Encyclopedia Entry: Digital Literacy
Everywhere we remain unfree and chained to technology, whether we passionately affirm or deny it. But we are delivered over to it in the worst possible way when we regard it as something neutral; for this conception of it, to which we particularly like to homage, makes us utterly blind to the essence of technology. –Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology
The term ‘literacy’ is often and easily misappropriated to refer to a sufficient and usable body of knowledge concerning any topic. People may refer to themselves as wine literate or baseball literate to mean they that possess knowledge about these topics. Similarly, in the current computer rich age, the term ‘digital’ serves as a convenient blanket term for a breadth of technological tools and settings where they are in use. A coffee shop may advertise its “digital lounge” to refer to a location of wireless access to the Internet. The accepted definitions for both these terms are often misconstrued, because they are so favored for the linguistic and technological powers they bespeak.
Rather than greet common misuse of terms like digital or literacy with chagrin, the wise lexicographer and student of language ought to recognize the many values and meanings assigned them as a sign of their import to our times. In combining these already complicated terms, defining the phrase digital literacy involves consideration of the competing perspectives of educators, consumers, politicians, students, and organizations and individuals involved in the technology industry. Digital literacy refers to the ability of an individual to incorporate the use of various technologies with the efforts to participate in, create, and analyze discourse in a variety of modes that may exceed the traditional print medium and simultaneously appeal to more than one of the five senses.
A variety of competing definitions exist for digital literacy, and even simple agreement on the substitute of a seeming synonym like ‘technological literacy’ does not exist. A cursory search for one definition yields a plurality, because our understanding of literacy in the digital age is still in flux, and different takes on the term are developed for different uses, not simply as objective explanations. Literacy scholar Cynthia Selfe contrasts the U.S. government’s definition of digital literacy (in 1996) with her own, where the government defines digital literacy as “computer skills and the ability to use computers and other technology to improve learning, production and performance” (Selfe 10). While the federal definition may be sufficient for legislative purposes, Selfe finds that it fails to account for the contexts in which acts of digital literacy occur. For her, digital literacy “refers to a complex set of socially and culturally situated values, practices and skills involved in operating linguistically within the context of electronic environments, including reading, writing and communicating” (Selfe 11). Selfe’s understanding of literacy takes care to acknowledge the extension of the socially constructed nature of language into the digital realm.
Other scholars challenge the notion that digital literacy only involves the extension of language ability into the realm of technology, and expand their definition of the term to include other, non-print based modes of communication. Carey Jewitt acknowledges the origins of literacy in print based reading and writing, but finds that “new technologies appear to blur the boundaries between the visual and written” (113). Images, sounds, and responses to human touch can share an equal prominence with the written word in the multi-media or “multi-modal” forms of discourse possible to create with the use of computers. The new modes of communication afforded by computer technology do not deny the power of language, but supplement it to create a more complete sensory message that can convey meaning on a variety of levels.
Most scholars accept the notion that “typography [can be used] to visually express something,” ( Jewitt 114) so that font and text size of a message can affect the reader’s interpretation of the message. Just as the visual properties of printed language can help determine its received meaning, other visual, oral and tactile effects now possible to create with digital technologies can enhance, or alter, the meaning of the intended message. Any careful web page designer will include images, colors, fonts, and perhaps music that align with the language content of the web site: hot pink leopard print background may be more suitable for a fashion web site than a high school biology class site, or perhaps staid and predictable choices in web page design may only serve to reinforce established perceptions and ideas.
The digital literate has a wider range of choices to reckon with beyond choosing the right words and the right font to make a message complete. The richness of the content available on the Internet may be more effective at presenting meaning than language on its own. Williams suggests that “language and print literacies cannot provide the full meaning of the multimodal content that is obvious to anyone within moments of connecting to the Internet” (Williams 7). In order to be considered digitally literate, a person must be aware of and competent in the use of the technologies necessary to create true multimodal presentations or communications. Digitial literates must be versed in Web 2.0 technologies like wikis and blogs, but also aware of the possible evolution of ideas and communication through multi-media.
Not only do more possibilities for the presenting information exist in the digital realm, but also the context in which literacy is practiced is more interactive, and has the potential to be more culturally and socially diverse than traditional print discourse communities. The ability to participate in social networks or correspond via email with people around the world in real time affords a much different experience of communication practices than traditional modes of print distribution. According to Williams, “the interactive capabilities of online technologies have highlighted and intensified the ways in which relations within discursive communities determine how reading and writing happen and who is able to participate in literacy practices” (Williams 16). While digital technology presents the opportunities for increased collaboration, unexamined practices may only eventually reinforce norms of the traditionally exclusive print literacy communities.
The digitally literate and socially conscious individual must learn to interrogate and analyze the communities of digital discourse she participates in, to see whether practices that seem to reinforce collaboration and increase opportunities for communication may actually reinforce exclusion of traditionally disadvantaged populations. The digital community is by no means universally accessible; its availability to users tied to economic resources, geographic location, and community perceptions of the uses of technology. While technological resources are commonly taken to be tools to alleviate contemporary socio-economic stratification, Cynthia Selfe found mixed success at achieving this worthy goal in her study of technology’s effects on literacy in the late nineties:
If the project to expand technological literacy has been justified as a means of achieving positive social change and new opportunity, to date it has failed to yield the significant social progress or productive changes that many people have come to hope for. (Selfe 6)
Highly technologically literate individuals remain a privileged minority, due to the unequal appropriation of the tools of technology by different social classes and cultures.
The definition for digital literacy remains in flux, as new technological tools continue to emerge. Educators should be concerned with establishing a workable definition for the term, because their students’ success depend on their literacy not just in terms reading and writing printed text, but in their ability to assess, understand and produce communication in the many modes afforded by digital tools. To guide continuing efforts to establish a normative definition, the National Council of Teachers of English established a working definition for 21st century literacies in February 2008. As adopted by the NCTE executive committee, 21st century readers and writers need to be able to:
Develop proficiency with tools of technology, build relationships to solve problems collaboratively, design and share information for global communities, manage, analyze and synthesize multiple streams of simultaneous [and competing] information, and critique, create, analyze and evaluate multi-media texts. (ncte.org)
The guidelines established by the NCTE may serve as a tool for determining necessary adjustments to educational philosophies and pedagogical practice for teachers committed to advancing literacy in the 21st century. For example, a teacher planning lessons designed to build literacy could supplement thematic explorations of immigration with real-time dialogue online with other students studying the same topic, could create assignments that require multi-media presentations, and could ask students explore the blogs and web sites of organizations and individuals interested in immigrant rights. The printed text is no longer the teacher’s only source of worthwhile curriculum materials: just as educators must teach students to use digital tools, they must become proficient with them as well.
While the legions of digital literates will continue to increase, so too will the best definition of the term continue to evolve. Heidegger’s caution that we may easily assign a false neutrality to tools of technology ought to be heeded: the notion of digital literacy and use of tools that make it possible are situated in a host of social, economic and political contexts that are no less objective than the words printed on any page.