On Digital Literacies

This post is co-authored with fellow Prof Hacker Lee Skallerup Bessette and Autumm Caines, Associate Director of Academic Technology in the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at Capital University in Columbus Ohio, and co-director of Virtually Connecting. Caines blogs at and

 “Buying into a system doesn’t automagically make you, or a University, digitally literate or creative” — Sheila MacNeill

The New Media Consortium recently released a Strategic Brief on Digital Literacy. This post is co-authored as a preliminary response to this report:

  1. Lack of description of the variety in the field. While we appreciate that the understanding of digital literacies is contested in the US, and that this is valuable, we are surprised by the lack of description of the variety in the field in this report. Bryan Alexander (first author of the brief and someone all three of us respect very much) wrote a blogpost describing the process behind the report (we know this is one of several posts making the process more transparent). This was very useful as he described the survey used and its results. While he mentions that multiple competing definitions were used in the survey (a good thing), the final brief published does not include these. For example, while Bryan’s blogpost mentions Belshaw and JISC, the brief barely nods to Belshaw and doesn’t at all mention JISC. How so? Even though the report has a “definitions and models” section. It is alright that many of these models have not been developed or adopted in the US, but it does not justify the lack of mentioning them in the report, especially since they were mentioned on the survey. Beyond Belshaw and JISC work on digital literacies and digital capabilities, there is also work that has been done in Scotland and Ireland (the complexity of the digital skills roadmap here nods to a lot of literacies not just skills, involving things like critical evaluation, ethics and identity) and elsewhere.

  2. Tools emphasis. The report states that “Part of digital literacy is not just understanding how a tool works but also why it is useful in the real world and when to use it”, but then goes on to focus on specific tools and skills (particularly the suite of tools offered by the sponsor of the report) as promoting digital literacy. But as Maha tweeted:

    The earliest definition of Digital Literacy by Paul Gilster (1997) emphasized “critical selection and evaluation” and “reflective competence” rather than “purely technical skills.” (cited here). By highlighting specific tools in the second page, the report contradicts itself. It emphasizes digital tools/functions and privileges the skills surrounding use of those tools.  It does this without recognizing that, while they are related to one another, tools are different from literacies. When we oversimplify these concepts, when we collapse the terms and use them interchangeably, we do damage to the reality of both.Tools are not literacies, and in the same respect literacies are not tools. We need to respect tools for what they are and the relationship that they have to literacy without conflating the two. Each has its place but confusing them is harmful to what is really important – the relationship between them.  Tools are developed by toolmakers, those who use these tools then develop literacies to use them in critical and creative ways. Because there are uncritical and uncreative ways to use tools, this distinction between tools or functions and the experience that gives rise to the development of proficiencies and competencies is significant . It is also important to mention literacies in conjunction with the broad range of tools possible (see again the Irish digital skills roadmap) rather than a particular small number of them. Oversimplification of these concepts and constructs does not bring benefit to either the  tools themselves or to the discovery experience surrounding their use.

  3. No mention of human support. The report also seems to be lacking in any sort of recommendations for human support.It seems that the main solution proposed is to buy certain software to promote digital production. Who is going to champion students in their  use of these tools in critical and creative ways? Don’t we need teachers with digital literacies to do so, or support and consultation on helping teachers develop these literacies themselves? The “Literacy Across Disciplines” section does call for curricular integration but there is no advice on how to do that – it simply says “In some ways, digital literacy as curriculum is the most ambitious version of digital literacy as implementing it requires a broad-ranging curricular redesign”. This is not enough. We will need people to enact changes of this scale. People with skills yes, but more importantly, people who have an understanding and respect for the complexity surrounding the relationship between digital literacies and digital tools.

  4. Lack of integration. The report ultimately underestimates both students and institutions by abandoning a way to integrate all three levels of digital literacy they identify. Rather than a hierarchy, it could have looked instead like a Venn diagram of the three forms of literacy (Universal, Creative, Disciplinary), where there are forms of all three literacies inform and build off each other in order to reinforce skills, build confidence, and develop real, integrated and integrative digital literacy.

  5. Choice of institutions mentioned. We are unsure how the report makers identified particular institutions and their models for applying digital literacy. There is no specific mention of how this was done. Was it based on the survey? Or something else? Not all of those mentioned apply digital literacy beyond the skills level. Many that were excluded do.

  6. Finally it seems that a question remains around what role NMC plays in the creation of such a report. What role should our professional organizations have in regards to contributing to big ideas such as digital literacies? Many of these organizations are tightly aligned to corporations and the tools that they produce. Considering the costs that surround running such organizations it seems only natural that these kinds of relationships would exist. Without belittling or demonizing such relationships is it still possible that we could call for a higher level of straightforwardness surrounding the nature and purposes of reports such as this one?

Do you have views on what constitutes digital literacies? What does your institution do to promote digital literacies? Tell us in the comments!

flickr photo by torbakhopper  shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

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