Chapter 2 - New Forms of Literacy Worldwide

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Wordle of Chapter 1
“But if cattle and horses or lions had hands, or were able to draw with their hands and do the works that men can do,
horses would draw the forms of the gods like horses, and cattle like cattle, and they would make their bodies such as they each had themselves.”

Given that this is a non-empirical thesis aiming to be practically useful, a strong rationale for the enterprise needs to be given from the start. Not only, therefore, will the traditional literature review be spread across the opening chapters but, in addition to the research literature, it is important to see what is happening in practice around the world with digital and new literacies. This chapter, therefore, surveys the recent and current state of play with policies in various countries around the world, starting with the stimulus for most of this activity. Although we will find that the varying contexts make for differences in emphasis, there is a common core that makes possible my case for a ‘matrix of elements’ in the closing chapter.

My decision to include this chapter centres around my hope and desire for this to be a practical, useful thesis, as befits a professional doctorate. Problems around digital literacies are not dry, academic problems but real-world, everyday issues affecting individuals, organisations and communities worldwide. Before embarking on a project to find a better ways to deal with digital and new literacies I believe it is important to investigate the ways in which different countries and cultures have approached the problem. Whilst this is limited by my ability to read and write in one language reasonably well and another particularly badly<ref>I read and write French extremely badly. I have a desire to learn Spanish, especially given the enthusiastic reception of its native speakers to both my work in the digital/new literacies arena and Purpos/ed (see</ref> it is nevertheless more representative than focusing on my own narrow educational experiences.

The explosive growth in use of digital technologies for learning has left subject disciplines, government agencies and many practitioners with a problem. First, what do they call these new skills that are evidently required to function adequately in today’s society? Second, how can these new skills be taught? And third, who is best placed to deliver these skills? As I show, countries have dealt with these questions in different ways. In what follows we will briefly explore the history of ‘new literacies’ in selected countries, the current status of new literacies, the dominant form of new literacy (e.g. Media Literacy, Digital Literacy), and finally manifestations of new literacies in public bodies, pronouncements and policy documents.

The countries included in this overview have been chosen for the following reasons. Singapore has a history of investment in ICT within education since the end of the last century with English as one of their official languages. As an Asian country they provide a different perspective to that of the UK. Norway is seen internationally as a pioneer in the field of ‘digital literacy’ having built elements of it into the foundation of their school curricula. The European Union funds many initiatives including those relating to new literacies. These are referenced in UK and Norwegian literature and demonstrate some of the different ways in which new literacies are considered within Europe as a whole. Finally, the USA and Australia are considered as different contexts within which New Literacies are manifested in the English-speaking world.

The European Union

The European Union (EU) is an evolving meta-organisation of countries in an area which changes in size as new member countries are admitted. The European Commission (EC) represents the general interests of the EU and “is the driving force in proposing legislation (to Parliament and the Council) [and] administering and implementing EU policies”<ref></ref>. As such, it can be expected that a wide range of initiatives and groups are funded by the EC given the different contexts within the EU. Despite much equivocation in terms relating directly to what researchers deem ‘new literacies’ the EC has funded a coherent body of work on the concept of ‘e-competencies’. This is, for the most part, linked directly to lifelong learning (a favourite of the EC), ensuring equality of access (especially for women) and boosting skills relating to employability and the economy. Almost everything related to the creation and consumption of digital media is included within discussion of ‘Media Literacy’. This latter term includes input from many stakeholder groups, especially the UK Office for Communications (Ofcom).<ref></ref>

Digital literacy is seen mainly as a basic skill within the European context, despite EU-funded work as part of the DigEuLit project (2004-6)<ref>This work was originally available at but this domain is no longer active. Further details are available at</ref> including ‘innovation/creativity’ as the highest level of such a literacy:

Figure 1 - Levels of Digital Literacy

This research and synthesis, however, was carried out by academics operating within the wider international sphere of new literacies research. Europe’s Information Society Thematic Portal, on the other hand, talks of “ICTs affecting our lives every day” meaning that:

To participate and take advantage, citizens must be digitally literate - equipped with the skills to benefit from and participate in the Information Society. This includes both the ability to use new ICT tools and the media literacy skills to handle the flood of images, text and audiovisual content that constantly pour across the global networks. (Europe's Information Society Thematic Portal, 2007)

It is evident from the above definition that digital literacy and ICT literacy are considered to be one and the same thing. The text goes on to explain how digital literacy is part of the EC i2010 Strategy’s “emphasis on Inclusion, better public services and quality of life” but that “this is not just about Inclusion - ICT-related skills are vital for the competitiveness and innovation capability of the European economy.” For the EC, therefore, digital literacy is bound up with global economic competitiveness and closing what is often referred to as the ‘digital divide’. This treatment of digital literacy as an aid to social equality and economic competitiveness is exemplified in a blog post from 2010 by Neelie Kroes, Digital Agenda Commissioner:

I want to assure you that I take digital literacy seriously. Your background, current lack of skills and other factors like a disability should not be a permanent barrier to enjoying the benefits of the digital era. ... The core is obviously integrating digital competences more effectively into our education and training systems - so that digital literacy is seen as a part of literacy in general. (Kroes 2010)

This is the only post in which digital literacy is mentioned on the whole European Liberal Democrats blog and it is evident that, for Kroes, ‘digital literacy’ and ‘ICT literacy’ are one and the same thing. Kroes no doubt was informed by a 2008 ‘e-Inclusion Ministerial Conference & Expo’ in Vienna at which a ‘Digital Literacy European Commission Working Paper’ was presented along with ‘Recommendations from Digital Literacy High-Level Expert Group’ (EC 2008) This report considers digital literacy to be “the skills required to achieve digital competence, the confident and critical use of ICT for work, leisure, learning and communication” (p.4) but equivocates by equating digital literacy to ‘internet skills’ and ‘using a computer’ in places.

The EU’s low-level definition of digital literacy is backed up by the EC’s ‘Eurostat’ glossary which explains after giving the EC’s standard definition that:

Digital literacy is underpinned by basic technical use of computers and the Internet. To measure this, the Community Survey on ICT usage in households and by individuals asked if respondents had carried out six basic computer and six basic Internet activities. Those who had done 5 or 6 were classed as highly skilled, 3-4=medium; 1-2=low; those who had not carried out any of the activities, were considered as having no skills. (European Commission, no date)

In the European context, therefore, digital literacy is a poor cousin to the more dominant cousin of media literacy. Whilst definitions of digital literacy almost always include elements of criticality and reflection, project reports tend to instead emphasise and stress ‘e-inclusion’. Discussions around media literacy, for reasons explained in the next section on the UK, are more co-ordinated and focus much more on the critical and reflective elements of new literacies. The EC defines media literacy in the following way:

Media literacy is the ability to access the media, to understand and to critically evaluate different aspects of the media and media contents and to create communications in a variety of contexts. (EC Media Literacy Portal, no date)

Whilst this is again contextualised in terms of “active citizenship in today’s information society” there is, importantly, mention of individuals creating something in the definition. Instead of media literacy, like digital literacy, being about accessing other people’s content it is, at least partly, about creativity.

From 2000 to 2010 EC work towards both digital literacy and media literacy was framed by the Lisbon Strategy. This was almost universally recognised as a failure. In fact, progress was so poor by 2004 that a report stated that the “disappointing delivery is due to an overloaded agenda, poor coordination and conflicting priorities” with a key issue being “the lack of determined political action” (Kok 2004, p.6). As we will see in the UK section, this has meant that work around digital literacy has suffered, whilst organisations and pressure groups have taken up the banner of media literacy.

The Lisbon Strategy i2010 was relaunched in 2005 with a package of policies called i2010 which was aimed at “harnessing the potential of ICT to drive innovation and productivity in Europe”. The increasingly target-driven strategies meant that ‘soft’ skills such as new literacies became less of a priority. From 2008 and the economic crisis onwards, this became even more apparent. However, a new 10-year strategy, Europe 2020<ref></ref>, was launched in 2010. Focusing almost exclusively on sustainability and growth, it mentions digital literacy only once and even then only in relation to ‘increasing access’ (European Commission 2010). This, coupled with another failure to ensure binding agreements looks set to doom this strategy to the same fate as the Lisbon Strategy of 2000.

The United Kingdom

The UK, despite its semi-detached position, necessarily has a symbiotic relationship with EU policy as an EU member state. Whilst pockets of discussion about ‘digital literacy’ exist both in official reports and online, the main focus around new forms of literacy in the UK is upon ‘media literacy’. Initiatives in this area include bodies such as the BBC, Ofcom, UK Film and the British Library. Bodies such as Futurelab<ref></ref> mention digital literacy often in their publications but, as is the issue with all such externally-funded bodies, the money tends to follow echoes of government pronouncements and policies.

Following the Digital Britain report (DCMS & BIS, 2009) the aim of the UK government was to promote ‘digital participation’. The follow-up plan was to encompass ‘three distinct but interdependent strands’: digital inclusion, digital life skills, and digital media literacy – with the latter defined as “the ability to use, understand and create digital media and communications” (DCMS & BIS, 2010). However, the National Plan for Digital Participation was ill-fated, launching only a few months before a General Election saw a change of government. The Digital Participation website<ref></ref>, set up alongside the National Plan, now states:

As part of the major review of public expenditure, the Government has re-scoped the digital participation programme. The limited funding which is now available will be focused on supporting the activities to encourage people to go online and led by the UK Digital Champion, Martha Lane Fox.

The institutions mentioned above have staked their claim in the arena of new literacies. Media literacy, the promotion of which since 2003 has been the responsibility of the Office of Communications (Ofcom) is considered separately from ‘digital participation’. The latter, more narrowly defined since the advent of a Conservative-Liberal coalition government, is concerned with connecting all homes with broadband by 2012. The Race Online 2012 website<ref></ref> sets out a manifesto with two key aims, “no one should retire without web skills” and “everyone of working age should be online”. Curiously, the ‘manifesto’ makes no commitments by the government, rather seeking to ‘challenge’ individuals and organisations in the UK to meet these targets. Some may call this empty rhetoric as no firm plans, funding or milestone targets have been put in place by which the government can be held to account.

Evidence of the UK government’s low-level basic skills definition of ‘digital literacy’ can be found in the pronouncement within the Race Online 2012 manifesto:

Digital literacy is a great enabler of social mobility. It is a way for those who have had bad experiences of institutions to re-engage in learning. And it can break down feelings of social isolation. It is a powerful weapon in the fight against poverty. (Rt. Hon. Iain Duncan Smith, Secretary of State, Department of Work and Pensions)

‘Using a computer connected to the internet’ and ‘digital literacy’ are seen as synonymous not only in this manifesto, but in wider publications by the government. The critical element of literacies of the digital is served by discussion of ‘media literacy’ with ‘digital literacy’ reserved for basic skills:

‘Get Digital’ will work with residents, scheme staff, RSLs and the wider community including local schools, as well as DWP, to promote, deliver and sustain digital literacy skills for older residents in sheltered housing. (DCMS & BIS, 2010, p.43)

In 2004, after a Communications Bill that would lead to Ofcom, the UK Film Council and Channel 4 organised a seminar entitled Inform and Empower: Media Literacy in the 21st Century. This seminar, attended by two hundred delegates including representatives from the BBC, the British Film Institute, “government, Ofcom, industry, education, [and] media arts organisations” (UK Film Council, 2004, p.2), was addressed by the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. Whilst the introduction by the Chair of the UK Film Council espouses a standard definition of media literacy (“learn[ing] about the power and influence of moving images” – UK Film Council 2004, p.3) the report of the Secretary of State’s address shows signs of the basic skills definition the UK government later settled upon implicitly for ‘digital literacy’: “It is the content delivered to people that matters” (UK Film Council 2004, p.8).

This seminar led to the creation of a Media Literacy Task Force (MLTF) with membership comprising the BBC, the British Board of Film Classification, the British Film Institute, Channel 4, ITV, the Media Education Association, the UK Film Council and Skillset. The MLTF came up with the following wide-ranging definition of media literacy:

A media literate society is… not a luxury, it is a necessity in the 21st Century – for social, economic, cultural and political reasons – as we try to make sense of a sea of Reality TV, iPod downloads and streaming video on the Internet.

This is what encouraging media literacy is really all about: giving people the choice to communicate, create and participate fully in today’s fast-moving world. And this will help create a society in which everyone is enfranchised – whatever their economic, social and ethnic background – and in which the UK’s creative and knowledge economies are able to draw upon the widest possible bank of creators and producers.”<ref></ref>

It is arguably this all-encompassing, ‘umbrella’ definition of media literacy and its subsequent formalisation and dissemination through the form of a charter that has marginalised the kind of ‘digital literacy’ initiatives seen elsewhere in the world. The MLTF, disbanded as of December 2009, promulgated the charter to other EU member countries with Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Portugal, Spain, and Sweden also becoming signatories to the identical European Charter for Media Literacy.

Given that the MLTF no longer exists and digital literacy in anything other than a ‘basic skills’ sense is not currently part of the UK government’s financially-crippled ‘digital participation’ plan, it is difficult to see from where the critical element of new literacies will come. Whilst, as we will see in Chapter 7, some work by JISC<ref>JISC originally stood for the ‘Joint Information Systems Committee’ but now stands alone as the name of the organization.</ref> and others has pointed the way in the educational sphere, the momentum, interest and willingness of other nations who have embraced digital literacy is lacking. Initiatives, reports and resources such as Film: 21st Century Literacy<ref></ref> by the UK Film Council have meant that the room for discussion about digital literacy, and its relation to media literacy, remains limited.


Norway is often held up as an example of how to integrate digital literacy into a nationwide school curriculum. A four-year programme from 2004 to 2008 was sponsored by the Norwegian government, aiming to provide ‘Digital literacy for all’ (Kunnskapsdepartementet, no date). Investment in infrastructure and a focus on using ICT in learning activities was underpinned with a mission to enable Norwegians to use ICT to be ‘wealth creators’. Norway’s focus on digital literacy, therefore, as with the wider EU focus, was upon inclusivity and employability. An educational reform known as The Knowledge Promotion led to digital literacy being given ‘important and historical status’ in the Norwegian national curriculum. It became the ‘fifth basic competence’ along with reading, writing, arithmetic and oral skills, being mandatory in every subject at every level of compulsory schooling. Norwegian, however, does not use the word ‘literacy’ in the same way as it is used English, meaning that ‘competence’ and ‘literacy’ are used almost interchangeably.

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

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

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

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

The second and third points - that digital literacy is not a ‘fixed’ attribute, and that not everything worth measuring can be measured - are particularly important to take into account given that Norway is viewed as a world leader in the integration of digital literacy into curricula. Discourse around digital literacy in Norway has evolved to reflect the state of play in the EC. Digital literacy and digital competence are terms that are used interchangeably, with media literacy becoming an increasingly-dominant term with reference to critical skills. This, despite the White Paper used to outline the Norwegian curriculum framework defining digital literacy as “the sum of simple ICT skills… and more advanced skills that makes creative and critical use of digital tools and media possible” (Erstad 2007, p.3). However, the difficulty of translating the Norwegian term ‘kompetanse’ means that the term is translated variously even in official documents. The 2005 policy document eNorway 2009: the digital leap, for example, talks of ‘digital skills’:

Digital skills include the ability to exploit the opportunities offered by ICT, and use them critically and innovatively in education and work. Digital skills also include the ability to be critical to sources and assess content. Use of digital tools is a skill the individual must acquire, maintain and continually develop, if he or she is to be a digitally skilled and critical citizen. (Norwegian Ministry of Modernisation 2009, p.8)

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

In order to tease out the complexities involved in digital literacy, the quarterly Nordic Journal of Digital Literacy<ref> </ref> was set up in 2006. It has attracted some of the biggest names in new literacies research as contributors, accepting contributions in English as well as Norwegian. Interestingly, and rather inevitably, the journal has moved from having a narrow focus on digital literacy to a more wide-ranging focus on new literacies. There is little evidence, however, that such research is any more than a one-way process with empirical evidence coming either from the bi-annual ITU Monitor report mentioned above or from researchers’ own classrooms.

In Chapter 8, I explore the concept of ‘umbrella terms’. In Norway (and in Europe more generally) it is media literacy that is the dominant umbrella term with other new literacies relegated, again, as I explain in Chapter 8, to ‘micro literacies’. Erstad explains why he prefers the term ‘media literacy’:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Education in Singapore is often cited as ‘world-class’, largely due to Singaporean students’ consistent high performance in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).<ref></ref> These tests have been carried out every three years since the year 2000 and are administered to several thousand students per country near the end of compulsory education. PISA assesses reading, as well as mathematical and scientific ‘literacy’ and problem-solving. The OECD claims that the skills tested in PISA are those required in adult life. Dissenting voices point out that those countries at the top of the PISA league table are only fractionally ‘ahead’ of other countries, and also tend to be largely homogenous countries. Hong Kong, having a different political system to China, is effectively a country in its own right and, along with Finland and Singapore, is relatively small geographically.

Other important considerations about Singapore by way of context are that it became an independent country as late as the 1960s, English is used as the primary language of instruction in schools, and corruption is low (Transparency International, 2009) whilst censorship is relatively high (Press Freedom Index, 2010). A picture of a conformist culture placing a large emphasis on high-stakes testing emerges, as is evidenced by one Singaporean in her twenties reflecting on her experiences:

Success in Singapore revolves around exams, good grades, and certificates. In other words, getting the right paper qualification… Singaporeans are obsessed with exams because they want good grades. They want good grades because those are essential if you want to go to a famous university. (Tan, 1998)

In this standards-based, heavily-pressured educational culture - a society where, anecdotally, painkillers are stocked alongside exam-preparation books (Bracey, 2008) - it is unsurprising to find the dominant ‘new literacy’ to be Media Literacy. In addition, much of the available research literature into new literacies comes from, or through the lens of, Singapore’s National Institute of Education. One such example comes in Tan, Bopry & Guo (2010) who ostensibly focus on ‘new literacies’ but deal almost entirely on the decoding of visual media.

Another driving force in a country as economically competitive as Singapore is productivity. The launch of the International Computer Driving License (ICDL) in Singapore in 2010 mentioned explicitly the aim to encourage foreign investment and “a growth in the national economy through higher productivity and a higher standard of living across Singapore” (ECDL, 2010). Such economic goals are evident in the top-down ‘Masterplans for ICT in Education’, the third of which runs 2009-2014. One of the four stated ‘broad aims’ of this Third Masterplan includes the desire to ‘develop competencies for the 21st century’ (Singapore Ministry of Education, 2008a). These, however, are closely tied to mention of the ability of Singapore to ‘position [themselves] better as a global trading hub,’ to ‘train [their] soldiers in combat,’ and investment in high-speed communications to create ‘new opportunities for [their] economy, government and society’ (Singapore Ministry of Education, 2008b).

An interesting tension is evident in Singaporean educational policy between the desire to conform with the more liberal west and the drive for efficiency and productivity. On the one hand, therefore, the need to use ICT ‘critically’ and develop skills of analysis are mentioned, swiftly followed by mention that “school autonomy can lead to less efficiency” (Singapore Ministry of Education, 2008b). The procedural elements of new literacies are to the fore with mention of the use of ICT to help develop ‘competencies to be able to discriminate information require technology literacy, higher-order thinking skills and even life and collaboration skills’ (Singapore Ministry of Education, 2008b). These are to be developed in staff as well as students, but to save ‘re-inventing the wheel’ grassroots approaches are discouraged in favour of ‘educational labs, where innovations can be prototyped and tested’ (Singapore Ministry of Education, 2008b). The aim of this is to ‘equip the next generation with skills and competencies to succeed’ in the never-actually-defined ‘knowledge economy’ (Singapore Ministry of Education, 2008b).

Media Literacy is the dominant new literacy in Singapore and this is evident through ongoing research in the country. It is an ‘umbrella term’ (see Chapter 8) through which other literacies such as ‘technology literacy’ and ‘information literacy’ are understood. Digital literacy, meanwhile is understood as ‘Digital Curricular Literacies’ (DCL), used as shorthand for the contextualisation of ICT in school-based learning. In practice (NIE, 2003-6) this tends to be on the level of what Puentadura’s (2010) useful SAMR model identifies as ‘Substitution’ or ‘Augmentation’ rather than the higher-order aims of ‘Modification’ or ‘Revolutionary’ use of educational technology. Indeed, even current research (NIE, 2009-12) aims to ‘contribute to the new media literacy research by developing and validating a survey instrument to measure students’ new media literacy’. This focus on quantitative measures is indicative of Singapore’s approach to technology as well as associated competencies and literacies.

Given the focus on Media Literacy and the tight integration of government departments and policies, it is appropriate to look at the Singapore Media Development Authority’s definition of the term:

Media literacy refers to the ability to critically assess information that is received daily via different media platforms. When a person is media literate, he would be able to read, analyse and interpret messages, regardless of whether he is using media to gain information, for entertainment or for educational purposes. (Singapore MDA, no date)

This is equated with a ‘media-savvy population’ that has the ACE attribution of Awareness, Competency and Engagement. This approach to new literacies is rather passive and based upon a consumption model of literacy. Other definitions of digital literacies mention explicitly the importance of being able to create media rather than simply access and critically reflect upon it. Although lip service is paid to new literacies by the Singapore Ministry of Education, the focus is, in effect, on accessing and critically reflecting upon given information.


Whilst there is evidence that Australian educational policy is influenced by outputs from the UK, Europe and the USA, it would be wrong to dismiss it as solely derivative. Australia, in fact, has a much more coherent set of policies and strategies relating to new forms of literacy than many other countries.

The dominant form of New Literacy in Australia is ‘Digital Media Literacy’, enshrined in policy documents, strategies and educational frameworks. However, as the Australian Communications and Media Authority’s (ACMA) Digital Media Literacy in Australia: Key Indicators and Research Sources document points out, there are many and varied definitions of ‘Digital Media Literacy’. Whilst referencing Ofcom’s (UK) definition - “the ability to use, understand and create digital media and communications” - the ACMA settle upon “the skills and capabilities needed for effective participation in the digital economy” (ACMA, 2009, p.8).

Importantly, resources relating to Digital Media Literacy in Australia are collated, easy-to-find, and demonstrate some coherence of approach.<ref></ref> This is possibly due to the structure of government departments: Australia has a Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy. Interestingly, the focus on the ‘digital economy’ is a result of “a unique opportunity to shrink the distances that have historically dominated our domestic and international relationships” (DBCDE, 2009), using as an example the “remote specialist diagnosis of patients” so important in a land as expansive as Australia. There is a growing awareness in Australia of the difference between the so-called ‘digital divide’ (which focuses on access to hardware) and the ‘digital use divide’ (or ‘participation gap’) which involves the Digital Media Literacies necessary for 21st century citizenship.

A 2009 report entitled Australia’s Digital Economy: Future Directions highlights Digital Media Literacy alongside other issues such as ‘Consumer Digital Confidence’ in a section focusing on the successful elements of a digital economy. The three main partners in building such a digital economy are seen as the government, industry and ‘community’ with Digital Media Literacy included in the latter section. Being a government document, however, it focuses chiefly upon the economy and social cohesion:

Digital media literacy ensures that all Australians are able to enjoy the benefits of the digital economy: it promotes opportunities for social inclusion, creative expression, innovation, collaboration and employment. People in regional, rural and remote areas can also have improved access to these opportunities. Digital media literacy gives children the capability to effectively learn online; consumers the confidence to search for information and transact online; and businesses the ability to become more efficient and compete in a global marketplace. (DBCDE, 2009)

The seeming Australia-wide agreement on Digital Media Literacy as the accepted form of New Literacies is explained in part by Gibson (2008). He gives an overview of the recent ‘literacy wars’ in Australia, quoting Ilyana Snyder on how the press and professional journals keep alive the debates between conservatives and progressives (Snyder, 2008). Literacy is an even ‘hotter’ political issue in Australia than other countries. The battleground over different forms and manifestations of traditional (print) literacy allows, suggests Gibson, Digital Media Literacy to show “some promise of a revival of educational optimism” (Gibson, 2008, p.74). He sees Digital Media Literacy as a way to transcend entrenched positions, for:

When my critical or media literacy can be your illiteracy, the concept has become emptied of definite meaning. While literacy is still central to most notions of education, it is increasingly unclear what exactly we mean by it. (Gibson, 2008, p.75)

This ‘conceptual fuzziness’ stems from a shift in the media by and with which we read and write - and also by what we mean by ‘reading’ and ‘writing’ in the first place. This will be explored more fully in Chapter 3, but in the Australian context Gibson indicates that agreement over Digital Media Literacy provides a welcome respite from argument and debate over traditional (print) literacy. The operationalising of Digital Media Literacy has led to initiatives such as the Digital Education Revolution<ref></ref> in New South Wales. The aim is for elements of Digital Media Literacy to be taught across the curriculum. This means, for example, in that in English lessons, the students work towards a unit entitled ‘When machines go bad…’ where they “examine and explore their own humanity in terms of their relationship with, and dependency on technology” (Digital Education Revolution, no date). Other modules deal with the creation of new media such as podcasts and using a collaborative online whiteboard.

As would be expected, libraries and librarians in Australia have a history of attempting to develop Information Literacy. Definitions of Information Literacy are influenced from work carried out in the USA by the American Library Association:

Information literacy is a set of abilities requiring individuals to "recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information”. (ACRL)

This definition was adopted in 2000 at the Council of Australian University Librarians in Canberra, revised slightly in 2001, with an Information Literacy Framework (Bundy, 2004) developed in 2004 by the Australian and New Zealand Institute for Information Literacy (ANZIIL). The latter organisation, however, no longer seems to be active, with the ‘Information Literacy policy’ of universities such as the University of Sydney referencing 10 year-old standards and documents. Either Information Literacy is so entrenched that it no longer needs developing or, as is more likely the case, the zeitgeist has been captured by Digital Media Literacy.


The United States of America (USA) is a large and diverse country. Its approach to New Literacies reflects this, with work carrying on apace in almost every area. In a similar vein to the ‘literacy wars’ in Australia taking up most of the space for debate, so in the USA almost everything relating to schools has been framed in the past decade by the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). This was signed in 2001 by then-President George W. Bush and, ostensibly, aimed at setting high standards increasing the number of measurable outcomes for schools. These outcomes are tied to funding. There have been many outspoken criticisms of NCLB and, indeed, President Obama announced in early 2011 that NCLB will be replaced (Obama, 2011). Chapter C Part D of the NCLB Act is entitled ‘Enhancing Education Through Technology’ (EETT) and has as its primary goal improving student achievement through the use of technology. A secondary goal is:

To assist every student in crossing the digital divide by ensuring that every student is technologically literate by the time the student finishes the eighth grade, regardless of the student's race, ethnicity, gender, family income, geographic location, or disability. (US Department of Education, 2001)

What is meant by ‘digital divide’ is not made explicit nor what it would mean for students to be ‘technologically literate’. Given the federal nature of the USA, some states have different policies relating to technology than others. More forward-thinking states such as California have drafted policies dealing explicitly with New Literacies, citing the European Union as a “leader in digital literacy” (CETF, 2008, p.11). California’s ICT Digital Literacy Framework defines ICT Literacy as:

using digital technology, communications tools and/or networks, to access, manage, integrate, evaluate, create and communicate information in order to function in a knowledge society. (CETF, 2008, p.5)

The verbs from ‘access’ through to ‘communicate’ form a kind of taxonomy which, the authors of the framework claim, is common to existing national and international frameworks. What the Californian framework certainly does have in common with other countries is a focus upon competition and the economy. The role of individuals in a ‘21st century citizenry’ for example is to “Apply digital literacy skills to access health, e-government, banking and to support healthy environment [sic]” (CETF, 2008, p.14).

Due to the federal nature of the education system in the USA there are many and varied definitions of New Literacies. President Obama, for example, proclaimed October 2009 to be ‘National Information Literacy Awareness Month’ beginning his proclamation with these words:

Every day, we are inundated with vast amounts of information. A 24-hour news cycle and thousands of global television and radio networks, coupled with an immense array of online resources, have challenged our long-held perceptions of information management. Rather than merely possessing data, we must also learn the skills necessary to acquire, collate, and evaluate information for any situation. This new type of literacy also requires competency with communication technologies, including computers and mobile devices that can help in our day-to-day decision making. National Information Literacy Awareness Month highlights the need for all Americans to be adept in the skills necessary to effectively navigate the Information Age. (Obama, 2009)

It is clear from this statement that the higher echelons for educational policy-making in the USA believe the use of technology to be only part of a wider ‘information literacy’. In light of the fact that that Professor Henry Jenkins, John Seeley Brown and other well-known educators and thinkers in the USA are increasingly focusing upon Digital (Media) Literacy, there is seemingly a disconnect between research, practice and policy.

Given this vacuum at the national policy level, individuals, groups, and organisations have stepped in to promote various visions of New Literacies. Marc Prensky, promoter of the digital natives/immigrant dichotomy and whose work I discuss in Chapter 5, has claimed that ‘Programming is the New Literacy’ (Prensky, 2008)<ref>Prensky does not make clear whether he sees programming as the equivalent of ‘writing’ or ‘making pencils’. If it is the former, then it is a high standard for ‘literacy’ and, if the latter, then not necessary for ‘literacy’.</ref> whilst the Partnership for 21st Century Skills is a corporate initiative from organisations such as AOL, Cisco, Microsoft and Apple, in partnership with the US Department of Education.

The Partnership for 21st Century Skills has representatives of everyone from Lego to the American Association of School Librarians on its Strategic Council and sees its mission as serving as “a catalyst to position 21st century readiness at the center of US K12 education by building collaborative partnerships among education, business, community and government leaders” (Partnership for 21st Century Skills, 2004). Importantly, the Partnership has ascertained each state’s 21st century ‘readiness’ as well as putting together a cohesive framework, including information literacy, media literacy and ICT literacy, for adoption by educational institutions. However, they also talk of ‘health literacy,’ ‘financial literacy’ and even ‘entrepreneurial literacy’ - without defining any of these terms. It is clear that these terms are being used within a wide context of their ‘four Cs’ of “critical thinking and problem solving; communication, collaboration; and creativity and innovation” (Partnership for 21st Century Skills, 2004).

The confusing landscape and the lack of a clear ‘steer’ from national government on new literacies means that states have sought to define their own curricula and assessment tools. New York City’s (NYC) Education Department, for example, have taken the American Association of School Librarians’ Standards for the 21st Century Learner (AASL, no date) and developed it into an ‘Information Fluency Continuum’. This defines the information literacy standards that students should develop by Grades 2, 5, 8 and 12 and are coupled with information literacy benchmark skills assessments for each Grade level.

Due to the standards-based, testing culture in US schools, NYC’s approach is understandable. They have adopted the publication of an authoritative body who, in turn, have reacted to an environment created by US educational policy in the wake of NCLB. Such an environment stresses the importance of being ‘information literate’ and focuses on the traditional basics but, perhaps, at the expense of a cohesive programme for new forms of literacy. In the latter stages of writing this thesis, a new web portal<ref></ref> has been launched in the US. Whilst it is too early to evaluate its impact, the most frequently used resource according to the front page of the website is ‘Mouse Tutorial: learn how to use a computer mouse’. This suggests that functional skills are the main focus. The ‘About Us’ page uses the rhetoric of employability and economic competitiveness, stating that ‘the ability to navigate the Internet is critical to participate more fully in the economy.’ Due to the backing of the Obama administration and major players (including government departments) it would seem inevitable that the landscape in the US will become polarised between digital literacy as basic, functional skills and information literacy as including (some) notions of criticality.

Summing up

From these brief overviews of the state of New Literacies in different territories around the world, three things become clear. First, there is not one defined version of new literacies that is dominant everywhere around the world. The work done in Europe on Media Literacy seems to be well-regarded in the English-speaking world, although this is always given a contextual twist. Australia, for example, espouses Digital Media Literacy yet the preceding ‘literacy wars’ changed the reference points and terms of debate.

Secondly, new literacies seemsto be less about pedagogy and educational outcomes and more about individual nations’ internal social cohesion and external competition. This internal social cohesion is often labelled ‘citizenship’ and usually closely linked to drives for ‘efficiency’ (for example in Singapore) or ‘economic competitiveness’ (Europe and Australia). Whilst, as we will see in Chapter 6, definitions need to be ‘good in the way of belief’ for communities residing within specific contexts, it is striking to what extent the definitions are top-down impositions by governments in consultation with big business.

This drive for economic competition and positioning in a new world order - or, more often ‘Knowledge Society’ - explains the involvement of big business in the framing of policy. As one Australian pressure group wondered when hearing about media literacy initiatives in Europe, “is a push for Media Literacy an excuse to avoid marketing regulation?” (Junkbusters, no date). The emphasis on Media Literacy in Europe, an area of more strict regulation than many other places in the world, would suggest so. Companies certainly seem to be falling over themselves to be ‘corporately responsible’ in the arena of new literacies and 21st Century Skills. It would appear that (understandably) they are more interested in market share than pedagogy and development.

Whilst there have been attempts at worldwide definitions of ‘Digital Literacy’ (see I3, 2003 for example) they have, too often, depended upon assessments that are outdated as soon as they are drafted. Tornero (2004) bemoaned the narrow focus on technology along with the proliferation of terms:

Various expressions are used that transmit the same idea with slight differences in meaning: “information literacy”, “literacy in information and communication technologies (ICT)”, “media literacy”, “network literacy”, “media education”, “education in communication” to name but a few. (Tornero, 2004a, p.40)

Tornero saw ‘education in communication’ as being the most “all-embracing” whilst the term ‘media education’ is narrower. “In both cases,” continued Tornero, “the educational dimension is mentioned in quite general terms. It lacks the specific nuances we might find in other expressions, which… do indeed include the concept of “literacy” (Tornero, 2004a, p.40). The terms that are used do matter as the process “entails signalling and placing emphasis on some components of the process you are trying to describe, whilst running the risk of not paying enough attention to others” (Tornero, 2004a, p.40-1). The problem is the tension between the nuance available in research papers and the level of detail required for policy documents and action. As I will argue in Chapter 9, one way around this problem is to cultivate a similar ‘habit of mind’ for individuals within an organisation or institution by co-creating definitions of digital literacies.

In 2006 David Buckingham attempted to finish what Tornero started in an article entitled ‘Defining digital literacy - What do young people need to know about digital media?’ (Buckingham, 2006). Buckingham questioned the “proliferation of literacies” which he saw as fashionable rather than justified:

The term «literacy» clearly carries a degree of social status; and to use it in connection with other, lower status forms such as television, or in relation to newer media, is thus to make an implicit claim for the latter’s validity as objects of study. Yet as uses of the term multiply, the polemical value of such a claim – and its power to convince – is bound to decline. (Buckingham, 2006, p.265)

Most definitions of Digital Literacy, believes Buckingham, are overly-focused on information rather than the wider cultural uses of digital (usually online) resources - especially by young people:

There is little recognition here of the symbolic or persuasive aspects of digital media, of the emotional dimensions of our uses and interpretations of these media, or indeed of aspects of digital media that exceed mere «information». (Buckingham, 2006, p.266)

It is this lack of understanding by governments and policy-makers of new literacies, and of Digital Literacy in particular, that leads to a proliferation of terms and the confusion of the arena.

Now that I have illustrated how the new literacies landscape around the world can be seen as largely fragmented, dominated by politics and context-dependent, it is perhaps time to begin to seek a way to move things further forward at a greater pace. There is a real need for rigorous yet practical guidance from researchers. I hope to provide this in Chapter 9 through a matrix of digital literacies but, before doing so, have an important journey to undertake which begins in the next chapter. Chapter 3 demonstrates that the problem is not only with the ‘new’ or ‘digital’ part of ‘literacy’ but, to a great extent, a legacy of traditional (print) literacy being a surprisingly slippery term. Once we have a handle on what we are talking about when we are talking about ‘literacy’ then we can begin to look at more metaphorical ways of approaching the term (Chapter 4).


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