Digital literacy

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Digital literacy is the knowledge, skills, and behaviors used in a broad range of digital devices such as smartphones, tablets, laptops and desktop PCs, all of which are seen as network rather than computing devices. Digital literacy initially focused on digital skills and stand-alone computers, but the focus has moved from stand-alone to network devices. Digital literacy is distinct from computer literacy and digital skills. Computer literacy preceded digital literacy, and refers to knowledge and skills in using traditional computers (such as desktop PCs and laptops) with a focus on practical skills in using software application packages. Digital skills is more contemporary term but is limited to practical abilities in using digital devices (such as laptops and smartphones).

A digitally literate person will possess a range of digital skills, knowledge of the basic principles of computing devices, skills in using computer networks, an ability to engage in online communities and social networks while adhering to behavioral protocols, be able to find, capture and evaluate information, understanding of the societal issues raised by digital technologies (such as big data), and possess critical thinking skills.

Digital literacy does not replace traditional forms of literacy. It builds upon the foundation of traditional forms of literacy.[1] Digital literacy is the marrying of the two terms digital and literacy; however, it is much more than a combination of the two terms. Digital information is a symbolic representation of data, and literacy refers to the ability to read for knowledge, write coherently, and think critically about the written word.

Digital literacy researchers explore a wide variety of topics, including how people find, use, summarize, evaluate, create, and communicate information while using digital technologies. Research also encompasses a variety of hardware platforms, such as computer hardware, cell phones and other mobile devices and software or applications, including web search or Internet applications more broadly. As a result, the area is concerned with much more than how people learn to use computers. In Scandinavian English as well as in OECD research, the term Digital Competence is preferred over literacy due to its holistic use. In 2013, European Commission published a Digital Competence Framework [2] which also includes the notion of digital literacy, but goes further than that, for example, defining problem solving in digital environments as part of the Digital competence.

Academic and pedagogical concepts[edit]

From a competency perspective, literacy is the lowest level in a progression that spans literacy, fluency and mastery. From an academic perspective, digital literacy is a part of the computing subject area, alongside computer science and information technology.[3]

Digital literacy is a new literacy, and may itself be decomposed into several sub-literacies. One such decomposition considers digital literacy as embracing computer literacy, network literacy, information literacy and social media literacy. Previous conceptualisations of digital literacy focused on the practical skills associated with using computers (now considered computer literacy). These include hardware skills, such as connecting devices, and software skills, such as using application packages. Contemporary conceptualisations of digital literacy add to these traditional skills, and embrace knowledge, skills, attitudes and behaviours, particularly with respect to networked devices (which include smartphones, tablets and personal computers). Digital literacy differs from computer literacy in a number of significant ways. While it embraces the practical skills that computer literacy incorporates, there is a much greater focus on sociological, political, cultural, economic and behavioral aspects of digital technologies.

As a pedagogical approach in curriculum design, the implementation of digital literacy affords far-reaching advantages. The internet is both a source of information and communication that has increased exponentially internationally. Subsequently, integrating technology into the classroom in a meaningful way, exposes students to a range of literacy practices called multi-literacies which broadens their outlook and widens vistas of information and knowledge which is highly constructive. This methodology embraces the constructivist theory of learning (Bruner, 1978) wherein learners draw from their existing knowledge in order to construct new learning.

Core elements and their educational effects[edit]

Literacies can be grouped together in what is known as the Essential Elements of Digital Literacies[4][5][6] which expounds the theory that having an understanding of these eight essential elements [7] of digital literacies will enable an individual to be digitally literate. The development of these core skills correlated to the particular contexts in which an individual may develop their skills with a view to ensuring that they align with their needs.[8] The eight elements are Cultural, Cognitive, Constructive, Communicative, Confidence, Creative, Critical and Civic. The value of each of these core elements is dependent on varying needs at different times.[9]

  • Cultural - The cultural element of Digital Literacies requires technology use in different contexts and an awareness of the values and concepts specific to the varying contexts.
  • Cognitive - The cognitive component of Digital literacies aims to enable mastery of the use of technological tools, software and platforms. Gaining expertise in digital tools helps learners become more digitally literate.
  • Constructive - The constructive element requires re-using and remixing existing resources depending on the need; or adapting them into new resources. Through construction, a digitally literate user creates new data and shares their creations with others digitally.
  • Communicative - The communicative component requires awareness about different communication devices both digital and mobile. Being digitally literate means communicating in the digital world in several ways.
  • Confidence - The confidence element of Digital Literacy means gaining competence with digital technologies and the ability to create an environment for practising skills and self-learning.
  • Creative - Through the Creative element of Digital Literacy, digital learners create new data in digital environments based on personal interests. This element places emphasis on taking risks while developing searching skills and producing new things.
  • Critical - The critical component requires the digital learner to develop various perspectives. While actively taking part in digital environments, the user should take different circumstances into account.
  • Civic - The civic element is all about developing and acquiring the concepts of democracy and global citizenship through digital technologies. This component helps the participation of the individual in society. Part of digital literacy is the ability to form communities online.

It is recognised that the implementation of these elements in an individual’s context will require constant updating and upgrading as digital information and tools change along with our understanding of them.

From a pedagogical perspective, digital literacy seeks to include knowledge and understanding of the applications and implications of digital technologies, in contrast to the skills focus of computer literacy. Digital literacy is considered a key aspect of contemporary citizenship to enable individuals to fully participate in the digital economy and the democratic process, and knowledgeably engage with debates relating to the networked society, such as those relating to personal privacy. Digital literacy may be studied at a number of levels. While fundamental concepts and skills are normally covered in the lower levels of national qualification frameworks, more advanced treatments, dealing with more sophisticated concepts and skills such as critical thinking, are higher level competencies.

  • New literacies: Expounds upon the new type of literacy in regards to the technological advancements of society.
    • Layered Literacy: Describes the way that print and digital overlap, creating intertextuality [10]
  • Transliteracy: The ability to read and write across a wide variety of media formats.
  • Electracy: The pedagogical skills necessary for new digital skills.
  • Digital citizen: The role and rights of a person within the digital world

Digital and media literacy[edit]

The topic of digital and media literacy was addressed by the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy, a blue ribbon panel of seventeen media, policy and community leaders, whose purpose was to assess the information needs of communities, and recommend measures to help Americans better meet those needs. Its report, Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age, was the first major commission on media since the Hutchins Commission in the 1940s and the Kerner and Carnegie Commissions of the 1960s. In the digital age, technological, economic and behavioral changes are dramatically altering how Americans communicate. Information is more fragmented. Communications systems no longer run along the same lines as local governance. The gap in access to digital tools and skills is wide and troubling. This new era poses major challenges to the flow of news and information people depend on to manage their complex lives. In the context of this report, digital and media literacy is seen as a constellation of life skills that are necessary for full participation in our media-saturated, information-rich society. According to Renee Hobbs, author of the white paper, Digital and Media Literacy: A Plan of Action, these include the ability to do the following:

  • ACCESS. Make responsible choices and access information by locating and sharing materials and comprehending information and ideas
  • ANALYZE. Analyze messages in a variety of forms by identifying the author, purpose and point of view, and evaluating the quality and credibility of the content
  • CREATE. Create content in a variety of forms, making use of language, images, sound, and new digital tools and technologies
  • REFLECT. Reflect on one’s own conduct and communication behavior by applying social responsibility and ethical principles
  • ACT. Take social action by working individually and collaboratively to share knowledge and solve problems in the family, workplace and community, and by participating as a member of a community

Digital and media literacy competencies, which constitute core competencies of citizenship in the digital age, have enormous practical value. Hobbs identifies a 10-point action plan[11] to enable all Americans to acquire digital and media literacy competencies.

Digital literacy and 21st-century skills[edit]

Digital literacy requires certain skill sets that are interdisciplinary in nature. Warshauer and Matuchniak list information, media, and technology; learning and innovation skills; and life and career skills as the three skill sets that individuals need to master in order to be digitally literate, or the 21st century skills. In order to achieve information, media, and technology skills, one needs to achieve competency in information literacy, media literacy and ICT (information communicative technologies). Encompassed within Learning and Innovation Skills, one must also be able to be able to be exercise their creativity and innovation, critical thinking and problem solving, and communication and collaboration skills (the "Four Cs of 21st century learning"). In order to be competent in Life and Career Skills, it is also necessary to be able to exercise flexibility and adaptability, initiative and self-direction, social and cross-cultural skills, productivity and accountability, leadership and responsibility.[12] Aviram & Eshet-Alkalai contend that there are five types of literacies that are encompassed in the umbrella term that is digital literacy.

  1. Photo-visual literacy is the ability to read and deduce information from visuals.
  2. Reproduction literacy is the ability to use digital technology to create a new piece of work or combine existing pieces of work together to make it your own.
  3. Branching literacy is the ability to successfully navigate in the non-linear medium of digital space.
  4. Information literacy is the ability to search, locate, assess and critically evaluate information found on the web and on-shelf in libraries.
  5. Socio-emotional literacy refers to the social and emotional aspects of being present online, whether it may be through socializing, and collaborating, or simply consuming content.[13]

Use in education[edit]

Schools are continuously updating their curriculum for digital literacy to keep up with accelerating technological developments. This often includes computers in the classroom, the use of educational software to teach curriculum, and course materials being made available to students online. Some classrooms are designed to use smartboards and audience response systems. These techniques are most effective when the teacher is digitally literate as well.

Teachers often teach digital literacy skills to students who use computers for research. Such skills include verifying credible sources online and how-to cite web sites. Google and Wikipedia are used by students "for everyday life research."[14]

Educators are often required to be certified in digital literacy to teach certain software and, more prevalently, to prevent plagiarism amongst students.

Digital natives and immigrants[edit]

Marc Prensky invented and popularized the terms "digital native" and "digital immigrant." A digital native, according to Prensky, is one who was born into the digital age. A digital immigrant refers to one who adopts technology later in life.[15] These terms aid in understanding the issues of teaching digital literacy, however, simply being a digital native does not make one digitally literate.

Digital immigrants, although they adapt to the same technology as natives, possess a sort of "accent" which restricts them from communicating the way natives do. In fact, research shows that, due to the brain's malleable nature, technology has changed the way today's students read, perceive, and process information.[16] This means that today's educators may struggle to find effective teaching methods for digital natives. Digital immigrants might resist teaching digital literacy because they themselves weren't taught that way. Prensky believes this is a problem because today's students are "a population that speaks an entirely new language"[15] than the people who educate them.

Statistics and popular representations of the elderly and digital technologies portray them as digital immigrants. For example, in 2010 in Canada, 29% of those 75+ and 60% of those 65-74 had browsed the Internet in the past month whereas this activity almost reached 100% among those 15–24 years old.[17] Eugene Loos identifies the most common assumptions about digital technologies and the elderly, all of which contribute to portray them as digital immigrants and to perpetuate digital ageism: senior citizens may be regarded as a homogenous group; this group does not want to or is not able to make use of digital information sources; however, it is not perceived as a problem, because as time passes, these generations will be succeeded by new generations that have no problem at all with digital technologies.[18] The heterogeneity of cohorts, interest in technologies changing according to life events, and the importance of regular use to develop skills and literacy are examples of other elements to take into account.[19]

Digital visitors and residents[edit]

In contrast to Marc Prensky, Dave White from the Department for Continuing Education at the University of Oxford has been publicising his concept of digital visitors and residents.[20][21] Briefly, the concept is that visitors leave no online social trace where as residents live a portion of their lives online. These are not two separate categories of people but rather a description of a continuum of behaviours. It is probable that many individuals demonstrate both visitor and residential behaviours in different contexts. Dave White has developed a mapping tool which explores this concept.[22]

Digital writing[edit]

Digital writing is a new type of composition being taught increasingly within universities. Digital writing is a pedagogy focused on technology's impact on writing environments; it is not simply using a computer to write. Rather than the traditional print perspective, digital writing enables students to explore modern technologies and learn how different writing spaces affect the meaning, audience, and readability of text. Educators in favor of digital writing argue that it is necessary because "technology fundamentally changes how writing is produced, delivered, and received."[23] The goal of teaching digital writing is that students will increase their ability to produce a relevant, high-quality product, instead of just a standard academic paper.[24]

One aspect of digital writing is the use of hypertext. As opposed to printed text, hypertext invites readers to explore information in a non-linear fashion. Hypertext consists of traditional text and hyperlinks that send readers to other texts. These links may refer to related terms or concepts (such is the case on Wikipedia), or they may enable readers to choose the order in which they read. The process of digital writing requires the composer to make unique "decisions regarding linking and omission." These decisions "give rise to questions about the author's responsibilities to the [text] and to objectivity."[25]

Use in society[edit]

Digital literacy helps people communicate and keep up with societal trends. Literacy in social network services and Web 2.0 sites helps people stay in contact with others, pass timely information and even sell goods and services. This is mostly popular among younger generations, though sites like LinkedIn have made it valuable to older professionals.

Digital literacy can also prevent people from believing hoaxes that are spread online or are the result of photo manipulation. E-mail frauds and phishing often take advantage of the digitally illiterate, costing victims money and making them vulnerable to identity theft.[citation needed]

Research has demonstrated that the differences in the level of digital literacy depend mainly on age and education level, while the influence of gender is decreasing (Hargittai, 2002; van Dijk, 2005; van Dijk and van Deursen, 2009). Among young people, in particular, digital literacy is high in its operational dimension (e.g. rapidly move through hypertext, familiarity with different kinds of online resources) while the skills to critically evaluate content found online show a deficit (Gui and Argentin, 2011).

Building on digital literacy is the concept of digital creativity which is the expression of creative skills in the digital medium. This can include programming, web sites and the generation and manipulation of digital images.

Social networking[edit]

With the emergence of social networking, one who is digitally literate now has a major voice online.[26] The level of digital literacy needed to voice an opinion online today compared to the Internet before social networks is minute. Websites like Facebook and Twitter, as well as personal websites and blogs have enabled a new type of journalism that is subjective, personal, and "represents a global conversation that is connected through its community of readers." [27] These online communities foster group interactivity among the digitally literate. Social networks also help users establish a digital identity, or a "symbolic digital representation of identity attributes."[28] Without digital literacy or the assistance of someone who is digitally literate, one cannot possess a personal digital identity. This is closely allied to Web Literacy.

Digital divide[edit]

Digital literacy and digital access have become increasingly important competitive differentiators.[29] Bridging the economic and developmental divides is in large measure a matter of increasing digital literacy and access for peoples who have been left out of the information and communications technology (ICT) revolutions.

Scholar Howard Besser contends that the digital divide is more than just a gap between those who have access to technology and those who don’t. This issue encompasses aspects such as information literacy, appropriateness of content, and access to content.[30] Beyond access, a digital divide exists between those who apply critical thinking to technology or not, those who speak English or not, and those who create digital content or merely consume it.

Research published in 2012 found that the digital divide, as defined by access to information technology, does not exist amongst youth in the United States.[31] Young people of all races and ethnicities report being connected to the internet at rates of 94-98%.[31] There remains, however, a Civic Opportunity Gap, where youth from poorer families and those attending lower socioeconomic status schools are less likely to encounter opportunities to apply their digital literacies toward civic ends.[32]

Community Informatics overlaps to a considerable degree with digital literacy by being concerned with ensuring the opportunity not only for ICT access at the community level but also, according to Michael Gurstein, that the means for the "effective use" of ICTs for community betterment and empowerment are available.[33] Digital literacy is of course, one of the significant elements in this process.

The United Nations Global Alliance for ICT and Development (GAID)[34] seeks to address this set of issues at an international and global level. Many organizations (e.g. Per Scholas for underserved communities in the United States and InterConnection for underserved communities around the world as well as the U.S.) focus on addressing this concern at national, local and community levels.

Digital citizenship[edit]

Digital citizenship has nine components:[35]

  • Digital access: full electronic participation in society.
  • Digital commerce: electronic buying and selling of goods.
  • Digital communication: electronic exchange of information.
  • Digital literacy: process of teaching and learning about technology and the use of technology.
  • Digital etiquette: electronic standards of conduct or procedure.
  • Digital law: electronic responsibility for actions and deeds.
  • Digital rights and responsibilities: those freedoms extended to everyone in a digital world.
  • Digital health and wellness: physical and psychological well-being in a digital technology world.
  • Digital security (self-protection): electronic precautions to guarantee safety.

Global impact[edit]

Government officials around the world have emphasized the importance of digital literacy for their economy. According to HotChalk, an Online resource for educators: "Nations with centralized education systems, such as China, are leading the charge and implementing digital literacy training programs faster than anyone else. For those countries, the news is good."

Many developing nations are also focusing on digital literacy education to compete globally.

Economically, socially and regionally marginalised people have benefited from the ECDL Foundation’s ECDL / ICDL programme through funding and support from Corporate Social Responsibility initiatives, international development agency funding and non-governmental organisations(NGO’s).

The Philippines' Education Secretary Jesli Lapus has emphasized the importance of digital literacy in Filipino education. He claims a resistance to change is the main obstacle to improving the nation's education in the globalized world. In 2008, Lapus was inducted into Certiport's "Champions of Digital Literacy" Hall of Fame for his work to emphasize digital literacy.[36]

Use in the workforce[edit]

Those who are digitally literate are more likely to be economically secure.[37] Many jobs require a working knowledge of computers and the Internet to perform basic functions. As wireless technology improves, more jobs require proficiency with cell phones and PDAs (sometimes combined into smart phones).

White collar jobs are increasingly performed primarily on computers and portable devices. Many of these jobs require proof of digital literacy to be hired or promoted. Sometimes companies will administer their own tests to employees, or official certification will be required.

As technology has become cheaper and more readily available, more blue-collar jobs have required digital literacy as well. Manufacturers and retailers, for example, are expected to collect and analyze data about productivity and market trends to stay competitive. Construction workers often use computers to increase employee safety.[37]

Job recruiters often use employment Web sites to find potential employees, thus magnifying the importance of digital literacy in securing a job.

The 2014 Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA)...defines digital literacy skills as a workforce preparation activity.[38]


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  • Gui, M. & Argentin, G. (2011). Digital skills of internet natives: Different forms of digital literacy in a random sample of northern Italian high school students, New Media & Society. Volume 13 Issue 6
  • Hargittai, E. (2002). Second-level digital divide: Differences in people’s online skills. First Monday 7(4).
  • van Dijk, J (2005). The Deepening Divide. Inequality in The Information Society. London: Sage Publications.
  • van Deursen, A. & van Dijk, J. (2009). Improving digital skills for the use of online public information and services. Government Information Quarterly (26): 333–340.

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