Open Thinkering


Tag: Information literacy

Lies and misinformation

[L]et us also notice something: the New York Times, the New Yorker, the Washington Post, the New Republic, New York, Harper’s, the New York Review of Books, the Financial Times, and the London Times all have paywalls. Breitbart, Fox News, the Daily Wire, the Federalist, the Washington Examiner, InfoWars: free!


Possibly even worse is the fact that so much academic writing is kept behind vastly more costly paywalls. A white supremacist on YouTube will tell you all about race and IQ but if you want to read a careful scholarly refutation, obtaining a legal PDF from the journal publisher would cost you $14.95, a price nobody in their right mind would pay for one article if they can’t get institutional access.

Nathan J. Robinson, The Truth Is Paywalled But The Lies Are Free (Current Affairs)

I pay monthly for access to The Guardian on my smartphone. I could access it for free, but the advertising annoys me, and I want to support their journalism.

Now that I’ve deactivated my Twitter account, it’s the main place I get access to political news. I don’t use Facebook or Instagram, and I’m well aware of the radical left-wing stance of most people I follow on Mastodon.

For me, the problem is not lies per se, but misinformation. There’s certainly a subset of the population either gullible enough or brainwashed enough to believe untruths. What’s more pernicious is the misinformation spread via social networks, often around the intent of various political actors. I can do without this.

For the last decade or so, I’ve taken at least a month off every year from blogging and social media. What I tend to find is that I revert to a more centrist position after this period, and that I replace a lot of the time I usually spend on social media reading history and non-fiction instead.

The answer to our epidemic of misinformation is not 20th century-style ‘information literacy’ resources. Instead, what we need to give people is a real grounding in Humanities, a range of subjects that at their core contain a critical stance to information that circulates in society.

While the technologies we use are new, our desire to manipulate and misinform one another to suit particular agendas is as old as the hills. Let’s remind ourselves that every problem isn’t caused by technology, nor can it be solved by more technology.

This post is Day 22 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at

Umbrella terms and micro-literacies

This is is the first draft of a section for my Ed.D. thesis; please don’t quote it as it’s not the final version.

The bibliography relating to the referenced literature can be found at (I’ve blogged more about my thesis at

Perhaps due to the fragmentation of research outlined earlier, many theorists seek to demarcate new forms of literacy. Once this has been done, they explain it in detail, and then assert its status as an over-arching literacy containing many sub- (or micro-) literacies. There is, they claim ‘one literacy to rule them all’.

Information literacy can been seen as one such ‘umbrella term’:

In the last decade a variety of “literacies” have been proposed… All of these literacies focus on a compartmentalized aspect of literacy. Information literacy, on the other hand, is an inclusive term. Through information literacy, the other literacies can be achieved. (Doyle, 1994, my emphasis)

Other theorists propose various ‘literacies’ as being the true umbrella term, the synthesising concept. Potter (2004:33), for example, states, ‘Reading literacy, visual literacy and computer literacy are not synonyms for media literacy; instead, they are merely components.’ It is perhaps most transparently and obviously stated in this definition of transliteracy:

Our current thinking (although still not entirely resolved) is that because it offers a wider analysis of reading, writing and interacting across a range of platforms, tools, media and cultures, transliteracy does not replace, but rather contains, “media literacy” and also “digital literacy.” (Thomas, et al. 2007, my emphasis)

In this way theorists not only deal with the third condition outlined in an earlier chapter – that of the status of a particular literacy in relation to other metaphorical concepts – but they can claim the credit of, at least partially solving the ‘literacy problem.’ The umbrella term in the late 1980s until the turn of the century tended to be ‘information literacy,’ now superseded by references to ‘media literacy’:

Reading literacy, visual literacy and computer literacy are not synonyms for media literacy; instead, they are merely components. (Potter, 2004, p.33)

Potter’s use of the word ‘merely’ above (‘visual literacy and computer literacy… are merely components’) betrays here what is only latent in other examples of writers using umbrella terms. That is to say, each comes at the issue from a particular point of view and with a particular bias and background. Each assumes that the particular literacy for their field of interest or specialisation is the ‘umbrella literacy.’ There is also an unfortunate element of theorists inventing terms in the hope that it may gain traction and they become synonymous with it. Perhaps the best example of this is the clumsy concept of ‘Electracy’ we came across in Chapter 2, as defined by Erstad:

‘Electracy’ is a term that combines different forms of literacy related to the use of new technologies; for example ‘media or multimedia literacy’, ‘computer literacy’, ‘information literacy’and ‘visual literacy’. It could be described as literacy for a post-typographic world (Reinking et al., 1998)… Electracy is something young people develop by growing up in a digital culture, and their education is supposed to include their efforts to create knowledge and learning. (Erstad, 2003:11)

Whilst at first glance this sounds insightful and promising it is an empty term, signifying nothing concrete. How are these literacies combined? How do young people ‘develop’ Electracy by ‘growing up a in digital culture? Surely all education is about ‘knowledge and learning’? Whilst Erstad attempts to use Tyner’s (1998) distinction between ‘tool literacies’ and ‘literacies of representations,’ Electracy as a term is not explained adequately enough to belong to either group.

Even though information literacy is an established term, it is so broad and ambiguously applicable that it too can be considered as an umbrella term. Fieldhouse and Nicholas (in Lankshear & Knobel, 2008) use a slightly different strategy in order to promote their tangential concept of being ‘information savvy.’ Instead of the latter being an umbrella term in its own right, they present it as being the other half of the jigsaw puzzle to ‘digital literacy’ in order for individuals to be ‘information literate.’

[I will have a graphic here in my thesis showing digital literacy and being ‘information savvy’ as part of a ‘information literacy’ jigsaw]

Fieldhouse and Nicholas (2008) use a rather jaded yet convenient dichotomy of ‘digital natives’ and ‘digital immigrants’ – terms coined by Prensky (2001). The idea is that those who grow up with digital technologies ‘speak the language’ as a native. On the other hand, ‘digital immigrants’ betray their age and lack of experience by ‘speak[ing] a language which reflects their experience of pre-digital life, by describing things as “digital” to differentiate between electronic and traditional versions’ (Fieldhouse & Nicholas, 2008:60). However, whilst the dichotomies the authors use are interesting in helping frame the debate, they neither settle on one definition of digital literacy nor rescue the concept of being ‘information savvy’ from being an interesting colloquialism.

In order to ‘reconcil[e] the claims of myriad concepts of digital literacy, a veritable legion of digital literacies’ (Lankshear & Knobel, 2008:4) some wishing to employ an umbrella term have instead turned to the notion of ‘competency’ or ‘competencies.’ The Oxford English Dictionary defines being ‘competent’ as:

adjective 1 having the necessary skill or knowledge to do something successfully. 2 satisfactory or adequate, though not outstanding: she spoke quite competent French. 3 having legal authority to deal with a particular matter.

It is the first of these definitions targetted by those who would rather concentrate on ‘competence’ than ‘literacy’. For example, Spitzer (1998) quotes the following 1995 definition of ‘information competence’ from the Work Group on Information Competence, Commission on Learning Resources and Instructional Technology:

Information competence is the fusing or the integration of library literacy, computer literacy, media literacy, technological literacy, ethics, critical thinking, and communication skills. (Spitzer, 1998, p.25)

No explanation, however, is given as to what ‘information competence’ would look like in practice nor is guidance given as to how one would go about achieving it (if it is a ‘state’) or entering into it (if it is a ‘process’). Similarly prone to failure is Savolainen’s (2002, quoted in Virkus, 2003) suggestion of ‘information-related competencies’ as an umbrella term, covering ‘information literacy, media competence and library skills.’ His justification for suggesting such a term is:

[b]ecause new labels describing specific kinds of literacies are continually introduced, reflecting the developments of ICTs, the attempts to develop an exact classification of information-related literacies seem to be futile. (Savolainen, 2002 – quoted in Virkus, 2003).

No explanation is given, however, as to how or why using the term ‘information-related competencies’ is useful in any way, apart from being a shorthand for a number of arbitrary micro literacies deemed important by the author. If an umbrella term is to be employed there must a rationale for doing so.

Instead of attempting to come up with an umbrella (‘macro’) term in which to retro-fit micro literacies, it seems to make more sense for theorists to use ‘new literacies’ as a shorthand – as indeed many already have begun to do (see, for example, Beavis, 1998; Kress, 2003; Lankshear & Knobel, 2006). Separating out the multitude of literacies seems, as Tyner states, somewhat artificial as they overlap to such a great extent. Whilst they can be separated, this should only be done for positive purposes:

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. (Tyner, 1998:104)

Our focus instead should perhaps instead be upon a particular literacy as an ‘integrating (but not overarching) concept that focuses upon the digital without limiting itself to computer skills and which comes with little historical baggage’ (Martin, 2006 quoted in Bawden, 2008:26). Here Martin seems to have in mind the concept of ‘digital literacy’ although it is not the name of the term that is the issue. Instead, it is its explanatory power and utility in terms of conceptual understanding and applicability that is key.

Interestingly, Martin (2008:156-7) lists the following as ‘literacies of the digital,’ hinting that his earlier (2006) thinking has evolved towards considering literacies as an overlapping matrix:

  • Computer, IT or ICT Literacy
  • Technological Literacy
  • Information Literacy
  • Media Literacy
  • Visual Literacy
  • Communication Literacy
  • Digital Literacy

Although he does not use the term ‘matrix,’ it seems clear that Martin has something like this in mind. If so, then the above list contains are only a few of a potential Pandora’s box of ‘literacies.’ With no-one as the gatekeeper as to what constitutes a ‘literacy of the digital’ a recursive problem occurs: there is nothing to stop a macro literacy, integrative literacy or a matrix of literacies from themselves being seen as part of a bigger picture. New literacies, as Reilly (1996:218) states, seem to be created as soon as a ‘new texts’ are invented or conceived. Martin needs to be explicit as to whether new forms of ‘text’ necessarily mean new forms of literacy.

It is also unclear as to whether Martin sees these as being ‘wholly’ digital literacies or whether they have digital elements. If it is the former, then he would have to explain how, for example, ‘communication literacy’ differs in the digital and analogue domains. If it is the latter, Matin should explain which elements of these literacies do indeed count as ‘digital’.

JISC, the UK body funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), is beginning a programme of work in the area of Digital Literacies after preliminary work in 2009 on ‘Learning Literacies in a Digital Age’. This is important because of the influence JISC has on the Higher Education sector (in particular) in the UK. JISC work talks in terms of a matrix of literacies, predicated upon an understanding of ‘learning literacies’:

Our understanding of learning literacies encompasses the range of practice that underpin effective learning in a digital age. The phrase learning literacies expresses the tension between literacy as a generic capacity for thinking, communicating ideas and intellectual work – that universities have traditionally supported – and the digital technologies and networks which are transforming what it means to work, think, communicate and learn. (JISC, 2009a, p.2)

The work of JISC is heavily bound-up with institutional change and wider notions of graduate employability and the take up of e-learning technologies and ecosystems by the Higher Education sector. The definition of ‘digital literacy’ used by JISC is, therefore, perhaps purposely vague: “the range of practices that underpin effective learning in a digital age” or, elsewhere, using the EC’s definition: “the confident and critical use of ICT for work, leisure, learning and communication.” The first of these definitions incorporates academic practices, information literacy, media literacy and ICT skills, amongst others (JISC, 2009b, p.1). The second definition is represented in the following diagram that sits half-way between a matrix of literacies and an ‘umbrella term’:

ICT Skills

(click to enlarge)

Whilst Martin’s matrix considers literacies to be ‘overlapping’ this diagram shows ‘digital competence’ (or ‘ICT skills’) to be foundational for further work in academic practice and media literacy (for example).

A further diagram demonstrates how these ‘spokes’ are themselves foundational to wider contexts. In this way, digital literacies are comprised of the literacy practices predicated upon ICT skills:

Digital Literacies

(click to enlarge)

One of the issues here is that micro-literacies, as defined above, are seen as flowing out of ICT skills, rather than out of the contexts. Although too much should not perhaps be read into diagrams, the one-way relationship from skills to practice belies the complexity and interaction between contexts and the abilities/competencies to interact effectively with others within those contexts.

It is difficult to argue, however, with the pyramid created in the JISC Digital literacies development framework (JISC, 2009d). This places ‘Attributes/identities’ at the top of a pyramid charting stages of development, followed by ‘Practices’, ‘Skills’ and, at the bottom of the pyramid, ‘Functional access’. Access to digital devices is necessary to develop digital literacies, with skills coming from use. Practices, habits and mental models result from increasing use and immersion. Finally, a critical appreciation, resilience and adaptability and reflexive understanding of ‘digital identity’ constitutes the top of the pyramid. That is not to say, of course, that there is an inevitable trajectory from the bottom of the pyramid to the top merely through the use of digital technologies. Not only does the ‘ladder’ have many rungs, but those rungs (to extend the metaphor) change as technologies and accepted social practices move on.

An important piece of work around the (in)ability of students to apply their learning and practices from one area of their life to another is exemplified in JISC’s work on ‘Responding to Learners’ (JISC 2009c) This study demonstrated that students often demonstrated a mental disconnect between the social software they used personally and that which they used – or were allowed to use – in an academic context. In addition, some JISC work on the ‘Google Generation’ (JISC, 2008) demonstrated that, far from this being merely the fault of reactionary institutions, students were not the ‘Digital Natives’ that they were assumed to be by many educators.

Before being abolished in 2010 Becta, a UK government organisation to promote educational technology in schools, commissioned some work on Digital Literacy. Created by by Tabetha Newman, the framework is intended to move ‘from terminology to action’ (Newman, 2009) after a comprehensive literature review. The five-step process model is: Define, Access, Understand & Evaluate, Create, Communicate. This has strong echoes of moving up Bloom’s (revised) taxonomy (Krathwol & Anderson, 2001) and complements JISC’s pyramid model. Defining digital literacies is, in Newman’s model, merely the first step in the important job of operationalising a definition so that work around it makes a different in practice.

The method, up to this point, for those wishing to begin a programme of work around ‘New’ or ‘Digital’ Literacies seems to be to concentrate on one particular definition as an umbrella term. This serves as a focus, with other literacies, skills and competencies retro-fitted into this overarching term. The same is evident with concepts such as ‘21st century skills’. What may be more useful, however, is to consider digital literacies an semi-fluid matrix of overlapping literacies that change due to time and context. Whilst this does not allow for effective soundbites and fails the test of fitting nicely upon one PowerPoint slide it is, nevertheless, an ultimately more accurate and responsive approach.

  • Anderson, L.W., et al. (2001) A Taxonomy for Learning, Teaching, and Assessing: A Revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives
  • Bawden, D. (2008) ‘Origins and Concepts of Digital Literacy’ (in Lankshear, C. & Knobel, M.Digital Literacies: Concepts, Policies and Practices)
  • Beavis, C. (1998) ‘Computer games, culture and curriculum’ (in I. Snyder, Page to Screen, 1998)
  • Doyle, C.S. (1994) Information literacy in an information society: A Concept for the Information Age
  • Erstad, O. (2003) ‘Electracy as empowerment: Student activities in learning environments using technology’ (Young, 11:11, 2003)
  • Fieldhouse, M. & Nicholas, D. (2008) ‘Digital Literacy as Information Savvy: the road to information literacy’ (in Lankshear, C. & Knobel, M. Digital Literacies: Concepts, Policies and Practices)
  • JISC (2008) ‘Google Generation’ is a myth, says new research
  • JISC (2009a) Learning Literacies in a Digital Age
  • JISC (2009b) Digital literacies Pilot materials
  • JISC (2009c) Responding to Learners Pack
  • Kress, G. (2003) Literacy in the New Media Age
  • Krathwohl, D.R. & Anderson, L.W. (2001) A Taxonomy for Learning, Teaching, and Assessing: A Revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives
  • Lankshear, C. & Knobel, M. (2006) – New Literacies: Everyday Practices and Classroom Learning
  • Martin, A. (2008) ‘Digital Literacy and the “Digital Society”‘ (in Lankshear, C. & Knobel, M., Digital Literacies: Concepts, Policies and Practices)
  • Newman, T. (2009) Consequences of a digital literacy review: from terminology to action
  • Potter, W.J. (2004) Theory of Media Literacy
  • Reilly, B. (1996) ‘New Technologies, New Literacies, New Patterns’ (in C. Fisher, D.C. Dwyer & K. Yocam (eds.), Education and Technology: reflections on computing in classrooms)
  • Spitzer, K.L., et al. (1998) Information Literacy: essential skills for the information age
  • Thomas, et al. (2007) ‘Transliteracy: Crossing divides’ (First Monday, 12:12. December 2007)
  • Tyner, K.R. (1998) Literacy in a Digital World: Teaching and Learning in the Age of Information
  • Virkus, S. (2003) ‘Information literacy in Europe: a literature review’ (Information Research, Vol. 8 No. 4, July 2003)

‘Information literacy’: its history and problems.

This is part of my Ed.D. literature review, part of my ongoing thesis which can be found at You can view everything I’ve written on this blog for and about my thesis here)

perlin flow particle ribbon 1079

CC BY-NC anthony mattox

Information literacy is a term that was coined in the 1970s but which has undergone a number of transformations to keep it current and relevant. Unlike ‘technological literacy,’ ‘computer literacy,’ and ‘ICT literacy’ is it is not technology-related (and therefore likely to become outdated), nor is it a corrective to an existing ‘literacy’ (as with ‘visual literacy’). Because it is not dependent upon any one technology or set of technologies, ‘information literacy’ has been eagerly taken onboard by librarians (Martin 2008:160) and governments (Fieldhouse & Nicholas, 2008:50) alike. Indeed more recently it has been defined as a ‘habit of mind’ rather than a set of skills:

[I]nformation literacy is a way of thinking rather than a set of skills… It is a matrix of critical and reflective capacities, as well as disciplined creative thought, that impels the student to range widely through the information environment… When sustained through a supportive learning environment at course, program or institutional level, information literacy can become a dispositional habit… a “habit of mind” that seeks ongoing improvement and self-discipline in inquiry, research and integration of knowledge from varied sources. (Center for Intellectual Property in the Digital Environment, 2005:viii-ix)

Although evident in the literature since the 1970s, the concept of ‘information literacy’ gained real traction in the 1990s with the advent of mass usage of the internet. Suddenly information was a few effortless keystrokes and mouse clicks away rather than residing in great tomes in a physical place. Accessing this information and using it correctly constituted, for proponents of the concept, a new ‘literacy’. This was a time when politicians used the term ‘Information Superhighway’ to loosely describe the opportunities afforded by the internet.

‘Information literacy’ as a term was boosted greatly by a definition and six-stage model for developing the concept agreed upon by the American Libraries Association in 1989. The committee tasked with investigating information literacy proposed that an ‘information literate person’ would ‘recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information’ (quoted in Fieldhouse & Nicholas, 2008:52). Achieving the state of being ‘information literate’ involves passing through six stages, outlined in Bawden (2008:21-22):

  1. Recognizing a need for information
  2. Identifying what information is needed
  3. Finding the information
  4. Evaluating the information
  5. Organizing the information
  6. Using the information

Boekhorst (quoted in Virkus, 2003) believes that, indeed, all definitions of information literacy presented over the years can be summarized in three concepts. First there is the ICT concept: using ICT to ‘retrieve and disseminate information.’ Second is the information resources concept: the ability to find resources independently ‘without the aid of intermediaries.’ Finally comes the information process concept: ‘recognizing information need, retrieving, evaluating, using and disseminating of information to acquire or extend knowledge.’ As such information literacy has at times been seen as including computer-related literacies, sometimes as part of such literacies, and sometimes as being tangential to them.

From these statements in the late 1980s/early 1990s information literacy developed to include an ethical dimension (‘knowing when and why you need information, where to find it, and how to evaluate, use and communicate it in an ethical manner’ – SCONUL (1999) quoted in Fieldhouse & Nicholas, 2008:52) and an economic dimenstion (‘Information literacy will be essential for all future employees’ – Langlois (1997) quoted in Martin, 2003:7). Information literacy has been seen as a ‘liberal art’ with an element of critical reflection (Shapiro & Hughes (1996) in Spitzer, et al., 1998:24), critical evaluation (Open University Library website, in Virkus, 2003), and as involving problem-solving and decision-making dimensions (Bruce, 1997).

The problem with such a definitions and models is that they continue to view literacy as a state which can be achieved rather than an ongoing process and group of practices. However much ‘information literacy’ may be praised for being an inclusive term (Doyle, 1994), be evident in the policy documents produced by western governments (Fieldhouse & Nicholas, 2008:50) and seen as ‘essential’ to the success of learners, it has ‘no agreed definition’ (Muir & Oppenheim in Virkus, 2003). It is, in the words of Stephen Foster ‘a phrase in a quest for meaning’ (Snavely & Cooper, 1997:10). How, he wonders, would we recognize, and seek to remedy, ‘information illiteracy‘?

However many theorists propose it as an ‘overaching literacy of life in the 21st century’ (Bruce, 2002) and bodies such as the US Association of Colleges and Research Libraries come up with ‘performance indicators’ for the concept (Martin, 2008:159), ‘information literacy’ suffers from a lack of descriptive power. It is too ambitious in scope, too wide-ranging in application and not precise enough in detail to be useful in an actionable way. Even a move from talking about being ‘information literate’ to ‘information savvy’ (Fieldhouse & Nicholas, 2008:47) runs into difficulties for the same reasons. Definitions of the concept are too ‘objective’ and independent of the learner – even when described as ‘seven key characteristics’ (Bruce, cited in Bawden, 2008:22-23).

(References can be found at my wiki. Want more? You may have missed my post The history of ‘new literacies’)

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)

Buddha knows best, or why ‘digital literacy’ is so hard to pin down.

The more you try to pin down a concept, the more slippery it becomes. I’ve been collecting definitions of various terms relating to the topic of my thesis (‘Digital Literacies‘) on my wiki and have found almost as many definitions as there are authors. In fact, I’m considering beginning my thesis with this quotation from Buddha himself:

All things appear and disappear because of the concurrence of causes and conditions. Nothing ever exists entirely alone; everything is in relation to everything else. (Buddha)

Why is it, for example, that whilst everyone seems to know and understand what it means by good old-fashioned ‘literacy’, there is such confusion in the digital domain? Conceptions and definitions of ‘literacy’ in this regard range from the overly-simplistic:

[Digital literacy is] the ability to understand and use information in multiple formats from a wide range of sources when it is presented via computers. (Gilster, 1997)

(what about iPods? TVs?), to the laughably complex:

Information literacy is not a fixed or static phenomenon; rather, it is a self-renewing panoply of capacities using critical thinking, metacognitive strategies, and, perhaps most important, creative abilities, dispositions, and native talents to foster self-motivation, to construct new knowledge, to build up expertise, and to acquire wisdom. (Center for Intellectual Property in the Digital Environment, 2005)

The trouble is that all the definitions I’ve come across capture something of the essence of the nebulous concept that is ‘digital literacy’. Perhaps the problem lies with the fact that we conceive standard literacy as being a state that is achieved, rather than an ongoing process? If this were the case, then it would be easier to define digital literacy as being something akin to the ability communicate effectively using contemporary digital tools. But even that is a bit wishy-washy. Hmmm, more work needed methinks… :-p

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