Defining Digital Literacy/ies

By Jane Ragno, CLAIR PhD candidate


In his groundbreaking book, Digital Literacy, Paul Gilster (1997) highlighted the key to digital literacy:

Acquiring digital literacy for Internet use involves mastering a set of core competencies.  The most essential of these is the ability to make informed judgments about what you find on-line, for unlike conventional media, much of the NET is unfiltered by editors and open to the contributions of all.  This art of critical thinking governs how you use what you find on-line, for with the tools of electronic publishing dispersed globally, the Net is a study in the myriad uses of rhetoric.  Forming a balanced assessment by distinguishing between content and its presentation is the key (p. 2).

The key points Gilster (1997) made here are: a.) engaging in digital technology requires multiple skills; b.) anyone with access can contribute to the digital information pool; and c.) being a critical consumer of digital information is a requisite skill embedded in digital literacy.

Defining and understanding digital literacy/ies might be easier to do if we compare it with what we know as traditional literacy.  When we (especially teachers) think of literacy, we think of decoding and encoding using a phonetic alphabetic system to glean or express a message or meaning.  Succinctly put, literacy involves using a code to express or gain meaning.

Let’s now take a look at digital literacy.  According to Gilster (1997), digital literacy is “the ability to understand and use information in multiple formats from a wide range of sources when it is presented via computers” (p. 1).  So, similar to traditional literacy, digital literacy involves making meaning, understanding, comprehending.  But, Gilster (1997) reminded us that digital literacy is understanding from ‘multiple formats’ and a ‘range of sources,’ which leads us to believe that there may be more skills involved than merely decoding a set of phonemes.

Kajder (2010) pointed out that digital literacies allow us to “examine practices tied to constructing and critically understanding the modes made possible by digital tools” (p. 8).  Here, Kajder (2010) sees digital literacies as involving a meta-awareness of the separate modes and skills involved in digital literacy.  Rheingold (2012) used the term literacies to encompass the social skills involved in using digital technologies.  “We need to know how to behave in an online community, grow a personal learning network, and ethically share cultural productions” (Rheingold, 2012, p. 53).  While Rheingold’s take on digital literacies is different from Kajder’s, they both, nonetheless, emphasize the need for a spectrum of literacies in order to fully engage with digital technology.

Gilster (1997) pointed out a critical difference between traditional literacy and digital literacy when he wrote, “the journey through text becomes enriched with choices” (p. 3).  When we read a book, we choose to turn the page or not; when we interact with a webpage, we are faced with choices that force us to be critical consumers of digital information, that challenge our notions of attention, and that offer us opportunities for autonomy and agency—all of which require specific literacy skills.

Like traditional forms of literacy, digital literacy presents us with the opportunity to make change.  Though, unlike the exclusive publication process of print, it is much easier for people to publish on the internet.  “We presently have many examples from around the globe of people, especially young people, using digital tools to publish texts that challenge the status quo and push back against powerful monopolies on representations of our world” (Gainer, 2012).  Rheingold (2012) cleverly called these roadblocks, “gatekeepers of magazine and book editors” (p. 53).  In the unguarded and participatory digital world, critical literacy becomes an embedded skill within digital literacy for the many out there who choose to use digital technologies as a space for collaborative systemic change.

I believe that digital literacies is the more appropriate term for what we do when we engage with digital technology.  This engagement involves multiple skills and multiple literacies to navigate digital resources, understand information, and critique that information.  Not only is decoding and encoding required of users of digital literacy, but so is media literacy (understanding graphic messages), technological literacy (understanding how to use digital technologies), critical literacy (understanding and acting against implicit messages that attempt to oppress and marginalize), and more.  And as more of the world becomes connected and the range of digital modes increases, so will the skill set required to understand, process, and create using those modes.  By broadening our conception of what is required of us to fully engage in digital technology, we are allowing room for growth along the way.


Gainer, J. (2012). Critical thinking: foundational for digital literacies and democracy. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 56(1), 14-17. doi: 10.1002/JAAL.00096

Gilster, P. (1997). Digital literacy. New York, NY: Wiley Computer Publishing.

Kajder, S. (2010). Adolescents and digital literacies: Learning alongside our students. Urbana,IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

Rheingold, H. (2012). Stewards of digital literacies. Knowledge Quest, 41(1), 52-55. Retrievedfrom: ?sid=e960f1f7-44c4-4216-bca0-f76da2dda3c%40sessionmgr4001&vid=11&hid=4208



Author: drkhturner

I am a teacher, a learner, and a writer. I am also the mother of twins. My Wordpress blogs allow my students and I to interact outside the walls of our classroom, and in some cases, Wordpress is our classroom space! My personal blog can be found at

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