A Few Words About "Digital Literacies"

Just what constitutes literacy?

Too big a question to tackle in a blog post, and quite frankly, I'm not the one to tackle this problem. But a few approaches...

Google runs The Literacy Project.

Wikipedia essentially suggests it's the ability to read and write.

Brian Street says that literacy is "shorthand for the social practices and conceptions of reading and writing."

Lankshear and McLaren (1993) contend that "literacy is many rather than singular." Literacy doesn't just refer to "an essential technology, a specific skill, or a universal phenomena such as print or script. Rather, reading and writing consist in myriad social and socially constructed forms."

Lankshear and McLaren (1993) also argue that literacy is "entirely a matter of how reading and writing are conceived and practiced within particular social contexts."

In other words, literate action can be seen as synonymous with rhetoric as situated, strategic discourse, the working definition of rhetoric that I use and continually explore with students.

Because literacy is defined by and pushed around into so many different and overlapping social contexts, the term gets appended to all kinds of other concepts--extended in curious ways.

Health literacy.
Financial literacy.
Digital literacy.

Let's think in terms of what digital literacy might entail, beyond simple facility with reading and writing within and for digital environments. It might include:

:: Understanding what makes the basic tools of digital environments tick: server, browser, URL, command line, etc. ::

:: Understanding and working with the basic tools of digital media production and consumption--a functional literacy ::

:: A broader, critical understanding of the tendential forces driving and shaping technology and society--how did we get to where we are with this stuff? ::

:: Basic understanding and facility with major platforms, protocols, standards, and languages ::

:: What Selfe (1999) calls critical technological literacy: a reflective awareness of all of the above ::

So, back to the forms. Digital literacy involves writing and reading in digital environments, yes. But it also involves understanding and enacting the rhetorical infrastructures that dictate what form such writing work will take in digital environments.

To that end, digital literacy isn't about using the frames in a WYSIWYG interface, or about placing content inside template-based tools. Digital literacy is understanding what made the tools in the first place. And the broader social and technological factors that impact the development and use of those tools, forms, and platforms.


Ryan Trauman said...

Looks like this topic is really starting to get people's attention. Very thoughtful. I'm not so sure about the importance of the inner-workings of the digital technologies as essential to digital literacy. Certainly that could be one kind, but I'm skeptical about the necessity. For instance, students don't really need to know how a pen/mechanical pencil works to use one effectively, right? But we live in a different time and the machines we have now operate at the level of symbol-manipulation (which pens/pencils don't). So my critique falls apart pretty quickly, I guess. Inevitably, though, I think our definitions of digital literacy diverge slightly.

Alex Reid has a great post (and subsequent discussion comments about it here:

And I have a forward/reflection to his post here:

Paul Gestwicki said...

Are you familiar with the Computational Thinking movement? In '06, Jeannette Wing wrote an opinion piece for CACM in which she used "computational thinking" to describe the mental models with which one can understand modern computing environments (roughly). Elements of your definition for digital literacy are also seen in the ongoing discussion on computational thinking. It may be of interest to find the formal intersections of the writing/rhetoric community and the computational thinking community, who seem primarily concerned with framing computing science concepts for the masses, which could be considered a literacy project.

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