What is digital literacy?

I’m playing #etmooc catch up (again) and will begin sharing all of my reflective posts here as well as my original learning with #etmooc blog space because of the demise of Posterous, which has both saddened and irritated me.

Digital literacy is the topic that made the etmooc learning space so irresistible to me… I think as educators we spout off about wanting our students to be digitally literate, but not many of us (myself included) have a firm grasp about what that actually means, and quite a number of us are still attempting to become digitally literate ourselves.

Whatever that means.

It turns out, defining digital literacy isn’t such an easy task. The etmooc community was fortunate enough to hear Doug Belshaw speak on this topic in a recent webinar. I’ve followed Doug on Twitter for quite some time, and it turns out his dissertation investigates just what is digital literacy… and his TED talk can be viewed here.

Doug explained that digital literacy is quite ambiguous, and he doesn’t have all of the answers when it comes to defining these terms. He made a point to ask, How can we define digital literacy when we don’t know what literacy is? There are over 30 definitions of digital literacy represented in one of the first texts about the topic (from Gilster, published in 1998!!), so it’s no wonder that as educators we have a difficult time trying to figure out what it is and how we can ensure our students are “digitally literate.” (Doug also pointed out that often we like to attach literate to a term in order to make it sound more important :)).

Doug shared this quote from his research (Martin, 2006): “Digital literacy is a condition, not a threshold.” It changes the way we teach. It’s a relationship and represents the way we orient ourselves with the world. Digital literacy doesn’t include a sequential set of skills. There’s a lot more “messing around” involved, and it’s subjective and highly contextual. Digital literacy in a K-12 setting varies greatly from that in a collegiate setting.

From his research, Doug crafted Eight Essential Elements of Digital Literacy:


He explained each along with “soundbites” from his research to guide the discussions.

Cultural – We need to pay attention to the culture in which the literacies are situated.

Cognitive – We can’t just consider the procedural ways in which we use devices and programs. It’s the way we think when we’re using them.

Constructive – We can’t be passive consumers of technology/information. We should strive to use digital tools in reflective and appropriate ways to be constructive and be socially active.

Communicative – Digital tools and power structures change the way we communicate. An element of digital literacy is how we take command of that structure and use it to communicate effectively and contribute meaningfully.

Confident – Doug believes that in order to be a proficient user of technology, one must have the courage and confidence to dive into the unknown, take risks, make mistakes, and display confidence when “messing around” with new tools.

Creative – Doug shared this quote from his research, which, to me, said it all:

“The creative adoption of new technology requires teachers who are willing to take risks… a prescriptive curriculum, routine practices… and a tight target-setting regime, is unlikely to be helpful.” Conlon & Simpson (2003)

Critical – Digital literacy involves an understanding of how to deal with hyperspace and hypertext and understanding that it’s “not entirely read or spoken.” Can we critically evaluate the technologies we’re using?

Civic – Something I think many schools are beginning to embrace, we must use technology to improve our lives and the lives of others in our world.

There was a discussion in the session about the term “digital native” and most participants disagreed that digital natives actually existed, and instead the term “digital wisdom” was suggested as an alternative.

So, as someone who is currently working on drafting a sort of elementary “technology curriculum” for her district, based around ISTE’s NETS for Students and aligned to our content curricula, I see a great need to infuse these digital literacy elements into that plan. But, alas, how to do that when digital literacy is so “grey?” How to make a plea for these characteristics and competencies to be modeled by our teachers and administrators when due to our current state, teachers may just revolt if I ask them to veer from the script they’ve been tasked with delivering to spend time on topics and tasks that won’t be progress monitored, standardized-tested or used in their professional evaluations? Alec’s comment in the chat caused me to mutter, “Uh, yes” under my breath when I read it:  “Which is where curriculum planners always get stumped by deliverables.” How can we design standards for digital literacy when we’ve proven how contextual it is? And how best to marry these digital literacy elements with the strictly enforced content area curricula our district prescribes?

All questions I shall continue to ponder.

This is a fantastic digital literacy slideset shared by Doug. Check it out, and ask yourself: In my school, how do we approach these eight elements of digital literacy with our students? Teachers? Administrators? Community? If we don’t, how can we start? If you have ideas/advice/resources to share, please do so in the comments below!

16 Replies to “What is digital literacy?”

    1. Thanks for everything you shared, Doug, it really gave me a lot to think about and will definitely help with my current project work. Appreciate the feedback!

    2. Forgive the intrusion. This grey area you speak of is not so grey. I don’t know if any of you are familiar with the term “programmed instruction”. I know its one of the best teaching methods I have experienced. Its the way our military are taught. As well it is most successful in assisting me in getting everything I need learning. This digital literacy isn’t hard to understand. I got this laptop to further my education in “all things digital”. This site just let me know some of the issues I may face. There is no prescribed curriculum here. No routine practices. No tight target setting regimes as per. CONLON & SIMPSON. Teachers need to risk only stepping away from these and Students may become better equipped to assist the instructors in the overall learning process. Please help if I have missed some crucial context here. Till then have a nice one. Peace!

  1. Great summary of the session Lyn; you really captured the essence of the Doug’s presentation as well as the conversation that was happening in the chat. I appreciate the challenges you face drafting an “elementary technology curriculum” but it sounds like you have already a good handle on what is involved. Thanks for sharing, it is interesting for me to read about digital literacy in school from the elementary perspective.

    1. Hi, Rhonda, thanks for stopping by and commenting. It certainly can be a challenge to find ways to incorporate the elements of digital literacy into our work with elementary students, especially in more traditional settings. The presentation definitely helped to guide my thinking.

    1. Hi, Curt! Thanks for sharing my post and for your comments here. Thanks also for the link to Ryan’s post, I love his blog. I missed that post but yesterday read his thoughts on social reading. What an interesting time in which we’re learning… and yes, it’s quite difficult to identify what it means to be digitally literate when the idea of “literacy” is so multifaceted.

  2. Lyn wrote:

    How to make a plea for these characteristics and competencies to be modeled by our teachers and administrators when due to our current state, teachers may just revolt if I ask them to veer from the script they’ve been tasked with delivering to spend time on topics and tasks that won’t be progress monitored, standardized-tested or used in their professional evaluations? A

    – – – – – – – – –

    This is the crux of the issue to me, Pal.

    As a full-time classroom teacher, I’m growing tired of hearing people tell me that I should teach all this digital literacy stuff “because it’s the right thing to do” and “because our students depend on us to do the right thing” while simultaneously introducing fact-driven end of grade exams to every subject under the sun.

    The simple truth is that “the right thing” for me to do is to make sure that I’m protecting my job — ask Maslow.

    And that’s getting harder and harder in today’s accountability culture.

    Literally there’s two new end of grade exams this year here in NC — one in science and one in social studies. Both have been designed as nothing more than tools to “have data to hold teachers accountable for performance.”

    Both will have 35 multiple choice questions. Those questions could come from ANYWHERE in our curriculum.

    Kids might be asked about the changes in the speed of light when it enters a medium that is more dense. They might be asked about how plants process sunlight into simple sugars. They might be asked about Pangaea or Alfred Wegener, they might be asked about black holes or the Apollo project, or they might be asked about the properties of matter that don’t change as a result of mass.

    What they WON’T ask, though, is how digitally literate my kids are.

    So why in the world would I want to carve out time in an already overcrowded curriculum for any kind of instruction that won’t help me to keep my job?

    I know it’s pessimistic thinking — and I REALLY DO believe that the kinds of lessons you are talking about here matter.

    But the simple truth is I’m not ready to hang teachers out to dry when they are resistant to change. The fact of the matter is we’re just reacting to the flawed system that we are forced to work in.

    Any of this make sense?

  3. Bill,
    Your response is the response I’m anticipating from my colleagues if and when our district makes a move to incorporate digital literacy elements into students’ everyday classroom experiences. There is already a heightened sense of anxiety surrounding PA’s new teacher evaluation system and the fact that data is tied directly to the teacher’s overall evaluation. (It’s tied to the administrator’s evaluation, too, but that’s been our reality for quite some time, right or wrong.)
    The elementary teachers are beyond stressed, since they’re teaching all of the content to all of the kids, although there are many questions surrounding the data’s use since the students “attributed” to certain teachers aren’t necessarily in classes with their homeroom teacher since we do so much flexible grouping and skills-based lessons to meet individual student needs. And meanwhile, the art and music teachers are also held accountable by our building-wide standardized test scores, and districts can also create their own “data” to use to see how those teachers “measure up.” I agree, this focus on data in evaluations is overwhelming and NOT what’s in the best interest of students.
    Our new evaluation system includes a series of teacher observations, pre- and post- conferences, etc., and THERE is where I think a lot of the value comes in (we’ll set aside the fact that any administrator with a building of more than 20 teachers is going to have a rough time completing all of those observation cycles in any depth considering he probably is responsible for a slew of managerial tasks in the building that don’t support learning like the conversations about teaching would), and I think teachers will really appreciate that model and enjoy the feedback and the ownership they have in the conversations with admin about their own professional growth.
    But when we’ve panicked teachers to the point of hysteria and they start making rash decisions and reacting inappropriately when students don’t play the game (for example, student A refuses to take the writing test seriously even though she has a documented learning disability, but her score will be attributed back to the teacher despite that, so the teacher puts undue pressure on the student and the support staff to get the test done) – who is really winning here? What are we doing?
    Policymakers are far removed from the realities of our day to day system, the one they’ve created, the one you describe in your post you shared here http://teacherleaders.typepad.com/the_tempered_radical/2010/05/a-note-to-policymakers-.html
    I know there are schools out there, like Chris’s SLA and others, who are able to incorporate these concepts into learning experiences, all while addressing state standards and being held accountable in the same manner as all schools in Pennsylvania. I am trying to envision a way that we can do this in a more traditional elementary school, but it is really tough. It’s almost defeating to think about, because I know there will be major pushback when the concepts are introduced, as you describe.
    So, my rambling is done here. I DO understand what you’re saying. I get it. But part of me needs to keep fighting for these elements and others to start shifting the way we approach teaching and learning in our schools. I know you get that and support it, whether or not you can act on it every day.
    You’re doing amazing things for your students every day, Pal! Don’t forget it.
    Thank you for sharing here!

  4. Tough issues Bill and Lyn,

    I have to believe that what we are doing for our kids matters. The evaluation model we have adopted here is similar (we are all racing to the top in some way or another, right?). I think we have found some value in the process. Administrators in Illinois are being evaluated by value added scores this year. Teachers will join us in the 2014-15 school year. In our model, teachers have to put together a professional development plan. In my building I am guiding my teachers to integrate methodologies and tools that have their students continually using multiple ways to find, manipulate, and present information. We have them give evidence of their own professional growth towards these goals as well as encourage them to share what they are doing with each other on PD days. It will be interesting when the value added measure of year to year test scores are added to the equation, but I believe that we can maintain some emphasis on what is important. In the meantime I think we must do everything we can to keep our public informed about the effects of policy made in state capitols and Washington. It is still my hope that it will be how our local community judges us that will matter anyway. You think I am way off base?

    1. Dave,
      I can see how the personal professional development plans your teachers set as part of the accountability system could be beneficial. Teachers invested in those plans would certainly be self-driven towards achieving their goals. The value-added piece is also part of PA’s evaluation system. I appreciate value-added in the sense that it does present a picture of a cohort’s/grade level’s/building’s growth in the content areas tested, as opposed to comparing different groups of students year after year. I truly think data can be valuable, and I appreciate a healthy use of it at the student level and beyond in order to make instructional and programming decisions to benefit students. I’m just not convinced the ways in which it is being used to evaluate educators is fair. I agree that there are special qualities of schools that cannot be measured by any test, and that communities will “judge” their schools as they deem fit. That being said, many parents don’t grasp the totality of the standardized-test based accountability systems, and they are led to believe that scores published in newspapers and on websites represent the value of a school. I have never before seen parents so obsessed with their students’ test data, including benchmark assessments and universal screenings we use in our schools in order to make instructional decisions. This saddens me.
      Yes, we want our students to achieve greatness and schools with high test scores are likely working hard to meet the needs of their individual learners. But that can’t be at the expense of the inclusion of the other skills and experiences that should be provided for today’s modern learner.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.