Digital Literacy: why? (a reply to Tim Klapdor)

Tim Klapdor directed my attention a post he’d written entitled Question about Digital Literacy: How?

In it, Tim wonders out loud:

I’m keenly interested in the topic of Digital Literacy as it seems to overlap so much of my professional practice. One observation I’ve had is that while a lot has been written to define digital literacies and the need to develop them – there seems to be a lack of constructive information about how they are actually developed. What do we teach and need to learn to develop these digital literacies? In essence – how we become “digital literate”?

This, on the face of it, seems like a reasonable question to ask. If we can be ‘literate’ in a traditional sense, then why not in a digital sense? And if we can be digitally literate, how does one go about doing it?

I spent many years grappling with this question while writing my doctoral thesis. You can find that thesis online: What is digital literacy: a Pragmatic investigation. I approached the question of what constitutes digital literacy from a similar angle to William James. In other words is the belief in, and use of, the term ‘digital literacy’ good in the way of belief? Does it lead to productive outcomes?

The trouble is that the answers I’ve got to questions like Tim’s aren’t the type that people want to hear. People don’t like being answered with a question - and one I’ve got here would be why do you want to use the term ‘digital literacy’?

Let’s look at the specific questions Tim asks in his blog post:

I keep coming back to traditional literacy (the reading and writing variety) – as something that has a history, established tools and theory, even proven success – and it’s lead me to a lot of questions, but not a lot of answers:

  • If we use the example of traditional literacy, reading/writing, it is inseparably paired with language – so what accompanies digital literacy? Code? Markup? Programming Logic?
  • What are the equivalents of Grammar, Vocabulary, Text and Visual knowledge? Have these even been defined?
  • If we want to teach digital literacy how do we go about it? Where do you start? What’s the foundational equivalent of an alphabet or dictionary or the kind of kindergarten level “learn to read” resources?

I agree with the established idea that to gain literacy it must come through practice and experience – but I’m actually curious about what are the fundamental things that people should be doing in this space?

I don’t want this to turn into an epic blog post. After all, people are welcome to read my thesis, peruse my slide decks and buy into my book. What I will say, however, is that we haven’t actually got a good handle on what it means to be traditionally ‘literate’. As I’ve quoted Martin (2006) numerous times as saying, digital literacy - and any form of literacy - is a condition, not a threshold. Even UNESCO in the 1950s found defining literacy problematic.

Digital literacy is particularly tricky because there are multiple things to which it refers. Although we assume that ‘literacy’ pertains to the tools (i.e. making marks on paper) what we’re actually doing is becoming part of a community of literate practices.

The best we can hope for with new ‘literacies’ (and we’re using that in a metaphorical way) is to define forms of literacy in particular context. In other words, a community comes together to decide what constitutes literate practices within their given domain. This can be done through consensus or through authority.

Consensus-building, takes time and presupposes a certain type of organisational/sector transparency. In the long-run it will produce better results as the people involved have a sense of ownership and agency. If you’re going down that road, I recommend using the 8 elements of digital literacy I identified in Chapter 9 of my thesis. Asking what these look like in your context is a great start.

Imposing a definition and approach to digital/new literacies through authority is easier, but can be problematic. Basically, you take an off-the-shelf definition and approach and apply it to your context. If there’s no feedback loop then the lived experience and the theory can be vastly different.

It’s not all doom and gloom. Although digital literacy is an unproductive term fraught with difficulties, there are other terms that are more useful. For example, with web literacy things are a bit easier. I’ve been working with the Mozilla community to create a Web Literacy Map which charts a middle route between consensus-building and authority. We’re using the Mozilla branding for the authority, but doing the work via consensus-building. The Web Literacy Map will evolve as the web evolves, takes account of community feedback, and thankfully, it has a single referent (the web!)

So, in conclusion, I see ‘digital literacy’ as a bit of a unicorn. It can be a useful conversation-starter, and perhaps a trojan horse for wider changes you want to see. But if you want real change and progress, try a different term - even if it’s just co-defining ‘digital literacies’ (plural) in your particular context!

Questions? Comments? Reply on your own blog and/or get in touch via Twitter. I’m @dajbelshaw


Now read this

Native apps, the open web, and web literacy

In a recent blog post, John Gruber argues that native apps are part of the web. This was in response to a WSJ article in which Christopher Mims stated his belief that the web is dying; apps are killing it. In this post, I want to explore... Continue →