Tag: Norway

‘Digital literacy’ in Norway?

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


Norway is often held up as an example of how to integrate digital literacy into a nationwide school curriculum. A four-year programme from 2004 to 2008 was sponsored by the Norwegian government, aiming to provide ‘Digital literacy for all’ (Kunnskapsdepartementet, no date). Investment in infrastructure and a focus on using ICT in learning activities was underpinned with a mission to enable Norwegians to use ICT to be ‘wealth creators’. Norway’s focus on digital literacy, therefore, as with the wider EU focus, was upon inclusivity and employability.

An educational reform known as The Knowledge Promotion led to digital literacy being given ‘important and historical status’ in the Norwegian national curriculum. It became the fifth basic competence along with reading, writing, arithmetic and oral skills, being mandatory in every subject at every level of compulsory schooling. As explained in a later chapter, however, Norwegian does not use the word ‘literacy’ in the same was as it is used English. This means that competence and literacy are used almost interchangeably.

In 2007, Almås & Krumsvik found that many of the pronouncements by the Norwegian government were merely ideology and rhetoric:

“[T]here is reason to believe that despite the government’s good intentions, the ‘ICT pedagogy’ is more strongly anchored in rhetoric than in practice. Essentially, Norwegian teachers are doing what they have always done, and traditional teaching methods and technology-free learning environments are dominant.” (Almås & Krumsvik 2007, p.482)

According to the most recent bi-annual ITU Monitor survey (2009) the ‘fifth pillar’ of competence is “the ability to make use of information and communication technology” and constitutes a ‘basic skill’ (ITU 2009, p.3). The authors of the report acknowledge that “the actual basic understanding of digital skills is rather vaguely formulated in national and local curricula” (p.14). Their solution to this was to come up with a multiple-choice test the sample questions from which seem to be similar to ‘e-safety’ questionnaires in the UK.

As Hatlevik points out in an analysis of the 2009 ITU Monitor report:

“There are several important challenges in the process of identifying and describing digital analysis: 1) to have a broader perception of digital literacy, ranging from demonstrating digital skills, such as the use of a specific software, towards production, ethical judgement, critical thinking, collaboration and creativity; 2) prevent assessment-driven teaching practices, such as by emphasizing the assessment of digital literacy as a formative evaluation; and 3) to ensure that the identification and understanding of digital literacy is theory driven and not solely defined from what is possible to measure in a quantitative way.” (Hatlevik 2009, p.173)

The second and third points – that digital literacy is not a ‘fixed’ attribute, and that not everything worth measuring can be measured – are particularly important to take into account given that Norway is viewed as a world leader in the integration of digital literacy into curricula.

Discourse around digital literacy in Norway has evolved to reflect the state of play in the EC. Digital literacy and digital competence are terms that are used interchangeably, with media literacy becoming an increasingly-dominant term with reference to critical skills. This, despite the White Paper that was used to outline the Norwegian curriculum framework defining digital literacy as “the sum of simple ICT skills… and more advanced skills that makes creative and critical use of digital tools and media possible” (Erstad 2007, p.3). However, the difficulty of translating the Norwegian term ‘kompetanse’ means that the term is translated variously even in official documents. The 2005 policy document eNorway 2009: the digital leap, for example, talks of ‘digital skills’:

“Digital skills include the ability to exploit the opportunities offered by ICT, and use them critically and innovatively in education and work. Digital skills also include the ability to be critical to sources and assess content. Use of digital tools is a skill the individual must acquire, maintain and continually develop, if he or she is to be a digitally skilled and critical citizen.” (p.8)

It is clear, therefore, that however ‘digital kompentanse’ may be translated, there is a critical element at the core of the definition involving reflection upon using sources of information and digital tools effectively. However, as Erstad translates the authors of the White Paper as stating, “In total digital literacy can be seen as a very complex competence” (Erstad 2007, p.3)

In order to tease out the complexities involved in digital literacy, the quarterly Nordic Journal of Digital Literacy (http://www.idunn.no/ts/dk) was set up in 2006. It has attracted some of the biggest names in new literacies research as contributors, accepting contributions in English as well as Norwegian. Interestingly, and rather inevitably, the journal has moved from having a narrow focus on digital literacy to a more wide-ranging focus on new literacies. There is little evidence, however, that such research is any more than a one-way process with empirical evidence coming either from the bi-annual ITU Monitor report mentioned above or from researchers’ own classroom.

One of the best-known digital literacies researcher in Norway is Ola Erstad, whose research focus seems to have followed a trajectory from mainly ICT-focused conceptions of digital literacy to those allied to media literacy. We shall explore the concept of ‘umbrella terms’ in a later chapter: in Norway (and in Europe more generally) it is media literacy that is the dominant umbrella term. Erstad explains why he prefers this term:

“There are different terms used in this field of research, such as media literacy, ICT literacy, digital literacy, information literacy and digital competence. The key term, and the one highlighted in this article, is media literacy. In a Scandinavian context the term competence is often used instead of literacy since the latter term does not translate to the languages in these countries.” (Erstad 2010, p.56)

The dichotomy, therefore, is between digital competence (or ‘basic skills’) on the one hand, and a critical, more holistic ‘media literacy’ on the other hand. Erstad believes that this focus is appropriate given “the conceptual history in this field, where media literacy has been used since the beginning of the 1980s” (Erstad 2010, p.57).

Mifsud (2006) questions what we mean by ‘digital literacy’ noting, and by doing so, reinforcing, Erstad’s point about Norwegian not using the term ‘literacy’:

“Consider digital literacy in the school context. Does being able to send text-messages from a mobile phone or playing puzzle games constitute being digitally literate? While sending SMS messages represents the height of “e-literacy” for my mother, from an educational perspective, SMS-sending, and mobile telephones in general, have so far been frowned upon by schools.” (Mifsud 2006, p.136)

Digital literacy is far from a revolutionary competence or set of skills for Mifsud. She argues that there are broadly four elements to digital literacy: (i) the manipulation of digital tools, (ii) an extension of print-based literacies, (iii) appropriate “cut-and-paste” and “copy/delete” techniques, and (iv) the “inclusion of the visual” (Mifsud 2006, p.136-9). Digital literacy, therefore, is effectively a body of basic skills in a digital world.

Korten and Svoen (2006) point out that media literacy and digital literacy are often used as near-synonyms in Norwegian, hence the confusion. Perhaps one reason for the recent shift in emphasis in Norway (and in Europe more generally) from digital literacy to media literacy is that, as Pietraß puts it, it “lead[s] to much more satisfactory conceptions… than functional approaches” (Pietraß 2009, p.132).

The history and status of digital literacy in Norway is complex. The term is presumed by English-speaking researchers and educators to mean, in a straightforward way, the same in Norwegian as it does in English. However, given the difficulty in translating words such as ‘literacy’ into Norwegian, and words such as ‘kompetanse’ from Norwegian, ‘media literacy’ is a term preferred increasingly to ‘digital literacy’.

Moving beyond ’21st century skills’

In responding to the radical change in working life that are currently under way, we need to tread a careful path that provides students with the opportunity to develop skills for access to new forms of work through learning the new language of work. But at the same time, our role as teachers is not simply to be technocrats. It is not our job to produce docile, compliant workers. Students need also to develop the capacity to speak up, to negotiate, and to be able to engage critically with the conditions of their working lives.

The above was written 10 years ago in a book entitled Multiliteracies: Literacy Learning and the Design of Social Futures. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the ideas contained in the quotation; in fact, they form the bedrock of what some have been pushing as ’21st century skills’.

But it’s time to change the record that’s stuck on repeat.

It’s 2010. The idea of the ‘digital native’ turned out to be a myth; it’s dawning on us that even the idea of a ‘digital literacy’ is too ambiguous to be of much use. We’re in a post-Second Life brave new world.

So what can we do?

Move on. Sounds easy in theory, but what about in practice? Here’s 5 suggestions, which should ideally be undertaken sequentially:

  1. Debate the purpose of education. Just what exactly are we trying to achieve?
  2. Make explicit core competencies. The Norwegian model looks interesting.
  3. Invest in design. Never mind ‘functional specifications’, focus on reducing needless friction – in everything from timetabling to technology.
  4. Promote flexibility. It’s the watchword of our era. Let’s divorce schools from their daycare/babysitting role.
  5. Recognise context. What works for one educational instution can’t be replicated exactly elsewhere.

It’s not good talking about ’21st century education’. We’re 10 years into it. :-p

Literacy -> Digital Flow: dialectic.

This post comes from my (ongoing) Ed.D. thesis, which can be read in full over at http://dougbelshaw.com/thesis. You may want to check out my wiki to follow up references.

CC-BY kevindooley

The assumption made by many is that Traditional Literacy has some form of counterpart in the form of ‘Digital Literacy’. Such thinking places use of, for example, the internet on a continuum stretching neatly back from inventions such as writing on slate, through papyrus, the printing press and mass media (TV, radio, cinema). The danger with this ‘artefactual’ approach when examining new technologies, argues Ursula Franklin, is that ‘[technologies] involve much more than simply passing on and/or adding to written or visual texts or information per se… Rather, they are tied directly to ways of interacting with others… and to ways of being, knowing, learning and doing’ (Lankshear & Knobel, 2006:235). ‘Reading with understanding’ on the internet is not as straightforward as the ‘reading with understanding’ of a book or other printed matter. On the most basic level, unlike with most printed matter, there is no correct way to navigate via hyperlink the myriad websites that make up the digital world. But more than this, there is no barrier to publishing. No barriers means no editorial control. No editorial control means potential equal weight and emphasis given to extreme views, incorrect assertions and illegal acts. Thus access to, and use of, technology becomes a moral issue.

Given this and other ‘problems’, theorists have attempted to incorporate extra elements within literacy in an attempt to answer or avoid them. For example, Martin (2005) conceives of ‘Digital Literacy’ as including ‘the ability to plan, execute and evaluate digital actions in the solution of life tasks’ (quoted in Erstad, 2008:50) – something without parallel in conceptions of Traditional Literacy. Martin also adds ‘the ability to reflect on one’s own digital literacy development’ (ibid.) as being an important aspect of Digital Literacy, propelling the term into a level much higher than mere ‘competence’. The heart of the tension is whether or not the technologies involved are ‘transformative’ in their bearing on literacy. A difficulty arises, however, as improvements in technology mean that the goalposts are continually shifting and thus altering social practices. This is an important point raised by Graham 1999:25-6) who wonders at what point something (such as the internet) that extends literacy practices can count at transformative. There must be some revolutionary, transformative technologies, otherwise everything from the invention of the wheel would be an ‘extension’ of existing technologies and social practices. Those who support this ‘revolutionary’ view, such as Taylor & Ward (1999:xvii) believe that because ‘computer networks… improve communicative interaction among students, teachers, and even texts’ then sociocultural practices are altered. It is these changes in sociocultural practices that result in a new form of literacy being required.

This sociocultural practices model conceives of literacy as ‘an active relationship or a way of orienting to the social and cultural world’ (Rantala & Suoranta, 2008:96-7). Unlike models of Traditional Literacy based upon the printed word, the sociocultural practices model conceives of literacy as being a process instead of a state. Literacy is thus bound up with identity, culture and involves a reflective element. Whereas Traditional Literacy is about training and competence, the forms of literacy put forward by the sociocultural practices model involve interaction and creativity. This almost ‘meta’ form of literacy is defined by the mashup, the remix and could be seen as post-postmodernism: making one’s own sense of a fragmented ‘reality’.

The difficulty is that the view of literacy put forward by the sociocultural practices model strains at the very edges of the word ‘literacy’. This, believe Lankshear & Knobel, is a problem relating to conceptions of Traditional Literacy, not a new problem for the sociocultural practices model to face uniquely:

Sometimes… ‘literacy’ [is] a metaphor for ‘competence’, ‘proficiency’ or ‘being functional’. Concepts like ‘being computer literate’ or being ‘technologically literate’ are sometimes used to mean that someone is more or less proficient with a computer or some other device like a video recorder: they can ‘make sense of’ and ‘use’ computers, or can program their video player or mobile phone. (Lankshear & Knobel, 2006:20)

Presumably, Lankshear & Knobel’s conception of true ‘Traditional Literacy’ would be more than the ability to ‘read with understanding’ any printed matter. It would involve some meta-level remixing, the ability to deconstruct the text and reflect on what would have done. If not, then it is difficult to see how they could describe skills in the digital world at a ‘literacy’.

Much has been made of the fact that Norway has a curriculum based on digital skills. Indeed, after a review in the early 21st century, Norway named digital skills as the ‘fifth basic skill’ along with reading, writing, arithmetic and oracy (Søby, 2008:120-1). Some have championed this as ‘digital literacy’ and, indeed, some European Union policy documents consider it as such. However, as Audunson & Nordlie argue (2003:319) point out, ‘[t]he Norwegian language does not use the term literacy to describe a person’s competencies in other fields of activity, be it cooking, social intercourse, skiing – or in the field of ICT and information.’ As a result, the Norwegian example cannot defensibly be referred to as an example of ‘digital literacy’ in action.

If the use of, and interaction with, digital texts is not a ‘revolution’ and if therefore theorists want to continue using the term ‘literacy’, then some type of middle ground must be sought. Most would agree with Lankshear & Knobel’s ‘working hypothesis’:

[T]he world is now significantly different from how it was two or three decades ago… this different has a lot to do with the emergency of new technologies and changes in social practices associated with these… the changes are part of a move from what we have called ‘industrial’ values and ways of doing things and increasing embrace of ‘post-industrial’ values and ways of doing things. (2006:53)

To establish a ‘middle ground’, then, a dialectic should be set up:

[T]he idea of ‘new’ literacies is a useful way to conceptualize what might be seen as one component of an unfolding ‘literacy dialectic’. By a dialectic we mean a kind of transcendence, in which two forces that exist in tension with one another ‘work out their differences’, as it were, and evolve into something that bears the stamp of both, yet is qualitatively different from each of them. (Lankshear & Knobel, 2006:29)

Indeed, Martin (2008:173) believes that ‘transformation is not a necessary condition of digital literacy’ as ‘[a]ctivity at the level of appropriate and informed usage would be sufficient to be described as digitally literate.’ This is a rather conservative and non-specific conception of literacy. It allows for ICT-based, procedural definitions such as those that frame Microsoft’s ‘Digital Literacy Curriculum’ and European Commission reports as well as more ‘critical’ conceptions – as championed by authors such as Buckingham (2008).

To be clear, the forces that ‘exist in tension with one another’ on Lankshear and Knobel’s view are, on the one hand, Traditional Literacy, and on the other, digital skills. The problem is that words used to describe the latter are used imprecisely. As Fieldhouse & Nicholas put it:

Definitions of digital and information literacy are numerous. Within this pool of definitions, terms often are interchangeable; for example, “literacy”, “fluency” and “competency” can all be used to describe the ability to steer a path through digital and information environments to find, evaluate, and accept or reject information. (Fieldhouse & Nicholas, 2008:50-1)

Without an appeal to a dialectic, this ‘ability to steer a path’ would becoming in what amounts to a naming dispute. What remains to be seen, however, is whether the term ‘literacy’ can be stretched to accommodate the higher-level, ‘meta’, reflective elements that ‘new literacies’ proponents envisage.

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