Digital Literacies

Literacy is a big conversation. As a literacy coach, you’d think I’d be comfortable in it, but that isn’t necessarily the case. For starters, you won’t hear much about the complexity of literacy in the work I do with teachers. The truth is that it is tough to get people to move beyond the fundamentals of reading and writing. I say ‘people’  (meaning adults) because it isn’t just teachers who need to take their heads out of the sand. From senior administrators to parents, some learning about what literacy was and is morphing into must happen. How does the traditional view of literacy fit into the modern classroom? What does it look like? How is it assessed?

As we move to modernize our systems and try to figure out how to use the tools of the transformative learning environment, educators will struggle with all of the explanations and taxonomies presented. This post represents my current thinking on how I can support teachers in their understanding of the transformation from the traditional literacy perspective (reading and writing) to digital literacies as Doug Belshaw envisions them.

How to begin? With backward design, of course. We start where we want to be and plan backwards to where we are.

Let’s start with some definitions of literacy. Then we can have a look at Doug’s thinking about digital literacies.  A subset of digital literacy is web literacy, so we can look at that next because it may provide us with a way to get to digital literacies. And then, I think Silvia Tolisano’s work combining the SAMR model with Alan November’s thinking provides another entry point to digital literacies along side the web literacy standard.

Literacy is the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate, compute and use printed and written materials associated with varying contexts. Literacy involves a continuum of learning to enable an individual to achieve his or her goals, to develop his or her knowledge and potential, and to participate fully in the wider society. — UNESCO

The ability to understand and employ printed information in daily activities at home, at work and in the community – to achieve one’s goals, and to develop one’s knowledge and potential.” (*Literacy Skills for the Knowledge Society: Further Results from the International Adult Literacy Survey*, Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, Human Resources Development Canada and the Minister responsible for Statistics Canada, 1997).

The ability to use language and images in rich and varied forms to read, write, listen, speak, view, represent, and think critically about ideas. It enables us to share information, to interact with others, and to make meaning. Literacy is a complex process that involves building on prior knowledge, culture, and
experiences in order to develop new knowledge and deeper understanding. It connects individuals and communities, and is an essential tool for personal growth and active participation in a democratic society.
–Literacy for Learning: The Report of the Expert Panel on Literacy  for Grades 4 to 6 in Ontario (2004)

The last definition moves into more complex territory. Now we have to think critically, share, interact, and connect not just so we may communicate clearly, but because literacy “is an essential tool for personal growth and active participation in a democratic society.”  But this definition reflects 2004, a time pre-iPhones, and iPads, pre-Facebook and Youtube. Can these definitions support the way we can now interact in the world? In what ways does our idea of literacy have to shift?

Let’s have a look at what Doug Belshaw thinks about digital literacy. From his dissertation, What is digital literacy? Doug  outlines eight (8) essential elements of digital literacy:

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And from his ETMOOC presentation, here are Doug’s explanations of each of the elements:

  1. Cultural – “The nature of literacy in a culture is repeatedly redefined as the result of technological changes.” Hannon (2000)
  2. Cognitive – “Functional internet literacy is not the ability to use a set of technical tools; rather, it is the ability to use a set of cognitive tools.” Johnson (2008)
  3. Constructive – “[Digital literacy is] the awareness, attitude and ability of individuals to appropriately use digital tools…in order to enable constructive social action.” DigEuLitproject (2006)
  4. Communicative – “Digital literacy must therefore involve a systematic awareness of how digital media are constructed and of the unique ‘rhetorics’ of interactive communication.” Buckingham (2007)
  5. Confident – “Modern society is increasingly looking to [people] who can confidently solve problems and manage their own learning throughout their lives, the very qualities which ICT supremely is able to promote.” OECD (2001)
  6. Creative – “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)
  7. Critical – “Once we see that online texts are not exactly written or spoken, we begin to understand that cyber literacy requires a special form of critical thinking. Communication in the online world is not quite like anything else.” Gurak (2001)
  8. Civic – “The ability to understand and make use of ICT-digitalliteracy-is proving essential to employment success, civic participation, accessing entertainment, and education.” Mehlman (2007)
Great. 8 ways to think about digital literacy. How to do this? One way may be to use the grid below from the Mozilla Web Literacies project. Maybe before we can dig into digital literacies, we need to move past being only consumers of the web to makers of the web. If I am exploring, creating, connecting, and protecting on the web, then I have a much better understanding of Doug’s idea of how “Confident” is an element of digital literacy.
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Mozilla Web Literacies - Intermediate grid
Silvia Tolisana has created a  way for teachers to think about how to integrate technology in order to create the transformative learning environment that will support the work represented by the  above web literacies grid. Here too, if I can move my practice from Substitution to Redefinition, from printing out digital content to participating in collaborative wikis, then I am more likely to realize how “Constructive” is an element of digital literacies.
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We need to be able to move from theory to practice. What are your thoughts and / or ideas about supporting teachers and students as they begin to learn how to be digitally literate?
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