Chapter 10 - Conclusion
the beliefs of mortal men, listening to the deceitful ordering of my words.”
In this thesis I have focused upon the question of what constitutes ‘digital literacy’. Applying a Pragmatic methodology, I have outlined the difficulties and ambiguities of defining what constitutes digital literacy (Chapters 4 and 5). This is particularly tricky given the often-overlooked discrepancies and irregularities in defining what I have termed ‘traditional (print) literacy’ (Chapter 3). I have argued that a singular definition of digital literacy will necessarily be exclusionary as it would simultaneously enhance, reverse, retrieve and obsolesce other aspects (Chapter 8): to define something is to also define what it is not. A pluralistic, multi-faceted, contextualized and contingent definition of digital literacies allows McLuhan’s tetrads to be embraced rather than avoided.
I have also outlined, with supporting quotations from leading researchers in the field of digital and new literacies, the problem of static and psychological definitions of literacy. Literacy is a social construct and the process of exploring and defining literate practices is at least as important as the outcome, making a a Pragmatic methodology appropriate for this thesis (Chapter 3). The ten Pragmatist principles garnered from the theories of Pragmatist philosophers in Chapter 6 have guided the subsequent discussion. This is evident through the influence of the third principle (truth is dependent up on a community of inquirers), the seventh principle (any statement can be accommodated as ‘true’ by amending a belief system) and ninth principle (we ‘create’ rather than ‘discover’ truth) upon my discussion and analysis of the ‘umbrella terms’ and ‘micro literacies’ used by researchers in the field of new literacies (Chapter 7). Again, in Chapter 9, the matrix of essential elements of digital literacies I have proposed is guided by the second principle (dividing lines between theory and action are arbitrary), fifth principle (Pragmatism is a method of ‘un-thinking’ rather than providing an explicit framework), and eighth principle (knowledge is a matter of social practice rather than mirroring nature).
As I showed at the end of Chapter 9, applying ‘objective’ criteria that in an attempt to come up with an adequate, overarching, definition of digital literacy is inappropriate. Indeed, as evidenced by the discussion in Chapter 8, researchers and theorists need to make the case for why what they propose should be counted a ‘literacy’ at all. Much of what has been proposed by theorists could equally come under the heading ‘competence’ or ‘skill’. Many of the problems around digital and new literacies stem from two issues: attempting to retro-fit new socio-cultural practices into conceptions of ‘literacy’, and/or not adequately explaining to what the ‘digital’ or ‘new’ aspects pertain (Chapter 7).
There is, however, something else that needs to be addressed in the area demarcated as new literacies. This is perhaps best addressed through Ong’s notion of ‘secondary orality’ (Chapter 8) in which literacy is seen as much more wide-ranging than simply text (either on a screen or in print). The spectrum of ambiguities (Chapter 5) is useful here as a way of categorising different approaches to digital literacy and in the way it allows groups who co-define terms to target different audiences. Sometimes, for example, a definition may need to be situated in the realm of ‘Creative’ (rather than ‘Productive’) ambiguity in order to obtain buy-in from members of an educational institution or organization. Equally, if a vision statement is necessary, leaders of an organisation may actively seek definitions that could be placed in the ‘Generative’ or ‘Creative’ parts of the spectrum of ambiguities.
The co-construction of definitions by embracing various forms of ambiguity is, as I allude to in Chapter 9, a process that is at least as important as the outcome. It is the reason why applying off-the-shelf, ‘objective’ definitions of digital or new literacies is likely to ultimately lead to failure. Not only does top-down imposition make buy-in from other stakeholders less likely, but the definition is likely to either be so vague as to be meaningless, or so specific that it is irrelevant. Context is key.
However, to go too far the other way and say that subjective definitions of digital and new literacies are always and in all circumstances better than objective ones can lead to potentially unpalatable outcomes. As we saw in Chapter 6 with charges against Richard Rorty of ‘relativism’, subjective definitions can potentially lead to practitioners and researchers ‘talking past’ one another and using similar terms in vastly different ways. One way to avoid this would be to embrace Rorty’s idea of ‘ethnocentrism’. Another would be to use a common, but extremely flexible matrix such as that proposed in Chapter 9.
The matrix of elements for digital literacies is purposely situated in the ‘Creative’ part of the spectrum of ambiguity. This allows for contextualisation and acknowledges the fact that no definition can be completely unambiguous. The aim for those contextualising the elements in the matrix is to move the ambiguity towards the ‘Productive’ end of the spectrum of ambiguity so that the definition they come up with can do some work and be useful in practice. By foregrounding some elements, backgrounding others, and defining what is meant by not only digital literacies in their totality but the elements that constitute it, a core matrix can lead to an almost unlimited number of configurations. A common basis of the eight essential elements allows for core standards and a degree of commonality, whilst the flexibility of their configuration allows for contextualization.
As is traditional when rounding off a research project or extended piece of writing, I am going to propose that ‘further work needs to be done in this area’. In this case, however, it is more than a platitude. There is a burgeoning area of work around games-based learning led by academics such as James Paul Gee and, coupled with the research looking at the notion of ‘Flow’ discussed in Chapter 8 as it pertains to gaming, we need to perhaps completely re-assess whether to use the term ‘literacy’ at all. If we do use it, however, I would suggest that using the continuum of ambiguities presented in Chapter 5 is a useful way for researchers to help position and explain their theories and frameworks.
The aim of this thesis was to answer the question ‘What is digital literacy?’ My short answer to such a question would be that it is a ‘convenient hypocrisy’. By this I mean that it is a term used ambiguously (both consciously and unconsciously) by people with multitude of different backgrounds and intentions. However, given that it is a term that has entered common parlance, I would hope that this thesis clarifies at least three things. First of all, I have argued that speaking of a plurality of ‘digital literacies’ makes more sense than endless attempts to define ‘one literacy to rule them all’. Secondly, I have suggested the essential elements that should make up any contextualised and emergent definition of digital literacies. Finally, I have attempted to argue that the process of coming up with a definition of what constitutes ‘digital literacies’ is at least as important as the outcome of that process.
‘Truth,’ as Pragmatic philosophers from Peirce to Rorty have agreed upon, is conditional and dependent upon communities of inquirers. By focusing on what makes a practical difference, pointing out the necessarily ambiguous nature of concepts and frameworks, and stressing that definitions are temporary, I believe this thesis makes a valuable contribution to research into digital and new literacies. In particular, the matrix of essential elements to definitions of digital literacies outlined in Chapter 9 allows for contextualization and application in contexts from educational institutions to businesses and third sector organizations. In other words, using the term ‘digital literacies’ is a handy heuristic and, by using the tools I have proposed in this thesis, conceptual and self-referential problems can be avoided. Using the continuum of ambiguity and matrix of essential elements in tandem allows for strategic and rigorous use of outputs from the research literature without getting stuck in circular discussions about ‘umbrella terms’ and the applicability of third-party definitions to specific contexts.
To return to Steven Pinker’s words in the introductory chapter, “some categories really are social constructions: they exist only because people tacitly agree to act as if they exist" (Pinker, 2002, p.202). I believe literacy to be a useful human construct and the consideration of literacies in their plurality even more so. I hope to see the matrix of eight essential elements of digital literacies that I have proposed used to influence practice. As I have argued throughout this thesis, literacy is a condition, not a threshold. It is my desire, therefore, that my intellectual labours help in a practical, tangible and material way to improve other people’s conditions.
- ↑ Whilst input from every member of an organization would be preferable, it is often not possible for a variety of reasons. Educational institutions, for example, could seek to get around this problem by ensuring a cross-section of (enthusiastic) stakeholders were involved in the process.