Defining Digital Literacies – Why is this so hard?

This is a post in response to the What Are Digital Literacies? activity from the Technologist module of Ontario Extend. We are being asked, very simply, to define Digital Literacy for Teaching. Doesn’t seem to difficult right? Why is it taking me so long to write this blog post then? I’ve even taught a Digital Learning and Teaching course where I discuss Digital Literacies, most of which I know and attribute to Helen DeWaard.

Digital Literacy Mind Map by Helen Dewaard.

The Oxford Dictionary defines Literacy as:

and it defines Digital as:

Putting those together I might try to define digital literacy as “competence or knowledge in the use of computer technology”. I really wanted to include something about it relating to a finger or fingers, but I digress… Just straight competency using technology doesn’t get me to where I want to be though.

Wikipedia defines Digital Literacy as

 an individual’s ability to produce clear information through writing and other forms of communication on various digital platforms. Digital literacy showcases an individual’s grammar, computer, writing, and typing skills on platforms, such as, social media sites and blog sites. Digital Literacy also includes other devices, such as, smartphones, tablets, laptops and desktop PCs. While digital literacy initially focused on digital skills and stand-alone computers, its focus has shifted to network devices including the Internet and use of social media. Digital literacy does not replace traditional forms of literacy. Instead, it builds upon the foundation of traditional forms of literacy.

The Wikipedia definition starts to get closer to where I want my definition to be when it talks about shifting the Internet and social media, but more importantly, the fact that it builds on the foundation of traditional forms of literacy. Going back to the Oxford definition above, the first definition it gives is “the ability to read and write”, but I think the focus should be on the sub-definition of “competence or knowledge in a specified area”, particularly when we are discussing higher education. Being literate can mean to be able to read and write, but to be truly literate we need to be able to critically assess what we are reading and writing. Taking everything we read online and on social media at face value does not make for good understanding. Looking at the source, understanding the context, and responding accurately. These are what makes us truly literate.

That reminds me of this infographic I used in my course that brings in the Digital Citizenship aspect of Digital Literacy. Just being literate is not good enough. We need to think about the implications of our Digital Literacy and how others are affected by what we post online and on social media.

So have I been able to define Digital Literacy? I don’t think so. Have I hopefully provided some ideas that will help shift your (and my) thinking in a direction that is helpful? Maybe. Do I suggest you read the other submissions to this particular activity and see what they have to say? Absolutely!


Header Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

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