Digital Literacy is about power

Today, I keynoted the Annual Learning & Teaching Conference at Queens University Belfast. My title was the same as that of my ebook, The Essential Elements of Digital Literacies, but it included new and updated context.

You can find my slides here, and below:

Due to time constraints, I didn’t go into as much detail as I would have liked in the presentation about the relationship between literacy, and power. I want to rectify by adding a few thoughts in this post.

Every time we say someone is ‘literate’, we’re making a value judgement, and betraying a particular way of viewing the world. As we append literacy to all kinds of domains and use it in a metaphorical sense — health literacy, financial literacy, digital literacy — this becomes ever more problematic. We privilege certain types of knowledge, skills, and behaviours, and simultaneously (perhaps without realising it) deprecate others.

In Chapter 8 of my doctoral thesis I quoted Colin Lankshear and Michele Knobel as saying:

[D]uring the age of print the book… shaped conceptions of layout, it was the pinnacle of textual authority, and it played a central role in organizing practices and routines in major social institutions. The book mediated social relations of control and power… Textual forms and formats were relatively stable and were ‘policed’ to ensure conformity. (Lankshear & Knobel, 2006, p.52)

We like to think of technology as the great liberator and leveller, freeing us from the shackles of a less enlightened past. However, I’m not entirely use that’s the case. We remain locked in a scarcity model of literacy, “with literacy comprising a key instrumentality for unlocking advantage and status through achievements at levels wilfully preserved for the few” (Lankshear & Knobel, 2006, p.62).

What we need, as Martin Weller hinted at in A Pedagogy of Abundance (2011), is a post-scarcity model of literacy:

Many of our approaches to teaching and learning were developed in a different age, and this basic shift from moderate scarcity to excessive abundance constitutes a challenge to higher education, and to individual information processing abilities.

During the period that Walter Ong called the ‘Gutenberg Parenthesis’, texts were 'frozen’ or ‘captured’ in ways that freed them from their immediate context and origin of production, allowing them to exist independently of the human beings that constructed them. While you can refute an interlocutor, you can’t refute a book. Even a devastating line-by-line takedown of an argument in a book doesn’t lead to the destruction of the book. Printed matter is therefore a powerful weapon in the battle of ideas.

Recently, I’ve been reminded (through Sarah Bakewell’s excellent At the Existentialist Café), just how difficult it is to understand ideas when disconnected from the biography of the person who came up with them. The same is true of digital literacy frameworks that, like the Eye of Sauron in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings grasp at one ring, or definition, to rule them all.

As I know through my work with Jisc, Mozilla, and now as a consultant, it’s impossible to take a digital literacy framework and successfully apply it to a new context without re-interpretation. That’s for several reasons, which are best stated as rhetorical questions:

  1. Who got to decide on which digital literacy framework to use?
  2. In what context was the chosen framework initially devised?
  3. What does the framework privilege? What does it deprecate or ignore?
  4. Who gets to decide what ‘counts’ as an activity that falls within the boundaries of the framework?
  5. Does one form of digital literacy really cover all of the activities within your organisation? Will it distort existing practices?

It takes longer, is messier, and involves hard work, but coming up with a co-created approach of digital literacies (note the plural) is the only real way to get to sustainable and meaningful change. If your organisation is trying to do a digital literacy ‘to’ a group of people, it’s doing it wrong.

Comments? Questions? I’m @dajbelshaw on Twitter, or you can email me:


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