Open Thinkering


Tag: media literacy

New literacies (or the lack of them) in Singapore

This is is the first draft of a section for my Ed.D. thesis. The bibliography relating to the referenced literature can be found at (I’ve blogged more about my thesis at

Education in Singapore is often cited as ‘world-class’, largely due to their students’ consistent high performance in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). These tests have been carried out every three years since the year 2000 and are administered to several thousand students per country near the end of compulsory education. PISA assesses reading, as well as mathematical and scientific ‘literacy’ and problem-solving. The OECD claims that the skills tested in PISA are those required in adult life.

Dissenting voices point out that those countries at the top of the PISA league table are only fractionally ‘ahead’ of other countries, but also tend to be largely homogenous countries. Hong Kong, having a different political system that China, is effectively a country in its own right and, along with Finland and Singapore, is relatively small geographically.

Other important considerations about Singapore by way of context are that it became an independent country as late as the 1960s, English is used as the primary language of instruction in schools, and corruption is low (Transparency International, 2009) whilst censorship is relatively high (Press Freedom Index, 2010). A picture of a conformist culture placing a large emphasis on high-stakes testing emerges, as is evidenced by one Singaporean in her twenties reflecting on her experiences:

Success in Singapore revolves around exams, good grades, and certificates. In other words, getting the right paper qualification… Singaporeans are obsessed with exams because they want good grades. They want good grades because those are essential if you want to go to a famous university. (Tan, 1998)

In this standards-based, heavily-pressured educational culture – a society where, anecdotally, painkillers are stocked alongside exam-preparation books (Bracey, 2008) – it is unsurprising to find the dominant ‘new literacy’ to be Media Literacy. In addition, much of the available research literature into new literacies comes from, or through the lens of, Singapore’s National Institute of Education. One such example comes in Tan, Bopry & Guo (2010) who ostensibly focus on ‘new literacies’ but focus almost entirely on the decoding of visual media.

Another driving force in a country as economically-competitive as Singapore is productivity. The launch of the International Computer Driving License (ICDL) in Singapore in 2010 mentioned explicitly the aim to encourage foreign investment and “a growth in the national economy through higher productivity and a higher standard of living across Singapore” (ECDL, 2010). Such economic goals are evident in the top-down ‘Masterplans for ICT in Education’, the third of which runs 2009-2014. One of the four stated ‘broad aims’ of this Third Masterplan includes the desire to ‘develop competencies for the 21st century’ (Singapore Ministry of Education, 2008a). These, however, are closely tied to mention of the ability of Singapore to ‘position [themselves] better as a global trading hub,’ to ‘train [their] soldiers in combat,’ and investment in high-speed communications to create ‘new opportunities for [their] economy, government and society’ (Singapore Ministry of Education, 2008b).

An interesting tension is evident in Singaporean educational policy between the desire to conform with the more liberal west and the drive for efficiency and productivity. On the one hand, therefore, the need to use ICT ‘critically’ and develop skills of analysis are mentioned, swiftly followed by mention that school ‘autonomy can lead to less efficiency’ (Singapore Ministry of Education, 2008b). The procedural elements of new literacies are to the fore with mention of the use of ICT to help develop ‘competencies to be able to discriminate information require technology literacy, higher-order thinking skills and even life and collaboration skills’ (Singapore Ministry of Education, 2008b). These are to be developed in staff as well as students, but to save ‘re-inventing the wheel’ grassroots approaches are discouraged in favour of ‘educational labs, where innovations can be prototyped and tested’ (Singapore Ministry of Education, 2008b). The aim of this is to ‘equip the next generation with skills and competencies to succeed’ in the never-actually-defined ‘knowledge economy’ (Singapore Ministry of Education, 2008b).

Media Literacy is the dominant ‘new literacy’ in Singapore and this is evident through ongoing research. It is an umbrella term through which other literacies (such as ‘technology literacy’ and ‘information literacy’) are understood. Digital literacy, meanwhile is understood as ‘Digital Curricular Literacies’ (DCL), used as shorthand for the contextualisation of ICT in school-based learning. In practice (NIE, 2003-6) this tends to be on the level of what Puentadura’s (2010) SAMR model identifies as ‘Substitution’ or ‘Augmentation’ rather than the higher-order ‘Modification’ or ‘Revolutionary’ use of educational technology. Indeed, even current research (NIE, 2009-12) aims to ‘contribute to the new media literacy research by developing and validating a survey instrument to measure students’ new media literacy’. This focus on quantitative measures is indicative of Singapore’s approach to technology as well as associated competencies and literacies.

Given the focus on Media Literacy and the tight integration of government departments and policies, it is appropriate to look at the Singapore Media Development Authority’s definition of the term:

Media literacy refers to the ability to critically assess information that is received daily via different media platforms. When a person is media literate, he would be able to read, analyse and interpret messages, regardless of whether he is using media to gain information, for entertainment or for educational purposes. (Singapore MDA)

This is equated with a ‘media-savvy population’ that has the ACE attribution of Awareness, Competency and Engagement. This approach to new literacies is rather passive and based upon a consumption model of literacy. Other definitions of digital literacies mention explicitly the importance of being able to create media rather than simply access and critically reflect upon it. Although lip service is paid to new literacies by the Singapore Ministry of Education the focus is, in effect, on accessing and critically reflecting upon information.

ECDL (2010) ‘National e-Productivity Campaign Launch: Driving Singapore’s Productivity Growth’ (accessed 17 April 2011)

National Institute of Education, Singapore [NIE] (2003-6) ‘Digital Curricular Literacies and Project Work’ (accessed 17 April 2011)

National Institute of Education, Singapore [NIE] (2009-12) ‘Establishing a Blueprint for Singapore Youth’s Participation in New Media Ecologies’ (accessed 17 April 2011)

Press Freedom Index (2010) (accessed 17 April 2011)

Singapore Media Development Authority [MDA] ‘Media Literacy’ (accessed 17 April 2011)

Singapore Ministry of Education (2008a) ‘MOE Launches Third Masterplan for ICT in Education’ (accessed 17 April 2011)

Singapore Ministry of Education (2008b) ‘Opening Address by Dr Ng Eng Hen, Minister for Education and Second Minister for Defence, at the International Conference on Teaching and Learning with Technology (iCTLT) at the Suntec Convention Hall, on Tuesday, 5 August 2008’ (accessed 17 April 2011)

Tan, H.H. (1998) ‘Singapore Slog’ (accessed 17 April 2011)

Tan, L., Bopry, J. & Guo, L. (2010) ‘Portraits of New Literacies in Two Singapore Classrooms’ (RELC Journal, 41, pp.5-17)

Transparency International (2009) (accessed 17 April 2011)

Media Literacy: the biggest enemy of UK ‘digital literacy’ initiatives?

This is my (very) first draft of the UK element to a chapter of my Ed.D. thesis where I’m looking at government policy in relation to ‘literacies of the digital’. I’ll also be looking at the Norway and the EU more generally, Singapore and North America (US/Canada). I really hope I’ve missed the point with what follows and that there’s massive UK government interest and funding for proper digital literacy-type initiatives…

Whilst pockets of discussion about ‘digital literacy’ exist both in official reports and online, the main focus around ‘literacies of the digital’ in the UK is upon ‘media literacy’. Initiatives in this area include bodies such as the BBC, Ofcom, UK Film and the British Library. Bodies such as Futurelab mention digital literacy often in their publications but, as is the issue with all externally-funded bodies, the money follows government pronouncements and policies.

Following the Digital Britain report (DCMS & BIS, 2009) the aim of the UK government was to promote ‘digital participation’. The follow-up plan was to encompass ‘three distinct but interdependent strands’: digital inclusion, digital life skills, and digital media literacy – with the latter defined as “the ability to use, understand and create digital media and communications” (DCMS & BIS, 2010). However, the National Plan for Digital Participation [PDF] was ill-fated, launched only a few months before a General Election saw a change of government. The Digital Participation website, set up alongside the National Plan, now states:

As part of the major review of public expenditure, the Government has re-scoped the digital participation programme. The limited funding which is now available will be focused on supporting the activities to encourage people to go online and led by the UK Digital Champion, Martha Lane Fox.” (accessed November 2010)

The institutions mentioned above have staked their claim in the arena of literacies of the digital. Media literacy, the promotion of which since 2003 has been the responsibility of the Office of Communications (Ofcom) is considered separately from ‘digital participation’. The latter, more narrowly defined since the advent of a Conservative-Liberal coalition government, is concerned with connecting all homes with broadband by 2012. The Race Online 2012 website sets out a manifesto with two key aims, “no one should retire without web skills” and “everyone of working age should be online”. Curiously, the ‘manifesto’ makes no commitments by the government, rather seeking to ‘challenge’ individuals and organizations in the UK to meet these targets. Some may call this empty rhetoric.

Evidence of the UK government’s low-level basic skills definition of ‘digital literacy’ can be found in the pronouncement within the Race Online 2012 manifesto:

Digital literacy is a great enabler of social mobility. It is a way for those who have had bad experiences of institutions to re-engage in learning. And it can break down feelings of social isolation. It is a powerful weapon in the fight against poverty. (Rt. Hon. Iain Duncan Smith, Secretary of State for Department, Work and Pensions)

‘Using a computer connected to the internet’ and ‘digital literacy’ are seen as synonymous not only in this manifesto, but in wider publications by the government. The critical element of literacies of the digital is served by discussion of ‘media literacy’ with ‘digital literacy’ reserved for basic skills:

‘Get Digital’ will work with residents, scheme staff, RSLs and the wider community including local schools, as well as DWP, to promote, deliver and sustain digital literacy skills for older residents in sheltered housing. (DCMS & BIS, 2010, p.43)

In 2004, after a Communications Bill that would lead to Ofcom, the UK Film Council and Channel 4 organised a seminar entitled Inform and Empower: Media Literacy in the 21st Century. This seminar, attended by two hundred delegates including representatives from the BBC, the British Film Institute, “government, Ofcom, industry, education, [and] media arts organisations” (UK Film Council, 2004:2) was addressed by the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. Whilst the introduction by the Chair of the UK Film Council espouses a standard definition of media literacy (“learn[ing] about the power and influence of moving images” – UK Film Council, 2004:3) the report of the Secretary of State’s address states shows signs of the basic skills definition the UK government later settled upon implicitly for ‘digital literacy’: “It is the content delivered to people that matters” (UK Film Council, 2004:8)

This seminar led to the creation of a Media Literacy Task Force (MLTF) with membership comprising the BBC, the British Board of Film Classification, the British Film Institute, Channel 4, ITV, the Media Education Association, the UK Film Council and Skillset. The MLTF came up with the following wide-ranging definition of media literacy:

A media literate society is… not a luxury, it is a necessity in the 21st Century – for social, economic, cultural and political reasons – as we try to make sense of a sea of Reality TV, iPod downloads and streaming video on the Internet.

This is what encouraging media literacy is really all about: giving people the choice to communicate, create and participate fully in today’s fast-moving world.  And this will help create a society in which everyone is enfranchised – whatever their economic, social and ethnic background – and in which the UK’s creative and knowledge economies are able to draw upon the widest possible bank of creators and producers.” (

It is arguably this all-encompassing, ‘umbrella’ definition of media literacy and its subsequent formalisation and dissemination through the form of a charter that has marginalised the kind of ‘digital literacy’ initiatives seen elsewhere in the world. The MLTF, disbanded as of December 2009, promulgated the charter to other EU member countries with Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Portugal, Spain, and Sweden becoming also becoming signatories to the identical European Charter for Media Literacy.

Given that the MLTF no longer exists and digital literacy in anything other than a ‘basic skills’ sense is not currently part of the UK government’s financially-crippled ‘digital participation’ plan, it is difficult to see from where the critical element of ‘literacies of the digital’ will come from. Whilst some work by JISC (2009) and more informally by Josie Fraser (2009) has pointed the way in the educational sphere, the momentum, interest and willingness of other nations who have embraced digital literacy is lacking. Initiatives, reports and resources such as Film: 21st Century Literacy by the UK Film Council have meant that the room for discussion about digital literacy and its relation to media literacy, remains small.

The bibliography for my whole Ed.D. thesis as it currently stands can be found here.

Unlike the rest of this blog, this post (because it relates to my unpublished thesis) is Copyright, All Rights Reserved.

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)