Chapter 4 - The history of 'digital literacy'

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Wordle of Chapter 4
“If there are many things, it is necessary that they are just as many as they are, and neither more nor less than that.
But if they are as many as they are, they will be limited.”
(Zeno of Elea)


As alluded to in the introduction, this thesis has a large enough scope in trying to come to terms with digital and new literacies without attempting to define exactly what is meant by the ‘digital’. In addition, there is a large body of excellent work around traditional (print) literacy that I simply do not have the space to consider here. For practical reasons, therefore, I begin this chapter in the latter half of the 20th century with metaphorical uses of ‘literacy’ created by adding a modifying adjectival prefix (e.g. ‘information’ literacy).

The field of 'digital literacy' has a relatively long history; it is a term that has evolved. Its beginnings can be traced back to the end of the 1960s when a feeling that standard definitions of 'literacy' missed out something important from the increasingly visual nature of the media produced by society. In 1969 John Debes offered a tentative definition for a concept he called 'visual literacy':

Visual Literacy refers to a group of vision-competencies a human being can develop by seeing and at the same time having and integrating other sensory experiences. The development of these competencies is fundamental to normal human learning. When developed, they enable a visually literate person to discriminate and interpret the visible actions, objects, symbols, natural or man-made, that he encounters in his environment. Through the creative use of these competencies, he is able to communicate with others. Through the appreciative use of these competencies, he is able to comprehend and enjoy the masterworks of visual communication. (Debes, quoted in Avgerinou & Ericson, 1997, p. 281)

This definition is closely tied to those surrounding Traditional Literacy. It mentions interpreting symbols, communication and understanding. Dondis in A Primer in Visual Literacy made explicit the reasoning behind considering visual elements as requiring a separate 'literacy':

In print, language is the primary element, while visual factors, such as the physical setting or design format and illustration, are secondary or supportive. In the modern media, just the reverse is true. The visual dominates; the verbal augments. Print is not dead yet, nor will it ever be, but nevertheless, our language-dominated culture has moved perceptively toward the iconic. Most of what we know and learn, what we buy and believe, what we recognize and desire, is determined by the domination of the human psyche by the photograph. And it will be more so in the future. (Dondis, 1973, p.7)

Those who espoused this doctrine were careful to stress the importance of both being able to both decode and encode, creating and communicating via images. Considine championed visual literacy as being “the ability to comprehend and create images in a variety of media in order to communicate effectively,” leading to those who are 'visually literate' being “able to produce and interpret visual messages” (Considine, 1986, p.38). More recently, with the explosion of what I will later term 'micro-literacies,' the concept of 'visual literacy' has been re-conceived of as 'media grammar literacy'. That is to say it stresses the ‘medium as being at least as important as the message’. I will explore this further in Chapter 8.

In essence, the notion of 'visual literacy' is an important corrective to the idea that it is only textual symbols that can encode and decode information and meaning. As Lowe puts it, “visual materials in general are typically not considered to pose any reading challenges to the viewer” (Lowe, 1993, p.24).[1] Coupling 'visual' with 'literacy' not only prompts a debate about the metaphorical use of language but, by using 'literacy', suggests “entitlement or necessity, and the need to seek out deficiencies and remedy them” (Raney, 1999, p.41).

Hijacking the term 'literacy' for such procedural ends has, however, worried some who believe that it conflates 'literacy' with 'competence' (Adams & Hamm, 2001, p.vii).[2] Whilst some in the early 1980s believed that 'visual literacy' may still have some life left in it, others considered the concept “phonologically, syntactically, and semantically untenable” (Cassidy & Knowlton, 1983, p.88), as “not a coherent area of study but, at best, an ingenious orchestration of ideas” (Suhor & Little, 1988, p.470). Each writer on the term has written from his or her viewpoint, leading to a situation akin to the apocryphal story of the six blind men tasked with describing an elephant, each doing so differently when given a different part to feel. The feeling from the literature seems to be that whilst there may be something important captured in part by the term 'visual literacy', it all too easily collapses into solipsism and therefore loses descriptive and explanatory power.

The concept of 'visual literacy' continued until the late 1990s, eventually being enveloped by 'umbrella terms' combining two or more 'literacies.' Parallel to visual literacy from the 1970s onwards came the development of the term 'technological literacy.' It began to gain currency as a growing awareness took hold of the potential dangers to the environment of technological development as well as economic fears in the western world about the competition posted by technologically more adept nations (Martin, 2008, p.158). 'Technological literacy' (or 'technology literacy') was a marriage of skills-based concerns with a more 'academic' approach, leading to a US government-funded publication entitled Technology for All Americans. This defined 'technological literacy' as combining “the ability to use... the key systems of the time,” whilst “insuring that all technological activities are efficient and appropriate,” and “synthesiz[ing]... information into new insights” (quoted in Martin, 2008, p.158) This literacy was one defined and prompted by economic necessities and political concerns.

Although stimulated by competition with non-western countries, a growing awareness in the 1980s that computers and related technologies were producing a “postmodern consciousness of multiple perspectives” with young people “culturally positioned by the pervasiveness of computer-based and media technologies” (Smith, et al., 1988, referenced by Smith & Curtin, 1998, p.211-2) reinforced the need for the formalization of some type of literacy relating to the use of computers and other digital devices. Technological literacy seemed to be an answer. As we saw in a previous chapter, Gurak (2001, p.13) dubbed this a 'perfomative' notion of literacy, “the ability to do something is what counts.” Literacy was reduced to being 'technology literate' meaning “knowing how to use a particular piece of technology.” The 'critical' element of literacy, which Gurak is at pains to stress, including the ability to make meta-level decisions judgements about technology usage, were entirely absent from these 1970s and 80s definitions. Technological or technology literacy is too broad a concept as “nearly all modes of communication are technologies - so there is no functional distinction between print-based literacy and digital literacy.” (Eyman, no date, p.7) Discussions about, and advocates of, 'technological literacy' had mostly petered out by the late 1980s/early 1990s.

Growing out of the perceived need for a 'technological literacy' came, with the dawn of the personal computer, calls for definitions of a 'computer literacy.' Before the Apple II, 'microcomputers' were sold in kit form for hobbyists to assemble themselves. With the Apple II in 1977, followed by IBM's first 'Personal Computer' (PC) in 1981, computers became available to the masses. Graphical User Interfaces (GUIs) were developed from the early 1980s onwards, with the first iteration of Apple's 'Finder' coming in 1984 followed by Microsoft's 'Windows' in 1985. There is a symbiotic link between the hardware and software available at any given time and the supposed skills, competencies and 'literacies' that accompany their usage. As computers and their interfaces developed so did conceptions of the 'literacy' that accompany their usage.

The term 'computer literacy' was an attempt to give a vocational aspect to the use of computers and to state how useful computers could be in almost every area of learning (Buckingham, 2008, p.76). Definitions of computer literacy from the 1980s include “the skills and knowledge needed by a citizen to survive and thrive in a society that is dependent on technology” (Hunter, 1984, p.45), “appropriate familiarity with technology to enable a person to live and cope in the modern world” (Scher, 1984, p.25), and “an understanding of computer characteristics, capabilities and applications, as well as an ability to implement this knowledge in the skilful and productive use of computer applications” (Simonson, et al., 1987, p.232). As Andrew Molnar, who allegedly coined the term, points out 'computer literacy,' like 'technological literacy' is an extremely broad church, meaning that almost anything could count as an instance of the term:

We started computer literacy in '72 [...] We coined that phrase. It's sort of ironic. Nobody knows what computer literacy is. Nobody can define it. And the reason we selected [it] was because nobody could define it, and [...] it was a broad enough term that you could get all of these programs together under one roof. (My emphasis, quoted at thefreedictionary.com)


It is somewhat ironic that 'computer literacy' was chosen as a term because it was ineffable, indefinable and a little outré. Later in the decade an attempt was made to equate computer literacy with programming ability. The idea of literacy not being the same as fluency is one to which we will return to in Chapter 8:

It is reasonable to suggest that a person who has written a computer program should be called literate in computing. This is an extremely elementary definition. Literacy is not fluency. (Nevison, 1976 quoted in Martin (2003, p.12)

In the 1980s applications available from the command line removed the need for users to be able to program the application in the first place. Views on what constituted 'computer literacy' changed as a result. The skills and attributes of a user who is said to be 'computer literate,' became no more tangible, however, and simply focused on the ability to use computer applications rather than the ability to program. On reflection, it is tempting to call the abilities that fell within the sphere of 'computer literacy' as competencies - as a collection of skills that can be measured using, for example, the European Computer Driving License (ECDL). By including the word 'literacy,' however, those unsure about the 'brave new world' of computers could be reassured that the digital frontier is not that different after all from the physical world with which they are familiar. Literacy once again was used to try to convey and shape meaning from a rather nebulous and loosely-defined set of skills.

Martin has identified conceptions of 'computer literacy' as passing through three phases. First came the Mastery phase which lasted up until the mid-1980s. In this phase the computer was perceived as alien, as “arcane and powerful,” with emphasis being placed upon on programming and gaining control over it. This was followed by the Application phase from the mid-1980s up to the late 1990s. The coming of simple graphical interfaces such as Windows 3.1 allowed computers to be used by the masses. Computers began to be used as tools for education, work and leisure. This is the time when many certification schemes based on 'IT competence' began, including the ECDL, and computers began to be integrated into the home and workplace. From the late 1990s onwards came the Reflective phase with the “awareness of the need for more critical, evaluative and reflective approaches” (Martin 2008, p.156-7). It is during this latter phase that the explosion of 'new literacies' occurred. Some type of 'synthesis' occurred with leisure time and workflows taking account of the transformative capacity of more widely-defined digital technologies.

The main problem with computer literacy was the elision between 'literacy' as meaning (culturally-valued) knowledge and 'literacy' as being bound up with the skills of reading and writing (Wiley, 1996). As we have seen above, both knowledge and skills are elements that need to be dealt with explicitly in any definition of literacy. Procedural knowledge about how to use a computer was conflated in definitions of 'computer literacy' with the ability to use a computer in creative and communicative activities. Being able to use a computer to access knowledge and media is different from using a computer to create knowledge and media.

The assumption that using a computer to achieve specified ends constituted a literacy began to be questioned towards the end of the 1990s. A US National Council Report from 1999 questioned whether today's 'computer literacy' would be enough in a world of rapid change:

Generally, 'computer literacy' has acquired a 'skills' connotation, implying competency with a few of today's computer applications, such as word processing and e-mail. Literacy is too modest a goal in the presence of rapid change, because it lacks the necessary 'staying power'. As the technology changes by leaps and bounds, existing skills become antiquated and there is no migration path to new skills. A better solution is for the individual to plan to adapt to changes in the technology. (US National Council, 1999, quoted in Martin, 2003, p.16)

Literacy is seen as fixed entity under this conception, as a state rather than a process.

It became apparent that “definitions of computer literacy are often mutually contradictory” (Talja, 2005 in Johnson, 2008, p.33), that “computer literacy” might not “convey enough intellectual power to be likened to textual literacy,” (diSessa, 2000, p.109), and with authors as early as 1993 talking of 'the largely discredited term 'computer literacy (Bigum & Green, 1993, p.6). Theorists scrambled to define new and different terms. An explosion and proliferation of terms ranging from the obvious ('digital literacy') to the awkward ('electracy') occurred. At times, this seems to be as much to do with authors making a name for themselves as providing a serious and lasting contribution to the literacy debate.

As the term 'computer literacy' began to lose credibility and the use of computers for communication became more mainstream the term 'ICT literacy' (standing for 'Information Communications Technology') became more commonplace. Whereas with 'computer literacy' and the dawn of GUIs the 'encoding' element of literacy had been lost, this began to be restored with 'ICT literacy.' The following definition from the US-based Educational Testing Service's ICT Literacy Panel is typical:

ICT literacy is using digital technology, communications tools, and/or networks to access, manage, integrate, evaluate, and create information in order to function in a knowledge society. (ETS ICT Literacy Panel, 2002, p.2)

The skills outlined in this definition are more than merely procedural, they are conceptual. This leads to the question as to whether ICT literacy is an absolute term, “a measure of a person's total functional skills in ICT” or “a relative measure”, there being ICT literacies, with individuals on separate scales (Oliver & Towers, 2000). Those who believe it to be an absolute term have suggested a three-stage process to become ICT literate. First comes the simple use of ICT (spreadsheets, word processing, etc.), followed secondly by engagement with online communities, sending emails and browsing the internet. Finally comes engagement in e-learning “using whatever systems are available” (Cook & Smith, 2004). This definition of literacy is rather 'tools-based' and is analogous to specifying papyrus rolls or fountain pens under conceptions of Traditional (Print) Literacy. A particular literacy is seen as being reliant upon particular tools rather than involving a meta-level definition. 'Functional skills' is a term assumed to cover both the knowledge and the skills elements of literacy.

We saw the issues with the multiplicity of understandings of ‘digital literacy’ in Chapter 2. The problem is that, as with its predecessor term, 'ICT literacy' also means different things to different groups of people. The European Commission, for example conceives of ICT literacy as 'learning to operate... technology' without it including any 'higher-order skills such as knowing and understanding what it means to live in a digitalized and networked society' (Coutinho, 2007). This is direct opposition to the ETS definition above - demonstrating the fragmented and ambiguous nature of the term. Town sees 'ICT literacy' in the United Kingdom as “a particularly unfortunate elision” as:

ICT (information and communications technology) literacy appears to imply inclusion of information literacy, but in fact is only a synonym for IT (or computer) literacy. Its use tends to obscure the fact that information literacy is a well developed concept separate from IT (information technology) literacy. (Town, 2003, p.53)

As Town goes on to note, this is not the case in non-English-speaking countries. ICT literacy is a concept that resides on the 'skills' end of the spectrum whilst claiming a 'knowledge' element that it cannot deliver.


The role and status of information literacy

Before moving on to definitions of digital literacy it is important to mention one more major influential 'literacy' coined in the last 30 years that has been alluded to above: 'information literacy.' This 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' it is not bounded by technology (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, p.160) and governments (Fieldhouse & Nicholas, 2008, p.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)

This ‘habit of mind’ approach is something I consider when discussing the Pragmatic methodology introduced and applied from Chapter 6 onwards. Literacy becomes not something explicitly measurable, but an attitude or a positioning of oneself towards information.

Although evident in the literature since the 1970s, the concept of 'information literacy' gained real traction in the 1990s with the advent of mass use of the internet. Suddenly information was a few effortless keystrokes and mouse clicks away rather than residing in great tomes in a distant physical space. Accessing and using this information correctly constituted, for proponents of the concept, a new 'literacy'. This was a time when politicians such as Al Gore used the term 'Information Superhighway' or 'Infobahn' to loosely describe the opportunities afforded by the internet. The emphasis was not upon content creation but upon access to knowledge. The metaphor of a road network exemplified the assumption that it would be governments, businesses and NGOs that provided the information or knowledge. The revolutionary aspect would be the democratization universal access to this would provide.

'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, p.52). Achieving the state of being 'information literate' involves passing through six stages, outlined in Bawden (2008, p.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 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 (Boekhorst, cited by Virkus, 2003). This is what I refer to in Chapter 7 as an ‘umbrella term’.

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)[3] and an economic dimension (“Information literacy will be essential for all future employees”)[4]. Information literacy has been seen as a 'liberal art' with an element of critical reflection, critical evaluation, and as involving problem-solving and decision-making dimensions (Bruce, 1997). Graphic designers are keen to stress the importance of their work, that it has parity with text-based representations of thoughts and ideas. Thus this explanation of the 'literacy' involved in graphic design is representative:

Literacy issues are of utmost importance to information designers because they affect the audience's ability to receive messages. In a knowledge economy, our understanding of the term "literacy" has expanded. It no longer simply refers to reading and writing skills, but also focuses on the ability to find, process, interpret, and apply information. (Visocky O'Grady & Visocky O’Grady, 2008, p.91)

The problem with such 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. They may make reference to the fact that the world has changed, but this is understood in big leaps rather than incremental change.

In addition 'information literacy' is biased heavily towards the reading and understanding part of literacy rather than the creation of texts. However much 'information literacy' may be praised for being an inclusive term (Doyle, 1994), be evident in the policy documents produced by western governments[5] and seen as 'essential' to the success of learners, it has 'no agreed definition'.[6] It is, in the words of Stephen Foster “a phrase in a quest for meaning”.[7] How, he wonders, would we recognize, and seek to remedy, 'information illiteracy'? As Karl Popper would have it, such a term is 'unfalsifiable'.

Despite this, many theorists propose information literacy as an ‘overarching 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 p.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, p.47) runs into difficulties for the same reasons. Definitions of the concept are too 'objective' and independent of the learner, even when there are 'seven key characteristics' to work towards.[8]


The evolution of digital literacy

After 'visual literacy,' 'technological literacy,' 'computer literacy,' and 'information literacy' ultimately proved unsuccessful, many sought to find a term more in keeping with digital communications and the Internet age. Although the concept of 'digital literacy' was not invented by him, the beginning of real discussion of the term was the publication of Paul Gilster's 1997 book Digital Literacy. Despite the promising title, the book has been criticized for giving multiple definitions of 'digital literacy,' with Gilster's idiosyncratic writing style cited as a reason why it didn't have an immediate impact.[9]

Nevertheless, Gilster's work did begin to have an impact in the early years of the 21st century with others citing his “generic expression of the idea” as a “strength” (Bawden, 2008, p.18). Gilster makes no less than eleven attempts at a definition of the concept ranging from digital literacy as “the ability to access networked computer resources and use them,” (Gilster, 2007, p.1) to it being “partly about awareness of other people and our expanded ability to contact them to discuss issues and get help” (p.31). The idea most cited by other authors, however, is Gilster’s assertion that digital literacy is about “mastering ideas, not keystrokes” (Gilster, 1997, p.15). This explicitly addresses the meta-level nature of literacy so conspicuously missing from earlier computer-related conceptions of literacy.

The 'impressionistic and wide-ranging' nature (Bawden, 2008, p.19) of Gilster's account means that, to a great extent, those following him and using the term could quote his work in support of theirs. Indeed, at the time of writing (2011), Google Scholar indicates that Gilster has been cited “about 630” times. Interestingly, when I first wrote this paragraph in 2010 the number was 375:


Figure 4 – Google Scholar citations for Paul Gilster’s book Digital Literacy


Bawden attempts to derive a list of the elements Gilster believes to be present in the term from the latter's work. He comes up with the following:

(Bawden, 2008, p.20)


We will see in Chapter 5 that although Gilster’s approach was so wide-ranging that a definition of digital literacy was unable to gain traction, positioning it on the cusp of a phase I will term ‘Creative ambiguity’ has led to useful work amongst researchers and practitioners.

As with other new literacies, there are almost as many definitions of 'digital literacy' as there are proponents of the concept. Listing and unpacking each of these would take up an undue amount of space and involve much repetition so I intend to focus on the work of those theorists that represent particular streams of thought: Martin (2008), Eshet-Alkalai and Amichai-Hamburger (2004), Tornero (2004b) and Bélisle (quoted in Martin, 2008). As my aim in this thesis is primarily to look forwards, not backwards I attempt in what follows to ascertain the contributions of each of these theorists whilst pointing out where their organising framework remain deficient. Subsequently, I identify eight ‘essential’ elements of digital literacies culled from a ‘meta’ definition based upon their work.

As with other new literacies, there are almost as many definitions of 'digital literacy' as there are proponents of the concept. Listing and unpacking each of these would take up an undue amount of space and involve much repetition. My aim in this thesis is, primarily, to look forwards, not backwards. To do so whilst remaining grounded in the research literature, I have identified eight core elements of digital literacy, namely:

  1. Cultural
  2. Cognitive
  3. Constructive
  4. Communicative
  5. Confident
  6. Creative
  7. Critical
  8. Civic


What follows is a brief examination of each of the 8 C's in the literature with discussion as to whether each should constitute part of a digital literacy. They are presented in no particular order of importance. Although what follows suggests some order and cohesion in the literature, all that the definitions have in common, in essence, is that digital literacy 'captures the notion that the literacy practices referred to are enacted in digital spaces' (Eyman, no date:7). As Eshet-Alkalai notes, “indistinct use of the term causes ambiguity, and leads to misunderstanding, misconceptions, and poor communication.” There is, he notes:

...particular inconsistency between those who regard digital literacy as primarily concerned with technical skills and those who see it as focused on cognitive and socio-emotional aspects of working in a digital environment. (Eshet-Alkalai, 2004, quoted in Bawden, 2008, p.24)

This is something I shall pick up in more detail in Chapter 5.

Martin (2008) claims to have abstracted from the prior research literature in the digital literacies arena come up with five 'key elements':

  1. Digital literacy involves being able to carry out successful digital actions embedded within work, learning, leisure, and other aspects of everyday life;
  2. Digital literacy, for the individual, will therefore vary according to his/her particular life situation and also be an ongoing lifelong process developing as the individual's life situation evolves;
  3. Digital literacy is broader than ICT literacy and will include elements drawn from several related "digital literacies";
  4. Digital literacy involves acquiring and using knowledge, techniques, attitudes and personal qualities and will include the ability to plan, execute and evaluate digital actions in the solution of life tasks;
  5. It also include the ability to be aware of oneself as a digitally literate person, and to reflect on one's own digital literacy development.

(Martin, 2008, p.165)


This overview foregrounds the important notion of context (exemplified in the first bullet point) and mentions the importance of literacies in their plurality, something that is missing from other definitions of a single digital literacy. It is a useful overview that is additive in that each of the five points depends upon the previous. Seemingly missing from Martin’s overview, however, is an explicit acknowledgement of the importance of the creative act in digital literacies. His mention of ‘digital actions’ does not seem to convey the same level of experimentation as we would want to perhaps ascribe to the digitally literate individual. In addition, Martin makes no reference to power relations and the emerging consensus around actions within what are termed ‘affinity spaces’. Rigorous testing for digital literacy is perhaps less important than with traditional (print) literacy as it understood as a moving target. Martin’s five aspects of digital literacies are ‘soft’ skills and meta-level understandings, whereas those things that can be tested have, necessarily, to be clearly bounded, rigorously defined and, ultimately, measurable. The lack of explanation as to what the ‘digital’ part of ‘digital literacy’ applies is a wider problem, however, as we shall see in Chapter 8. Eshet-Alkalai and Amichai-Hamburger attempt a rigorous yet practical overview of digital literacy by using a 'skills' framework. Digital literacy thus includes:

(Eshet-Alkalai & Amichai-Hamburger, 2004, p.421)

Whilst, unlike Martin, this overview includes “Reproduction skills” that enable “new, meaningful materials [to be created] from preexisting ones” it still the creative act of individuals creating something from scratch. A rejoinder to this may be that every literacy practice is derivative from at least one other pre-existing literacy practice. If this is the case, then all creative acts are derivative. Problems then arise with completely original works. Do they involve a 'literacy' or not? If so, is it a 'literacy' specific to that particular medium or technology?

Again, something that is not considered in enough depth by Eshet-Alkalai and Amichai-Hamburger is notion of literacy practices being situated within semiotic, community-defined, domains. Whilst the authors mention understanding (and applying) the ‘rules’ that prevail in cyberspace, such ‘citizenship’ is a concept that goes above and beyond the mere obeying of rules. It is not only understanding one's rights and behaving appropriately, but recognizing and acting upon one's responsibilities within a given domain. However, the ‘branching skills’ mentioned by Eshet-Alkalai and Amichai-Hamburger along with ‘photo-visual skills’ are an important reminder of how literacy differs from traditional (print) literacy, both in the metaphorical use of ‘text’ and the understanding of ‘network effects’.

Tornero (2004b) believes digital literacy to be very similar to UNESCO's definition of 'media education':

[Media Education] enables people to gain understanding of the communication media used in their society and the way they operate and to acquire skills in using these media to communicate with others. ... [It] is linked with communication in general and is part of the basic entitlement of every citizen, in every country in the world, to freedom of expression and the right to information and is instrumental in building and sustaining democracy.” (Tornero, 2004b)

As a result, Tornero comes up with four dimensions involved in the 'process' of digital literacy:

  1. Operational: The ability to use computers and communication technologies.
  2. Semiotic: The ability to use all the languages that converge in the new multimedia universe.
  3. Cultural: A new intellectual environment for the Information Society.
  4. Civic: A new repertoire of rights and duties relating to the new technological context.

Whilst this certainly remedies the lack of community and civic elements in the two models outlined above, it again fails to make explicit the creative element of digital literacy. One could argue that the ability to use computers and communication technologies is a 'competence,' not an area of literacy. This is why the 'creative' element is important in digital literacy. Nor does Tornero deal adequately with the 'critical' nature of digital literacy. That is to say he does not consider, for example, an individual deciding to use one tool over another as a matter of literacy. Whilst it could be argued that this is not, in fact, a matter for literacy, such critical reflection is mentioned only in passing by Tornero. What is nevertheless useful in Tornero’s framework is the focus upon the semiotics of new digital spaces and the multiple ‘languages’ that converge to allow reading and writing to happen in new ways.

Claire Bélisle believes ‘literacy’ to be an evolving concept with three distinct stages thus far. The first is the model favoured by UNESCO: the functional model. This conceives of literacy as the mastery of simple cognitive and practical skills. Most theorists in the literature of this research area, and especially those who espouse 'new literacies', would see this as a definition of competence, not literacy. Thus, 'digital competence' could involve a basic understanding of how the internet works (e.g. hyperlinks) and having the practical skills to be able to navigate it.

The second model in the evolution of literacy cited by Bélisle is the socio-cultural practice model. This model takes as its basis that “the concept of literacy is only meaningful in terms of its social context and that to be literate is to have access to cultural, economic and political structures of society” (quoted in Martin, 2008, p.156). It appears intuitive that individuals have to be literate for something, so within the digital sphere the socio-cultural practice model makes sense. It deals specifically with the disenfranchisement felt by those not literate within a given domain. The model can also explain how hegemonic power can be grasped or maintained by those with access to literacy tools. A good example of the latter would be the Catholic church in Europe in the Early Modern Period. Banning books being churned out of newly-invented printing presses was an attempt to control literacy practices. The model is also a useful call-to-arms for those concerned about liberty and equality in society; in other words, social justice. It provides an arena for discourse about the importance of literacy in living a productive and rewarding life in a way that Paolo Friere would term ‘emancipatory’.

There are, however, problems with the socio-cultural practice model of literacy. It deals with literacy as an ideology more than as a practical skill. As a result, constructive, creative and critical elements that we may want to foreground when defining digital literacies are only alluded to at the expense of the cultural, communicative and civic. The ‘cognitive’ element of digital literacies is not addressed, nor is the link between literacy and some kind of confidence (which I shall explain below). The socio-cultural practice model of literacy does not, therefore, have sufficient explanatory power to be used as the bedrock for new forms of literacy.

The final stage in the evolution of literacy, according to Bélisle, is the intellectual empowerment model. This deals with the link between new tools and new ways of thinking:

Literacy not only provides means and skills to deal with written texts and numbers within specific cultural and ideological contexts, but it brings a profound enrichment and eventually entails a transformation of human thinking capacities. This intellectual empowerment happens whenever mankind endows itself with new cognitive tools, such as writing, or with new technical instruments, such as those that digital technology has made possible. (Bélisle, quoted in Martin, 2008, p.156)

This 'meta-level' view of literacy certainly deals with the cognitive element missing in the socio-cultural practices model as well as, to some extent, the critical and communicative aspects. However, no specific mention is given to the civic, constructive and confidence aspects of literacy I mentioned earlier.

If these conceptions of literacy have indeed 'evolved' from one another then they are, in a similar way to Martin’s five elements, additive; they build upon one another. If that is the case, the functional, socio-cultural practice, and intellectual empowerment models of literacy would together seem to cover all of the essential elements for digital literacies. That is to say all eight ‘Cs’ mentioned above are present:

  1. Cultural
  2. Cognitive
  3. Constructive
  4. Communicative
  5. Confident
  6. Creative
  7. Critical
  8. Civic

Melding these, we would get a definition of literacies similar to the following:

Literacies involve the mastery of simple cognitive and practical skills. To be 'literate' is only meaningful within a social context and involves having access to the cultural, economic and political structures of a society. In addition to providing the means and skills to deal with written texts, literacies bring about a transformation in human thinking capacities. This intellectual empowerment happens as a result of new cognitive tools (e.g. writing) or technical instruments (e.g. digital technologies).

This definition would seem satisfactory, dealing with the essential elements of digital literacies from the research literature. As I mentioned in my introduction, I believe that previous work in the arena of digital and new literacies has been using the correct questions but using the wrong lens. Not only has a single ‘digital literacy’ been repeatedly redefined but the methodologies used have not been productive. I shall deal with these two issues in more detail in chapters 7 and 6 respectively.

Now that we have arrived at a working definition of literacies based on the research literature, we need to test it against the four conditions outlined earlier that would make for a valid definition. This is because digital literacies are necessarily predicated upon a bedrock definition of 'literacy'. Being 'literate' is a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition of being 'digitally literate'. To recap, the four conditions introduced earlier were:

  1. ‘Cash value’ – it must be useful and must be able to make a difference in practice.
  2. Retrospective nature – it must include past (and future) instances of ‘digitally literate’ practice.
  3. Metaphorical nature – its position to other metaphorical terms in the literate practices arena must be explained adequately.
  4. Digital element – advocates must be able to explain to what the ‘digital’ part of ‘digital literacy’ pertains.

It is clear from the research literature that to continue to attempt to define a single ‘digital literacy’ is an untenable proposition. We must instead, therefore, focus upon digital literacies. The resultant meta definition taken from the work of theorists explored above has the potential to deal adequately with the 'digital' part of 'digital literacy' in that it acknowledges that changes can take place as a result of new 'cognitive tools' and 'technical instruments'. Likewise, the definition can deal with both past and future instances of literate practices, as it mentions the 'transformation in human thinking capacities' that literacy brings about. Given that literacies are altered by these cognitive tools and technical instruments, changes in the latter produce changes in the former. The metaphorical aspect of literacy is dealt with through its explanation that 'the concept of literacy is only meaningful in terms of its social context'. The 'cash value' of the definition could be seen to be a call to action due to literacy involving gaining 'access to cultural economic and political structures of society'.

Given the espoused practical aim of this thesis, however, it is not good enough for a definition of digital literacies to merely meet the four conditions in order to make it valid. It must also be useful. Is coming up with a meta definition from the research literature a useful approach? Or would, as I argue in Chapter 9, a better approach be to co-construct definitions with reference to the eight essential elements identified above? Before this, in Chapter 5, I introduce a continuum that helps the research area navigate the ambiguities inherent in metaphorical definitions of newer forms of literacies. Then, in Chapter 6 I go into more detail explaining and justifying the Pragmatic methodology employed in this thesis. I believe new literacies involve new ways of being and therefore require a new lens through which to conceptualise the concomitant practices. Chapter 7 explains what I have alluded to several times thus far around ‘umbrella terms’ in the research area whilst Chapter 8 considers the conceptual frameworks of McLuhan, Ong and Csikzentmihalyi. This leads into Chapter 9 in which the ‘eight essential elements of digital literacies’ I have derived in this chapter are explained in more depth and organized into a ‘matrix’.

Footnotes

  1. This is considered in more depth by Paxson (2004, p.vi), Sigafoos & Green (2007, p.29), Bazeli & Heintz (1997, p.4) and Kovalchik & Dawson (2004, p.602).
  2. This is similar to the concerns raised in Chapter 2 about the nature of ‘literacy’ in Norway.
  3. Quoted in Fieldhouse & Nicholas, 2008, p.52)
  4. Langlois (1997)
  5. See Fieldhouse & Nicholas, 2008, p.50
  6. See Muir & Oppenheim, 2001
  7. Quotes by Snavely & Cooper, 1997, p.10)
  8. See Bawden, 2008, p.22-23
  9. See Bawden, 2008, p.21
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