What is digital literacy?

by Veronica Szczygiel

Here you are reading a blog entry posted by a doctoral student in education. Whatever led you to this particular blog post took a certain set of skills and cognitive processes. You as a reader and I as a writer are interconnected in the very fabric of this digital language that you see on the screen, even though we may be sitting far apart from each other, and even though we may never meet in person. What you and I are doing here, in this moment, is exercising and practicing our digital literacy.

But before we can consider what exactly digital literacy is, especially in terms of education, we have to define the overarching term “literacy.” Literacy, in my mind, does not mean “outdated” or “traditional” or “twentieth century,” and it by no means sits a rung lower in terms of hierarchy compared with digital literacy. Rather, I believe literacy is the umbrella, all-encompassing term, and digital literacy is its offshoot or subtopic, akin to a Darwinian evolutionary tree where homo sapiens branched off from gorillas, baboons, and macaques in the primate tree limb. My broad, holistic definition of literacy is the following: the ability to effectively excise meaning, make meaning, and exchange meaning with various audiences (Kajder, 2010, p. 15 and New Media Consortium, 2005, p. 8). When we “excise” meaning, we read the “text” in front of us—which can be words, data visualizations, graphs, symbols, film, music—and analyze, interpret, and connect the meaning we draw out of the text to ourselves and the world around us. As Gilster (2007) says, literacy “has always meant the ability to read with meaning, and to understand. It is the fundamental act of cognition” (p. 2). When we “make” meaning we use our own distinct voices to create texts and respond to them, to fully express ourselves and to make our opinions and ideas known. And when we “exchange” or communicate meaning, we craft our voices, our words, and our ideas according to our audience; perhaps our audience needs a more informative text, or perhaps, in a call to action, a more persuasive one. Literacy can be print-text based; it can be visual; auditory; social; and so forth.

This is where the term “literacies” comes into play—it denotes the fact that there are different media and modes of expression in which one can excise, make, and exchange meaning. According to the “Adolescent Literacy” Policy Research Brief produced by the National Council for Teachers of English (2007), “[l]iteracy encompasses reading, writing, and a variety of social and intellectual practices that call upon the voice as well as the eye and hand” (p. 2). When someone who practices literacy uses voice, eye, and hand to construct and communicate meaning, he or she is able to “participate fully in the community and wider society” (UNESCO Education Sector, 2004, p. 13). Because the term “literacies” denotes learning and communicating in different and often multiple media and modes of expression, we must consider digital literacy as equally important as print, visual, and audio literacies, especially in the constantly evolving landscape of our educational system.

Because digital literacy is a subset or branch from the root, holistic term literacy, it relies on the same core principles and cognitive skill sets that are embedded in print (and audio, visual, social) literacy noted above. Jenkins, et. al. (2006) state that “textual literacy”—by which they mean print literacy—“remains a central skill in the twenty-first century. Before students can engage with the new participatory culture, they must be able to read and write” (p. 19). Digital literacy uses these core competencies of reading and writing as well as the multifaceted, multidimensional, and multimodal means of expression noted above with one distinction: digital literacy has the ability to connect to a wider, more globalized audience. Whereas storytelling, reporting, poetry writing, filmmaking, songwriting, and other forms of expression utilized in the classroom generally heralded readers/audiences of the teacher, peers, parents, at times the school student and parent body, maybe at times the wider community, now students are able to tap into communities where the audience is not always seen, identified, or recognized. Because the meanings we make can be spread farther than the classroom, school auditorium, or community center, students have to acquire additional or slightly modified cognitive skills and habits of mind to be literate in the digital world. I have identified five criteria that help define digital literacy (there may be more). Some of these criteria overlap with other literacies, but I will look into each one specifically for the digital sphere.

  1. Students who are digitally literate interpret meaning effectively. This means that not only is the student analyzing and excising meaning from words, images, and film, but the student is also considering the authorial intention of the “text” that is analyzed. That is, the student “must acquire a basic understanding of the ways media representations structure our perceptions of the world [and] the economic and cultural contexts within which mass media is produced and circulated” (Jenkins, et. al., 2006, p. 20).
  2. Students who are digitally literate must evaluate meaning judiciously. There is an overwhelming amount of information provided on the internet, much of which is unfiltered and unedited. Students must learn to decipher fact from fiction and credible from unreliable resources. Research requires not only locating information but also “assess[ing] the reliability of the data…[and] distinguish[ing] between fact and fiction, fact and opinion” (Jenkins, et. al., 2006, p. 19). Students must “make informed judgments about what [they] find online, for unlike conventional media, much of the Net is unfiltered by editors and open to the contributions of all” (Gilster, 2007, p. 2).
  3. Students who are digitally literate must synthesize meaning in an organized and salient fashion. When reading online, texts are often really hypertexts, as words are mixed with ads, pictures, film, and words that are links to other articles about related topics. Not only must students organize this data, but they must also distill their ideas and topics into concise word choices for subsequent effective searches. This exercises and hones (and sometimes taxes) executive functioning skills. Students must “take notes on and integrate secondary sources…construct arguments and marshal evidence” (Jenkins, et. al., 2006, p. 19-20). They must also “build a reliable information horde from diverse sources” (Gilster, 2007, p. 3).
  4. Students who are digitally literate must contribute meaning purposefully. There are a myriad of different ways in which students can participate and make meaning in the digital sphere; a student must think critically about his or her medium of choice and what meaning that choice advertently or inadvertently gives. Why post a vlog instead of a blog? Why write a petition letter instead of a 30-second promotional ad? Students must reflect on the choices they make, and how those choices reflect author intentionality as well as the audience’s perceived meaning. Kajder (2010) supports this notion by saying, “I aim at creating a new space for more students to find success and to be intentional in choosing the media through which to express their thinking” (p. 19). And of course, students must also contribute meaning effectively, following standards and criteria placed upon any written or oral text.
  5. Students who are digitally literate must contribute meaning with a hyperawareness of the intended (and unintended) audience, simultaneously understanding safety and navigating digital space responsibly. When students are present in the classroom, they see their audience in front of them; when a teacher gives a student feedback on his or her work, the student can follow up with the teacher in a face-to-face interaction. Online, an audience may not be so intimate or physically present. The internet is not just a powerful place, but it can also be a dangerous place, if an individual does not understand how to protect him or herself. Cybersecurity and cyberbullying are serious matters that must not be taken lightly, as are issues of copyright and plagiarism. Students must become aware that not only need they be responsible with how they handle found information, but that they must safeguard their ideas, meanings, and identities from being mishandled by other users.

In the end, digital literacy does not replace or trump other literacies but rather deepens our already established notion of literacy as a whole in which meaning is excised, made, and exchanged (References).

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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 http://twinlifehavingitall.blogspot.com.

1 thought on “What is digital literacy?”

  1. Veronica,
    I agree with your definition of digital literacy in that DL is encompassed in the larger “umbrella” of literacy as a whole. This broad topic centers around engagement and understanding, which lies at the heart of the teaching and learning “contract”. Your definition tracks the student’s movement in incorporating higher order thinking skills, first through internalizing and finally toward creating her own content in a safe and responsible manner.

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