Question about Digital Literacy: How?

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”?

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?

After at least a decade of mainstream use of digital technologies I’d posit that most people (regardless of age or field) are functionally illiterate, and that current practice tends to focuses only on memorising processes and applications – rather than learning the mechanics, the transferable knowledge and skills that effectively allow one to become literate. In an educational sense we are stuck at the bottom of Bloom’s Taxonomy and show little indication of being able to move up. In a world that is becoming increasingly digital this is an extremely dangerous place to be in, but might actually explain some of the apathy to recent events worldwide and locally around security, privacy and infrastructure of and for the web. If at the same time we are seeking to engrain digital literacy as part of the education system – are we addressing the actual components of literacy or just providing the knowledge/skills to make them purely “functional” in todays society? I’d even go as far as to ask – in some of our practices are we actually complicit in developing an aliteracy or at least an ennui towards digital technology?

I’m greatly interested in the work that Doug Belshaw is doing around Web Literacy (a subsection of the broader Digital Literacies) in actually attempting to map out some of these intricacies. I would love to know if anyone else us doing anything similar – or if you have some ideas on how to answer any of my questions!


By Tim Klapdor

Passionate about good design, motivated by the power of media and enchanted by the opportunities of technology.

5 replies on “Question about Digital Literacy: How?”

As a category of literacy, which itself is either simply a competency to read and write, the digital form presumes more than a natural form. By that, it requires a set of tools that exist outside of what we all are given when brought into this world. Seems that verbal “literacy” is a given. And there are many who can survive in the world without any learning of reading or writing. These tools are merely enablers of communication. What matters to people is how to manage to transact their existence in what is an increasingly digital environment. As this environment has evolved we’ve move far from the early days, when to be successful in navigating you needed to grapple with coding as well as understanding the plumbing of systems and networks. Today, few know much about the hardware they use, let alone program to it. Using Assembler or other similar software is the province of the very few. This is quite similar to the early days of the automobile when it was quite important to know the workings of the combustion engine and associated parts to be able to both use and venture forth on any extended trips in a car. What matters is that modes of communication and services have moved from the analogue to digital world. We’ve forced people to both obtain and use digital forms now that others have nearly disappeared. As with verbal and written communication, digital literacy is a continuum of capability. What matters is whether a person can gain a base skill set to accomplish what they need, or find others who can assist them in doing so. Digital literacy is a hodge podge of skills, modes of communication, levels of familiarity, etc. The “rules” of the ‘net are often arbitrary, leading to frustration for many. And the “language” evolves at a rate that sometimes seems like the expanding universe – changing faster than many can keep up. Because of this, the digital divide in society is more than technological. It is cultural and generational and tends towards a Tower of Babel syndrome. So, at least today, the way to teach digital literacy is to rely on the “one room schoolhouse” approach that allows for a more flexible and rapid assimilation of skill development.

Thanks Steve – I think you really articulated some of my problems with the way Digital Literacy is framed and discussed at present. I’ve just finished writing up a follow up post where I propose to frame the hodge podge of skills, modes and communication around the concept of Interaction. Using interaction as the lens to look through the chaos of digital literacy provides a common thread and theme that it we can articulate – just as traditional literacy provides a way to look at and describe the complexity of oral & written language. I’d be intersted if you think its getting closer to a better way of describing how we transact our existence in what is an increasingly digital environment.

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