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2.2 Defining Digital Literacy

Defining literacyDefining digital literacy (or literacies) is difficult given the contested and common sense understanding of literacy described above and the host of competing terms in the arena of new technology – these include information literacy, computer literacy, internet literacy and hyper-literacy. In addition, the object of digital literacy is constantly moving; as Helsper comments, definitions keep changing because the digital and cultural environment keeps changing (Helsper 2008).  One consequence of this is a degree of ambiguity in the use of the term, what Zac and Diana refer to as the ‘inherent squishiness’ of digital literacy (Zac and Diana 2011).

The concept of digital literacy was introduced by Paul Gilster in his book of the same name (Gilster 1997).  Gilster took a broad approach to digital literacy defining it as ‘the ability to understand and use information in multiple formats from a wide range of sources when it is presented via computers’ (ibid: 1). He argued that literacy has always been more than simply being able to read and acknowledged cultural aspects in all forms of literacies. Although the narrow reference to ‘computers’ now sounds a little dated, Glister’s definition is still useful, given that it goes well beyond a skills – based understanding of digital literacy . However, this definition pre-dated the emergence of Web 2.0 technologies. Now, ‘many time-honoured distinctions such as between producer and consumer, writer and reader blur or virtually disappear as new syntheses emerge’ (Gillen and Barton 2010: 4). This technological change and its social consequences are reflected in more recent definitions of digital literacy.  Futurelab reports on digital literacy have mapped and contributed to this development (Grant 2009; Williamson and Hague 2009; Hague and Payton 2010). Digital literacy, they suggest, means:

knowing how technology and media affect the ways in which we go about
finding things out, communicating with one another, and gaining knowledge and understanding. And it also means understanding how technologies and media can
shape and influence the ways in which school subjects can be taught and learnt.
(Williamson and Hague 2009: 5)

JISC (the Joint Information Systems Committee) understands digital literacy as  ‘those capabilities which fit an individual for living, learning and working in a digital society’ (JISC 2011), whereas  the European Commission has preferred the term ‘digital competence’ using it to describe one of the eight key competences for Lifelong Learning in the European Union:

Digital Competence can be broadly defined as the confident, critical and creative use of ICT to achieve goals related to work, employability, learning, leisure, inclusion and/or participation in society.
(European Commission 2003)

Comfortable with technologyAlthough definitions focus on ‘digital literacy’ in the singular there also seems to be a growing use of the plural form of ‘digital literacies’ (Martin and Madigan 2006; Lankshear and Knobel 2008; Burn 2009; Carrington and Robinson 2009; Belshaw 2012; Littlejohn, Beetham et al. 2012). The plural form,  popularised by the New Literacy Studies, emphasises the diversity of literacy practices that constitute modern life (Lankshear and Knobel 2003; Marsh 2005). Lankshear and Knobel explicitly support the plural form (Lankshear and Knobel 2008) in acknowledgement of the variety of individual accounts of digital literacy and the usefulness of a perspective on literacies in  social practice.

Lankshear and Knobel (2003) identify three dimensions common to digital literacies; operational, cultural and critical. Operational includes competence with tools and procedures; cultural refers to competence in understanding texts in relationship to cultural context and critical is the awareness that literacies are socially constructed and selective – including some values and excluding others. The three stage model of digital literacy proposed by the DigEuLit project, funded by the EC eLearning Initiative (Martin and Grudziecki 2006) refers to the following three levels:

  • digital competence is the skills, concepts approaches, attitudes, etc.
  • digital usage refers to the application of digital competence within a specific context (such as school)
  • digital transformation which involves creativity and innovation in the digital domain

Digital naturalsAgainst the trend of defining digital literacy/literacies are those who seek to avoid the term altogether. Beetham et al. explicitly avoid the term ‘digital literacies’ to enable what they refer to as ‘major continuities in what makes for effective learning’ from both digital and non-digital practices in higher education (Beetham, McGill et al. 2009).  Belshaw also makes the point that the pre-occupation with digital literacy may be a generation issue. He points out that young people simply refer to cameras, not ‘digital’ cameras. For them the ‘digital -’ prefix is unnecessary (Belshaw 2010). In an age where books can be read on a Kindle or iPad, and writing onscreen is common place it is difficult to restrict the term literacy to pen and paper and so it could be argued that the ‘digital’ prefix is already unnecessary.

All of these definitions seek to provide an overarching definition of digital literacy. Gillen makes the point that context often leads to the creation of unique ‘working definitions’ such as the following for teachers in Norway:

Digital literacy for in-service teachers is the ability to use digital artefacts as an integrated part of their pedagogical content knowledge and be aware of what implications this has for teaching, learning strategies and Bildung aspects.
(Krumsvik, 2007 quoted in Newman 2009: 13)

Definitions, then, are developed in specific contexts and emerge from different historical contexts.

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