7 Digital literacies and the skills of the digital age

Cathy L. Green

Oklahoma State University

 

AbstractThis chapter is intended to provide a framework and understanding of digital literacy, what it is and why it is important. The following pages explore the roots of digital literacy, its relationship to language literacy and its role in 21st century life.

Introduction

Unlike previous generations, learning in the digital age is marked by the use of rapidly evolving technology, a deluge of information and a highly networked global community (Dede, 2010). In such a dynamic environment, learners need skills beyond the basic cognitive ability to consume and process language. In other words: To understand what the characteristics of the digital age, and of digital learners, means for how people learn in this new and changing landscape, one may turn to the evolving discussion of literacy or, as one might say now, of digital literacy. The history of literacy contextualizes digital literacy and illustrates changes in literacy over time. By looking at literacy as a historical phenomenon, the characteristics of which have evolved over time, we can glean the fundamental characteristics of the digital age. Those characteristics in turn illuminate the skills needed in order to take advantage of digital environments. The following discussion is an overview of digital literacy, its essential components and why it is important for learning in a digital age.

Moving from Literacy to Digital Literacy

Literacy refers to the ability of people to read and write (UNESCO, 2017). Reading and writing then, is about encoding and decoding information between written symbols and sound (Resnick, 1983; Tyner, 1998). More specifically, literacy is the ability to understand the relationship between sounds and written words such that one may read, say and understand them (UNESCO, 2004; Vlieghe, 2015). Literacy is often considered a skill or competency and is often referred to as such. Children and adults alike can spend years developing the appropriate skills for encoding and decoding information.

Over the course of thousands of years, literacy has become much more common and widespread with a global literacy rate ranging from 81% to 90% depending on age and gender (UNESCO, 2016). From a time when literacy was the domain of an elite few, it has grown to include huge swaths of the global population. There are a number of reasons for this, not the least of which are some of the advantages the written word can provide. Kaestle, (1985) tells us that “literacy makes it possible to preserve information as a snapshot in time, allows for recording, tracking and remembering information, and sharing information more easily across distances among others” (p. 16). In short, literacy led “to the replacement of myth by history and the replacement of magic by skepticism and science. Writing allowed bureaucracy, accounting, and legal systems with universal rules and has replaced face-to-face governance with depersonalized administration” (Kaestle, 1985, p. 16). This is not to place a value judgement on the characteristics of literacy but rather to explain some of the many reasons why it spread.

There are, however, other reasons for the spread of literacy. In England, throughout the middle ages literacy grew in part, because people who acquired literacy skills were able to parlay those skills into work with more pay and social advantages (Clanchy, 1983). The great revolutions of the 19th and 20th centuries also relied on leaders who could write and compatriots who could read as a way to spread new ideas beyond the street corners and public gatherings of Paris, Berlin, and Vienna. Literacy was perceived as necessary for spreading information to large numbers of people. In the 1970’s Paulo Freire insisted that literacy was vital for people to participate in their own governance and civic life (Tyner, 1998). His classic “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” begins from the premise that bringing the traditional illiterate and uneducated into learning situations as partners with their teachers awakens the critical conscience necessary as a foundation for action to foment change (Freire, 1973). UNESCO (2004) also acknowledges the role that literacy plays in enabling populations to effect change and achieve social justice aims. They speak even more broadly, moving beyond the conditions necessary for revolution, contending that literacy is a fundamental right of every human being, providing employment opportunities, and the fundamental skills necessary to accrue greater wealth and improve one’s quality of life.

Although the benefits of literacy were a driving force in its spread, technological advances also enabled the spread of literacy to greater and greater numbers of people. From stamped tokens, tally sticks and clay tablets, to ancient scrolls, handwritten volumes, the printing press, typewriters, and finally computers, technology is largely responsible for driving the evolution of literacy into the particular forms of encoding and decoding information associated with the digital age. Technology has made it possible for literacy to move from the hands of the few to the hands of the masses and to morph into a digital environment with characteristics extending far beyond anything that has been seen before.

Not only did computers and electronic technology deliver literacy into the hands of many but also created an environment that made it possible to store vast amounts of information. Books and libraries led the way to making information easily available to the public, but within the age of computers and the internet the volume of accessible information is larger than ever, more readily available than ever, and changing more quickly than ever before. In the early 21st century, technology continues to develop more quickly than at any time in the past creating an environment that is constantly changing. These changes contribute to the need for different skills beyond traditional literacy skills also called new media literacy (Jenkins, 2018). For a short video on the reasons why digital literacy is important visit “The New Media Literacies” located on YouTube.com and created by the research team at Project New Media Literacies.

Literacy in the Digital Age

If literacy involves the skills of reading and writing, digital literacy requires the ability to extend those skills in order to effectively take advantage of the digital world (ALA, 2013). More general definitions express digital literacy as the ability to read and understand information from digital sources as well as to create information in various digital formats (Bawden, 2008; Gilster, 1997; Tyner, 1998; UNESCO, 2004). Developing digital skills allows digital learners to manage a vast array of rapidly changing information and is key to both learning and working in an evolving digital landscape (Dede, 2010; Koltay, 2011; Mohammadyari & Singh, 2015). As such, it is important for people to develop certain competencies specifically for handling digital content.

People who adapt well to the digital world exhibit characteristics enabling them to develop and maintain digital literacy skills. Lifelong learning is a key characteristic necessary for handling rapid changes in technology and information and thus, critical to digital literacy. Successful digital learners have a high level of self-motivation, a desire for active modes of learning and they exercise the ability to learn how to learn. Maintaining and learning new technical skills also benefits learners in the digital age and an attitude of exploration and play will help learners stay engaged and energized in a world where speed of change and volume of information could otherwise become overwhelming (Dede, 2010; Jenkins, 2018; Visser, 2012). A final characteristic of a digital learner includes the ability to engage in a global network with a greater awareness of one’s place and audience in that network. Together, these characteristics of the digital age guide us in understanding what traits a learner will require to be successful in the digital environment. The following section will help understand what lies at the intersection of digital skills and traits of successful digital learners by reviewing existing digital literacy frameworks.

Reviewing Existing Frameworks for Digital Literacy/ies

Digital literacy is alternately described as complicated, confusing, too broad to be meaningful and always changing (Heitin, 2016; Pangrazio, 2014; Tyner, 1998; Williams, 2006). Due to this confusion, some feel it best to completely avoid the term digital literacy altogether and instead opt for the terms such as digital competencies (Buckingham, 2006), 21st century skills (Williamson, 2011) or digital skills (Heitin, 2016). Another way to sort out the confusion is to look at digital literacy as multiple literacies (Buckingham, 2006; Lankshear & Knobel, 2008; UNESCO, 2004)

Here, I take the latter approach and look at digital literacy as a collection of literacies each of which play a significant role in learning in a digital world. Ng (2012), operationalizes digital literacy as a framework of multiple, specific competencies which, when combined, form a cohesive collection of skills. By taking this approach, we link the characteristics of the digital environment as well as those of the digital learner not to a single digital skill but rather a set of digital literacy practices. In this way, we can consider the various skills needed to navigate the digital world in an organized and consistent manner.

Ng (2012) proposes a three-part schema for discussing the overlapping functional characteristics of a digitally competent person: technical, cognitive, and social (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Underlying foundation of digital literacy includes technical, cognitive and social skills (Ng, 2012).

Technical literacy, also referred to as operational literacy, refers to the mastery of technical skills and tasks required to access and work with digital technology such as how to operate a computer; use a mouse and keyboard; open software; cut, copy and paste data and files, acquire an internet connection and so on (Lankshear & Knobel, 2008). The cognitive area of digital literacy focuses on activities such as critical thinking, problem solving and decision making (Williamson, 2011) and includes the ability to “evaluate and apply new knowledge gained from digital environments”(Jones-Kavalier & Flannigan, 2006, p. 5). The third of Ng’s three categories – social literacies – covers a wide range of activities which together constitute the ability to communicate in a digital environment both socially and professionally, understand cyber security, follow “netiquette” protocols, and navigate discussions with care so as not to misrepresent or create misunderstandings (Ng, 2012). Of particular note, Ng captures the essence of digital literacy by showing how digital literacy exists at the intersection of the technical, cognitive and social aspects of literacy which are referred to as dimensions. Ng’s framework is not, however, a digital literacy framework itself. Instead it provides a vehicle for exploring the various components of digital literacy at a conceptual level while remaining clear that the individual skills are at all times connected to and dependent upon each other.

There are a number of organizations that publish their own framework for digital literacies including the International Society for Technology in Education ICT Skills (ISTE), the American Association of College and Universities (AACU), the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the American Library Association (ALA), and the Partnership for 21st Century Skills among others (Dede, 2010). The digital frameworks exhibit many similarities, and a few differences. There are some differences in the terminology and organization of these frameworks, but they all include similar skills. What follows is a brief overview of the different digital frameworks. See Figure 2 for a composite of these frameworks.

Figure 2. Major Frameworks for 21st Century Skills (American Library Association, 2013; Dede, 2010; SCONUL, 2016; Vockley & Lang, 2008)

Each of the frameworks come from a slightly different angle and will at times reflect the background from which they come. The American Library Association (ALA) framework evolved out of the information literacy tradition of libraries, while the American Association of College and Universities (AACU) and the Society of College and University Libraries (SOCNUL) evolved from higher education perspective, the Partnership for 21st century learning addresses K-12 education, and the ISTE is steeped in a more technical tradition. Even with these different areas of focus the components of each framework are strikingly similar although some in more detail than others. Three of the six specifically address the skills necessary for accessing, searching and finding information in a digital environment while the other three have broader categories in which one might expect to find these skills including, research and information fluency, intellectual skills, and ICT literacy. Cognitive skills required for digital literacy are also covered by all of the frameworks in varying degrees of specificity. Among them one will find references to evaluating, understanding, creating, integrating, synthesizing, creativity and innovation. Finally, four of the six digital frameworks pay homage to the necessity of solid communication skills. They are in turn, referred to as life skills, personal and social responsibility, communication, collaboration, digital citizenship and collective intelligence.

What seems oddly missing from this list of skills is the technical component which only appears explicitly in the ISTE list of skills. The partnership for 21st century learning uses ICT literacy as a designation for the ability to use technology and the ALA, in discussing its framework, makes it clear that technical proficiency is a foundational requirement for digital literacy skills. Even with these references to technical skills the digital literacy frameworks are overwhelmingly partial to the cognitive and social focus of digital skills and technical proficiency tends to be glossed over compared to the other dimensions. Even though technical skills receive relatively little attention by comparison we will assume for this discussion, technical skills are a prerequisite to the other digital skills, and we will look more carefully at each of them in the next section.

To fully understand the many digital literacies, we will use the ALA framework as a point of reference for further discussion using the other frameworks and other materials to further elucidate each skill area. The ALA framework is laid out in terms of basic functions with enough specificity to make it easy to understand and remember but broad enough to cover a wide range of skills. The ALA framework includes the following areas:

  • Finding,
  • Understanding,
  • Evaluating,
  • Creating, and
  • Communicating
    (American Library Association, 2013).

Finding

Finding information in a digital environment represents a significant departure from the way human beings have searched for information for centuries. The learner must abandon older linear or sequential approaches to finding information such as reading a book, using a card catalog, index or table of contents and instead use lateral approaches like natural language searches, hypermedia text, keywords, search engines, online databases and so on (Dede, 2010; Eshet, 2002). The shift from sequential to lateral involves developing the ability to construct meaningful search parameters (SCONUL, 2016) whereas before, finding the information would have meant simply looking up page numbers based on an index or sorting through a card catalog. Although finding information may depend to some degree on the search tool being used (library, internet search engine, online database, etc.) the search results also depend on how well a person is able to generate appropriate keywords and construct useful Boolean searches. Failure in these two areas could easily return too many results to be helpful, vague or generic results, or potentially no useful results at all (Hangen, 2015).

Not immediately obvious, but part of the challenge of finding information is the ability to manage the results. Because there is so much data, changing so quickly, in so many different formats it can be challenging to organize and store it in such a way as to be useful. SCONUL (2016) talks about this as the ability to organize, store, manage and cite digital resources while the Educational Testing Service also specifically mentions the skills to access and manage information. Some ways to accomplish these tasks is through the use of social bookmarking tools such as Diigo, clipping and organizing software such as Evernote and OneNote, and bibliographic software. Many sites, such as YouTube allow individuals with an account to bookmark videos as well as create channels or collections of videos for specific topics or uses. Other websites have similar features.

Understanding

Understanding in the context of digital literacy perhaps most closely resembles traditional literacy in so much as it too, is the ability to read and interpret text (Jones-Kavalier & Flannigan, 2006). In the digital age, however, the ability to read and understand extends much further than text alone. For example, searches may return results with any combination of text, video, sound, and audio as well as still and moving pictures. As the internet has evolved, there have evolved a whole host of visual languages such as moving images, emoticons, icons, data visualizations, videos and combinations of all of the above. Lankshear & Knoble, (2008) refer to these modes of communication as “post typographic textual practice”. Understanding the variety of modes of digital material may also be referred to as multimedia literacy (Jones-Kavalier & Flannigan, 2006), visual literacy (Tyner, 1998), and digital literacy (Buckingham, 2006).

Evaluating

Evaluating digital media requires competencies ranging from evaluating the importance of a piece of information to determine its accuracy and its source. Evaluating information is not new to the digital age, but the nature of digital information can make it more difficult to understand who the source of information is and whether it can be trusted (Jenkins, 2018). When there is abundant and rapidly changing data across heavily populated networks, anyone with access can generate information online, making decisions about its authenticity, trustworthiness, relevance, and significance daunting. Learning evaluative digital skills means learning to ask questions about who is writing the information, why they are writing it, and who the intended audience is (Buckingham, 2006). Developing critical thinking skills is part of the literacy of evaluating and assessing the suitability for the use of a specific piece of information (SCONUL, 2016).

Looking for secondary sources of information can help confirm the authenticity and accuracy of online data and researching the credentials and affiliations of the author is another way to find out more about whether an article is trustworthy or valid. One may find other places the author has been published and verify they are legitimate. Sometimes one may be able to review affiliated organizations to attest to the expertise of the author such finding out where an employee works if they are a member of a professional organization or a leading researcher in a given field. All of these provide essential clues for use in evaluating information online.

Creating

Creating in the digital world makes explicit the production of knowledge and ideas in digital formats. While writing is a critical component of traditional literacy, it is not the only creative tool in the digital toolbox. Other tools are available and include creative activities such as podcasting, making audio-visual presentations, building data visualizations, 3D printing, writing blogs and new tools that haven’t even been thought of yet. In short, all formats in which digital information may be consumed, a digitally literate individual will also want to be able to use in the creation of a product. A key component of creating with digital tools is understanding what constitutes fair use and what is considered plagiarism. While this is not new to the digital age, it may be more challenging to find the line between copying and extending someone else’s work.

In part, the reason for the increased difficulty of finding the line between plagiarism and new work is the “cut and paste culture” of the internet referred to as “reproduction literacy” (Eshet 2002, p.4) also referred to as appropriation in Jenkins’ New Media Literacies (Jenkins, 2018). The question is, what can one change and how much can one change work without being considered copying? This skill requires the ability to think critically, evaluate a work and make appropriate decisions. There are tools and information to help understand and find those answers such as the creative commons. Learning about these resources and learning how to use them is part of this digital literacy.

Communicating

Communicating is the final category of digital skills in the ALA digital framework. The capacity to connect with individuals all over the world creates unique opportunities for learning and sharing information for which developing digital communication skills is vital. Some of the skills required for communicating in a digital environment include digital citizenship, collaboration, and cultural awareness. This is not to say that one does not need to develop communication skills outside of the digital environment but that the skills required for digital communication go beyond what is required in a non-digital environment. Most of us are adept at personal, face to face communication but digital communication needs the ability to engage in asynchronous environments such as email, online forums, blogs and social media platforms where what we say can’t always be deleted but can be easily misinterpreted. Add that to an environment where people number in the millions and the opportunities for misunderstandings and cultural miscues are much more likely.

The communication category of digital literacies covers an extensive array of skills above and beyond what one might need for face to face interactions. It includes competencies around ethical and moral behavior, responsible communication for engagement in social and civic activities (Adam Becker et al., 2017), an awareness of audience and an ability to evaluate the potential impact of one’s actions online. It also includes skills for handling privacy and security in online environments. These activities fall into two main categories of activity including digital citizenship and collaboration.

Digital citizenship refers to one’s ability to interact effectively in the digital world. Part of this skill is good manners, often referred to as “netiquette. There is a level of context which is often missing in digital communication due to physical distance, lack of personal familiarity with people online and the sheer volume of people who may come in contact with our words. People who know us well may understand exactly what we mean when we say something sarcastic or ironic, but those and other vocal and facial cues are missing in most digital communication making it more likely we will be misunderstood. Also, we are also more likely to misunderstand or be misunderstood if we remain unaware of cultural differences amongst people online. So, digital citizenship includes an awareness of who we are, what we intend to say and how it might be perceived by other people we do not know (Buckingham, 2006). It is also a process of learning to communicate clearly and in ways that help others understand what we mean.

Another key digital skill is collaboration, and it is essential for effective participation in digital projects via the internet. The internet allows people to engage with others we may never see in person and work towards common goals be they social, civic or business oriented. Creating a community and working together requires a degree of trust and familiarity that can be difficult to build given the physical distance between participants. Greater awareness must be paid to inclusive behavior, and more explicit efforts need to be made to make up for perceived or actual distance and disconnectedness. So, while the promise of digital technology to connect people is impressive it is not necessarily an automatic transition, and it requires new skills.

Parting thoughts.

It is clear from our previous discussion of digital literacy that technology and technical skills underpin every other digital skill. A failure to understand hardware, software, the nature of the internet, cloud-based technologies and an inability to learn new concepts and tools going forward handicaps one’s ability to engage with the cognitive and social literacies. While there are sometimes tacit references to technical skills and ability, extant digital literacy frameworks tend to focus more on the cognitive and social aspects of digital environments. There is an implied sense that once technical skills are learned, we the digitally literate person can forget about them and move on to the other skills. Given the rapid pace of technological change in the last 40 years, however, anyone working in a digital environment would be well advised to keep in mind that technical concepts and tools continue to develop. It does not seem likely that we will ever reach a point where people can simply take technological skills for granted and to do so would undermine our ability to address the other digital skills.

Another way to think of this is to recognize that no matter what the skill, none of them operate independently of one another. Whether searching, creating, evaluating, understanding or communicating, it is a combination of skills (or literacies) that allow us to accomplish our goals. Thinking critically, and evaluating information and sources leads to sound decision-making. Understanding and synthesizing information is necessary for creating and again the technical tools are necessary for completing the product. Finding information is of little use if one is unable to analyze its usefulness and creating a great video or podcast will not mean much if one is unable to navigate social and professional networks to communicate those works to others. If only understood in isolation, digital literacies have little meaning and can be of little use in approaching digital environments.

Ng’s (2012) conceptual framework reminds us that digital literacy is that space where technical, cognitive and social literacies overlap. A digital skill is not the same thing as digital literacy but the two are fully intwined. Acquiring digital skills is only the beginning of a study of digital literacies, however, and it would be a mistake to stop here. Furthermore, digital literacies span multiple areas including both the cognitive and the social. The real value of digital literacy lies in understanding the synergistic effect of individual digital literacy skills integrated with sets of competencies that enable one to work effectively in the digital world.

Learning Activities.

Literacy Narratives are stories about reading and composing in any form or context. They often include poignant memories that involve a personal experience with literacy. Digital literacy narratives can sometimes be categorized as narratives that focus on how the writer came to understand the importance of technology in his/her life or teaching pedagogy. More often, they are simply narratives that use a medium beyond the print-based essay to tell the story.

Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy, 20(1), available at http://kairos.technorhetoric.net/20.1/praxis/bourelle-et-al

  1. Combining both aspects of the genre, write a piece based on your technological literacy, choosing a medium you feel best conveys the message you want to share with your audience.
  2. Find and read 2-4 literacy narratives online that emphasize the use of technology and write a short reflection that discusses the main digital literacies used, summarizes the main points made and describes the elements you felt were most important. Also, describe any digital literacy skills you utilized to complete the assignment.
  3. Create your literacy narrative that tells the story of a significant experience of your own with digital literacy. Use a multi-modal tool that includes audio and images or video. Share with your classmates and discuss the most important ideas you noticed in others’ narratives.
  4. Compare two of the literacy frameworks in Figure 2. How are they alike? How are they different? Do you like one better than the other? Why or Why not?

Resources.

  1. Multi-Media Resources about Digital Literacy
  2. Digital Literacy Standards
  3. Literacy Resources and Training
  4. Resource Library
  5. Visual Literacy Resources
  6. Digital Literacy Fundamentals
  7. Microsoft Digital Literacy
  8. 12 Essentials of Digital Literacy
  9. US Digital Literacy
  10. What are literacy skills?

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Learning in the Digital Age by Cathy L. Green is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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