and automation: Current research and trends, Vol. 1, 2004, pp. 249-252)
  • Kress, G. (1998) ‘Visual and verbal modes of representation in electronically mediated communication: the potentials of new forms of text’ (in I. Snyder, Page to Screen, London, 1998)
  • Lowe, R. (1993) Successful Instructional Diagrams
  • Martin, A. (2003) ‘Towards e-literacy’ (in A. Martin & H. Rader (eds.), Information and IT literacy: enabling learning in the 21st century, London, 2003)
  • Potter, W.J. (2004) Theory of Media Literacy
  • Prange, K. (2004), Bildung: a paradigm regained? (European Educational Research Journal, 3(2), pp.501-509)
  • Rodríguez Illera, J.L. (2004) ‘Digital Literacies’ (Interactive Educational Multimedia, number 9 (November 2004), pp. 48-62)
  • Søby, M. (2003) Digital Competence: from ICT skills to digital “bildung” (available online:
  • Stokes, S. (2001) ‘Visual Literacy in Teaching and Learning: A Literature Perspective’ (Electronic Journal for the Integration of Technology in Education)
  • Tyner (1998) Literacy in a Digital World: Teaching and Learning in the Age of Information
  • Ulmer, G. L. (2003) Internet Invention: From Literacy to Electracy (as quoted at Wikipedia)
(image credit: you have on new message @ Flickr)