Chapter 7 - New Literacies

From The Never Ending Thesis
Jump to: navigation, search
Wordle of Chapter 7
“Men’s wit grows according as they encounter what is present.” (Empedocles)

One method for understanding the changing nature of what we understand as ‘literacy’ comes in the form of New Literacy Studies (NLS). In this chapter I track the emergence and evolution of NLS which, because of its focus on the social elements of ‘reading’ and ‘writing’, is potentially conducive to the Pragmatic method. I also analyse the fragmentation within this area, which runs to a deeper level than merely a fragmentation of research. I critique the reliance of researchers and theorists upon ‘umbrella terms’ and ‘micro-literacies’ in the frameworks and models they produce. Finally, using the work of JISC, a UK government-funded body, as a case study I argue that the work of such bodies, whilst not perfect, is important in the development of an understanding of new forms of literacy.[1]


New Literacy Studies

In the last two decades of the twentieth century an interdisciplinary group of academics including Brian Street, James Paul Gee and David Barton started to approach literacy from a sociocultural point of view. They continued to view literacy in a traditional way, as 'reading and writing', but looked to move away from defining it as a merely cognitive process. This became known as the New Literacy Studies:

The NLS opposed a traditional psychological approach to literacy. Such an approach viewed literacy as a "cognitive phenomenon" and defined it in terms of mental states and mental processing. The "ability to read" and "the ability to write" were treated as things people did inside their heads. The NLS instead saw literacy as something people did inside society. It argued that literacy was not primarily a mental phenomenon, but rather a sociocultural one. Literacy was a social and cultural achievement-it was about ways of participating in social and cultural groups-not just a mental achievement. Thus, literacy needed to be understood and studied in its full range of contexts-not just cognitive but social, cultural, historical, and institutional, as well. (Gee, 2010, p.10)

Literacy, therefore, was no longer a journey that a teacher could take a child upon to a predictable destination, but something that resulted from thought and an evolving understanding of the world. Literacy became, explicitly, a construct.

In fact, a plurality of literacies is necessary, NLS theorists argue, because texts can be read in different ways. The Bible, for example, can be read from a religious, historical or hermeneutic point of view meaning that literacy always involves 'apprenticeship' to a group. Being literate is always being literate for entry into a particular community or group:

Many different social and cultural practices incorporate literacy, so, too, there many different "literacies" (legal literacy, gamer literacy, country music literacy, academic literacy of many different types). People do not just read and write in general, they read and write specific sorts of "texts" in specific ways; these ways are determined by the values and practices of different social and cultural groups. (Gee, 2010, p.11)

Proponents of the NLS therefore do not consider literacy directly but always through the lens of organizations, institutions and groups. The 'manifesto' of NLS is a book edited by Cope and Kalantzis published in the year 2000 entitled Multiliteracies: Literacy Learning and the Design of Social Futures. Despite this, Gee, one of the contributors to the book believes that NLS 'never fully cohered as an area' (Gee, 2010, p.12).

Confusingly, NLS bred the New Literacies Studies which, instead of focusing on viewing literacy in a new way, investigated literacies beyond print literacy. To demarcate the two, Gee refers to New Literacies Studies as ‘New Media Literacies Studies’ (NMLS). As suggested by its name, the latter is particular interested the 'literacies' associated with media and popular culture:

The emphasis is not just on how people respond to media messages, but also on how they engage proactively in a media world where production, participation, social group formation, and high levels of nonprofessional expertise are prevalent. (Gee, 2010, p.19)

The NLS is part of a wider ‘social turn’ which shifted the focus away from individual minds towards social interactions. Proponents of NLS argue that literacy (i.e. ‘reading and writing’) is always for a purpose and therefore must be understood as operating within social and cultural contexts. The specific practices of literacies, taking place within specific contexts are known as ‘discourses’. Understanding literacy as operating within such discourses can lead to two different types of ‘new literacy’.

The first type of ‘new literacy’ comes through understanding what is ‘new’ as being the ‘digital’ element of literacy: examples of this include word processing and hypertext. Whilst the context (and therefore the discourse) may have changed, literacy still involves reading and writing text. In terms of the denotative and connotative elements of ‘literacy’ we explored in Chapter 5, this definition remains towards the denotative end of the spectrum.

The second type of ‘new literacy’, however, resides closer to the connotative end of the literacy spectrum. Here, ‘literacy’ remains ‘reading and writing’ but these elements are understood in a post-typographical and metaphorical way. In the same way as a footballer might be said to ‘read’ a game, so this second type of ‘new literacy’ employs a definition towards the connotative end of the literacy spectrum that embraces non-written methods of communication. Examples here include the type of ‘mash-ups’ prevalent on video-sharing websites such as YouTube where several audio and/or video streams are combined to create something new - often including memetic and other meta-level elements.

As Lankshear and Knobel (2006) have pointed out, educational practices within the realm of the first type of new literacy often fall into the trap of ‘old wine in new bottles’. Just because new contexts are being used through the use of new technologies does not mean that any form of ‘literacy’ is involved. For new discourses to be created both new contexts and new literacy practices are necessary. In other words, literacy is more than merely the mastery of procedural skills.

Literacy also confers some kind of status to a set of practices. For something to be a ‘literacy’ means that it is a socially-acceptable practice to be engaged in and, therefore, something with which an ‘educated’ person needs to be familiar. As with the Australian ‘literacy wars’ mentioned in Chapter 2, there is a tendency for educational institutions, conservative at the best of times, to focus on the denotative, procedural, and cognitive elements of literacy. The sop given to the ‘social turn’ of NLS is to use traditional literacy practices with new technologies: requiring students to ‘type up’ their essays, for example, or produce a PowerPoint presentation. These, however, fail to immerse and induct young people into the kind of ‘discourses’ that they encounter outside and beyond school, college and university. There is no ‘cognitive apprenticeship’ (Ghefaili, 2003) but merely a semblance, a veneer, of new literacy practices where older ones persist.

Fragmentation of research

Part of the reason that educational institutions have persisted in the ‘old wine in new bottles’ technique may be due to the research around literacy studies being extremely fragmentary. Some researchers and practitioners adhere to 'multiliteracies', some remain advocates of the NLS, whilst some are attempting to define NMLS under various different names. Some reject, or are unaware of, these categories altogether and continue to focus upon individual, cognitive definitions of literacy. This is complicated by the involvement of governments and big business in the landscape, as discussed in Chapter 2.

Given the “constantly changing practices through which people make traceable meanings” (Gillen & Barton 2009, p.1), the changing technologies upon which they are based, and the fluid nature of ‘Communities of Practice’ (Wenger, 1998) that often spring up within such discourses, it is difficult for researchers to devise universally-applicable frameworks. As Lankshear (2007) puts it, “Literacies can involve any kind of codification system that ‘captures’ language” but, in order to do so, must be “‘frozen’ or ‘captured’ in ways that free them from their immediate context of production so that they are ‘transportable’” (Lankshear, 2007, p.3). Such ‘freezing’ of dynamic and fluid discourses is necessary for the sake of encoding, but can mean that definitions, frameworks and models either age quickly or are so vague as to be meaningless.

In Chapter 4 I referenced one example of an attempted conceptual framework for digital literacy developed by Eshet-Alkalai (2004). This framework comprises:

As such, and as we will see later in this chapter, it is an example of using digital literacy as an ‘umbrella term’, considering both previously and newly-defined literacies as ‘micro-literacies’. However, as the author points out in a subsequent article (Aviram & Eshet-Alkalai, 2006), focusing on the individual skills necessary for the literacies comprising the over-arching ‘digital literacy’ is a naive, conservative strategy. Digital literacy, it is suggested, is more than the sum of its parts. The authors conclude that digital literacy involves a different mindset that will lead to a ‘clash of civilisations’ and a ‘forced choice for educational institutions.

Whilst it is difficult to see how Aviram and Eshet-Alkalai’s article ‘Towards a Theory of Digital Literacy’ (2006) fulfils the promise set out in its title, the opposite problem is true of other frameworks. As we saw in Chapter 5 some organisations, including Microsoft, have sought to operationalise the concept of digital literacy by focusing on the technology rather than meta-cognition. By focusing on basic procedural skills the critical dimension is almost entirely missing, making necessary the other ‘literacies’ to develop such notions of criticality.

Such frameworks are undoubtedly developed due to market demand for them: what is quantifiable will be quantified. There are those, for example, that believe that “without these data and analyses, we have no understanding of what is working and not working” (ICT Literacy Panel, 2002, p.11). Such frameworks produce “habits of thought and action” to understand the world that enable us “to be confident and more or less secure in our relation to the world and to others” (Phillips, 2000, p.11). In creating mental models we are, in a very real sense, shaping the world:

What is taken for granted as knowledge in the society comes to be coextensive with the knowable, or at any rate provides the framework within which anything not yet known will come to be known in the future. ... Knowledge about society is thus a realization in the double sense of the word, in the sense of apprehending the objectivated social reality, and in the sense of ongoingly producing this reality. (Berger & Luckmann, 2002, p.49-50)

‘Freezing’ literacy practices in order to put them into a framework, therefore, becomes problematic. Digital literacy is an evolving concept: the training and personal development necessary to become ‘digitally literate’ will therefore also evolve (Rosado & Bélisle, 2006). However, as Adams and Hamm point out ‘literacy’ has jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire, having previously been squeezed into an established framework of reading and writing but now “being almost synonymous with the word ‘competence’. Whilst competency in a given area does not require a level of criticality and reflexive practice, the use of the term ‘literacy’ would suggest that these are present.

Returning to frameworks such as Eshet-Alkalai’s shows that whilst it may be possible to produce neat diagrams of the ways in which elements of digital literacies fit together, they will not necessarily fit together in the same ways for everyone:

And, whilst it may be possible to produce lists of the components of digital literacy, and to show how they fit together, it is not sensible to suggest that one specific model of digital literacy will be appropriate for all people or, indeed, for one person over all their lifetime. Updating of understanding and competence will be necessary as individual circumstances change, and as changes in the digital information environment bring the need for new fresh understanding and new competencies; as Martin (2006a) puts it, digital literacy is "a condition, not a threshold”. (Bawden, 2008, p.28)

We use binary terms when dealing with competencies; someone is either ‘competent’ or ‘incompetent’. We are less likely to do so with literacies, recognising a continuum of literacy. This continuum is often then broken down into stages and used to recognise the ability of young people to read and write using traditional (print) literacy. The problem with transferring this approach to the world of new literacies is that it treats individuals as what the philosopher John Locke called a ‘tabula rasa’, a clean slate upon which can be imprinted knowledge and skills. Such functionalist definitions of literacy are problematic, as Holme (2004) explains:

The 'banking' concept of education treats the student as passive or as a cerebral vault in which the teacher simply deposits knowledge against the possibility of the student's future need. The student-teacher relationship implied by 'the banking concept' reflects the wider socio-economic and philosophical framework in which the teacher as banker must operate. A banking pedagogy is fatalistic, having a 'tamed' or domesticated view of the future (Freire 1992:101). This can be seen quite plainly in a functional model of literacy. A functional literacy derives its construction of what people will use literacy for from what people do with literacy now. Functionality commits students to a naive objectivism that 'banks' the future as a version of the present. (Holme, 2004, p.53)

The fragmentation, therefore, runs deeper than a fragmentation of research into new literacies: a fragmentation in approach, in mindsets, and in ethos is evident. Even if ‘criticality’ is seen as a necessary part of new literacies, there remains disagreement even as to what this means in practice (Sanford & Madill, 2007, p.288). Lankshear (2007) contrasts two dominant mindsets reminiscent of Aviram & Eshet-Alkalai’s ‘clash of civilisations’. Whilst ‘Mindset 1’ educators and researchers believe that “the world basically operates on physical/material and industrial principles and logics,” those he classes in ‘Mindset 2’ believe that “the world increasingly operates on non-material (e.g. cyberspatial) and post-industrial principles and logics” (Lankshear, 2007, p.6). Literacy becomes, therefore, a propaganda tool and a weapon of war.

Perhaps due to the fragmentation of research outlined earlier, many theorists seek to demarcate new forms of literacy. Once this has been done, they explain it in detail, and then assert its status as an over-arching literacy containing many sub- (or micro-) literacies. To borrow from Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings it is as if they claim ‘one literacy to rule them all’. Information literacy can been seen as one such super-literacy or 'umbrella term':

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

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

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

In this way theorists not only deal with the third condition outlined in an earlier chapter[2] but they can claim the credit of, at least partially solving the 'literacy problem.' The umbrella term in the late 1980s until the turn of the century tended to be ‘information literacy,’ now superseded by references to ‘media literacy’:

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

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

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

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

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

Fieldhouse and Nicholas (2008) also use the rather jaded dichotomy of 'digital natives' and 'digital immigrants', terms coined by Prensky (2001) as we saw in Chapter 5. The idea is that those who grow up with digital technologies 'speak the language' as a native. On the other hand, 'digital immigrants' betray their age and lack of experience by 'speak[ing] a language which reflects their experience of pre-digital life, by describing things as "digital" to differentiate between electronic and traditional versions' (Fieldhouse & Nicholas, 2008, p.60). However, whilst the dichotomies the authors use are interesting in helping frame the debate, they neither settle on one definition of digital literacy nor rescue the concept of being 'information savvy' from being an interesting colloquialism.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Again, no explanation is given as to how or why using the term 'information-related competencies' is useful in any way, apart from being a shorthand[3] for a number of arbitrary micro literacies deemed important by the author. If an umbrella term is to be employed there must a rationale for doing so. Instead of attempting to come up with an umbrella ('macro') term in which to retro-fit micro literacies, it seems to make more sense for theorists to use 'new literacies' as a shorthand. These ‘new literacies’ (uncapitalized) are not to be confused with the separate ‘New Media Literacies Studies’ (NMLS) emerging, as we have seen, from the previous ‘New Literacy Studies’ (NLS).

As Tyner states, separating out the multitude of literacies seems somewhat artificial as they overlap to such a great extent. Whilst they can be separated, this should only be done for positive purposes:

The need to set one literacy apart from another can only be explained by a need to use the concepts for other reasons, that is, to strengthen the professional status of its constituencies, or to take issue with the approaches used by proponents. (Tyner, 1998, p.104)

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

Interestingly, Martin (2008, p.156-7) lists the following as 'literacies of the digital,' hinting that his earlier (2006) thinking has evolved towards considering literacies as a kind of overlapping matrix:

Although he does not use the term 'matrix,' it seems clear that Martin has something like this in mind. If so, then the above list contains only a few of a potential Pandora's box of 'literacies.' With no-one as the gatekeeper as to what constitutes a 'literacy of the digital' a recursive problem occurs: there is nothing to stop a macro literacy, integrative literacy or a matrix of literacies from themselves being seen as part of a bigger picture. New literacies, as Reilly (1996, p.218) states, seem to be created as soon as a 'new texts' are invented or conceived. Martin needs to be explicit as to whether new forms of ‘text’ necessarily mean new forms of literacy. I attempt to solve this problem in Chapter 9 by melding this with a more Pragmatic approach informed by the work of McLuhan and Ong that considered in Chapter 8.

It is also unclear as to whether Martin sees these as being 'wholly' digital literacies or whether they have digital elements. If it is the former, then he would have to explain how, for example, 'communication literacy' differs in the digital and analogue domains. If it is the latter, Matin should explain which elements of these literacies do indeed count as 'digital'. I hope to solve these problems in Chapter 9 through a slightly different approach.

The kinds of debates illustrated above are examples of what I introduced in Chapter 5 as being within the realm of ‘Creative Ambiguity’. That is to say they involve a community discussing and debating terminology and issues. There comes a time, however, when even in an environment of flux some guidance and operationalisation of a term (and related concepts) is necessary. In the area of digital literacies this is a particularly difficult undertaking as codification and dissemination requires the choosing of a point at which to ‘freeze’ definitions and discussion. Although there is potential to later ‘unfreeze’ and ‘refreeze’, there is the danger that this does not occur and resources and discussions become out of date quickly. Given that this thesis aims to be practical rather than merely theoretical, in the next section I aim to critique a burgeoning area of work by JISC. Whilst still in its infancy, it serves as a useful case study for bridging the gap between Creative ambiguity and Productive ambiguity.

Example: JISC

JISC, the UK body funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), is beginning a programme of work in the area of Digital Literacies after preliminary work in 2009 on ‘Learning Literacies in a Digital Age’. I should note here that at the time of writing this thesis I am employed by JISC infoNet, a JISC-funded service through JISC Advance which (slightly ironically) is an ‘umbrella’ organisation for a range of sector-focused services. JISC has a great influence on the Higher Education sector (in particular) and Further Education sector in the UK, funding and supporting programmes of work and ‘inspiring innovation’.[4]

The work carried out by JISC so far in the area of digital and new literacies talks in terms of a spectrum of literacies, predicated upon an understanding of ‘learning literacies’:

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

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

Figure 7 - JISCs mapping of ICT skills to various new literacies

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

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

Figure 8 - JISC's mapping of digital literacies onto various contexts

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

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

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

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

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

The advantages of major players such as JISC in the UK and the MacArthur Foundation in the US becoming involved in the arena of digital literacies are that traction is gained and terms can become operationalised. The downside is that, unless care is taken and guidance given, a ‘freezing’ of debate leads to implementation without evolution. In the digital literacies arena this is a particularly serious problem because of the fragmentation of research upon which this operationalisation is based.

Summing up

In this chapter I have given an overview of New Literacy Studies (NLS) as well as New Literacies Studies (NMLS) demonstrating that, far from bringing some semblance of order to a fragmented landscape, they may indeed have added to the confusion. I have used the metaphor of an ‘umbrella term’ to conceptualise academics’ desire to subsume other forms of literacy beneath their favoured term. This, I suggest, prevents terms such as digital literacy entering into the ‘Productive ambiguity’ part of the continuum of ambiguities I outlined in Chapter 5.

Whilst there is some value in the work that goes on in the realm of Creative ambiguity, the case study at the end of this chapter shows that a major player taking up the cause can be a positive step forward. Whilst JISC’s work on digital literacies can be subjected to critique it is, nevertheless, a rallying cry to the UK Higher Education sector that something needs to be done around these issues. Despite this seeming move into the phase of Productive ambiguity, there remains a potential problem. Although institutions not part of the JISC-funded Digital Literacies programme may pick up the outputs from other institutions, there may be some that want something slightly more pragmatic. It is also arguable whether the work funded by JISC will cohere enough to meet the four criteria for a ‘literacy’ I set out in Chapter 3.


  1. I have purposely avoided inclusion of work by Henry Jenkins and related scholars such as John Seely Brown. Their conceptualisation of Digital Media Literacies appears to focus more on the distinctiveness of the ‘media’ element and less on that of the ‘digital’.
  2. The status of a particular literacy in relation to other metaphorical concepts.
  3. See, for example, Beavis (1998), Kress (2003), Lankshear & Knobel (2006)
  4. See for further information.
Personal tools
Thesis (latest version)