Notes towards Digital Literacy

Anyone who has talked to me for any length of time over the past couple of years will have been hard pressed to have avoided my growing preoccupation with the UK’s digital literacy agenda, or rather, lack of one. However, while I’ve been talking about this a lot, I haven’t made many written remarks outside of policy contributions and consultations. Hopefully this brief post will act as a marker of progress rather than just a register of the current limitations of the UK education system.

A lot of progress has been made recently in terms of the e-safety agenda, for example with the publication in March of Dr. Byron’s Safer Children in a Digital World,  and the approval of all the reports recommendations by the UK Government, and the establishment of the UK Council for Child Internet Safety (UKCCIS) at the end of September this year. Additional moves toward modernising our Duty of Care towards pupils and staff, both providing and signposting support and in building awareness, responsibility and resilience in using technologies, has come in the form of e-safety provision within the QCA’a new curriculum and in the Department for Children, Schools and Families Cyberbullying Guidance that I was fortunate enough to be able to contribute to.

However, while it is a critical area of development and resourcing, e-safety alone is not enough. To regard it as anything except a critical element within a wider digital literacy framework, and to attempt to teach it alongside an antiquated, generally programme-specific ICT education is to short change our learners, and to fail to recognise the technological, social and economic shifts that have take place globally. To not integrate and model good practice in digital literacy has huge social consequences – from potentially disadvantaging individuals and communities in terms of social and economic opportunities, to the society-wide disadvantage we risk by not ensuring that everyone is in a position to make their voice and opinions heard within the law, and to engage technology as a way of bringing about community facilitation of all kinds, social organisation and change. 

So what is digital literacy? Currently, it is a discussion that isn’t happening, but which needs to be taking place nationally and publicly amongst the major organisational stakeholders (across government, industry, and education), informed by the local conversations of learners, parents, education sector workers, and employers. 

Digital literacy then refers to a set of knowledge and competencies
(including social skills and cultural competencies) required by technological, social and economic changes in society. It should covers a range of areas; skills and
understandings that ensure everyone can get the most out of their
engagement with technology. It includes e-safety and wellbeing, but
also includes collaboration and communication skills, rights and
responsibilities, ethical and environmental issues, commercial
practices, privacy and security issues, digital identity and citizenship, along with finding, evaluating
and applying information.

Some of these skills can be highly
complex. However, there are ways of supporting even very young learners
to understand important and relevant concepts, such as keeping oneself
safe and helping others when using technologies. Conceptually, skills and behaviours supported within the framework of digital
literacy should share the same ambitions as those outlined in Every Child Matters –
being healthy, staying safe, enjoying and achieving, making a positive
contribution and achieving economic well being.

These last couple of years have seen the establishment of an evidence base and a public recognition of the huge personal, professional and social impacts of new technologies. What many edtechs have been involved in is describing new social realities, practices and opportunities. What I’d dearly like to see now is a push forward from the work done by Ofcom, Childnet, and Becta (amongst many) in establishing the current state of play and an active engagement in developing new models and frameworks.

19 thoughts on “Notes towards Digital Literacy

  1. Really really quick comment – or question: What’s the difference (or similarity) between digital literacy and information literacy? Isn’t there a danger that these concepts, especially DigLit as you’ve outlined it, become so wide they collapse?
    Having said that, maybe that’s only a matter of classification. Your depiction of the landscape, whatever one calls it, is valuable and useful.

  2. Hi Ben. You’ve hit the nail on the head as far as I’m concerned. I’m not bothered if you want to call it new media literacy, information literacy or something else. What I do care about is that the discussion takes place publicly, and at national level. Digital literacy is my preference – personally I see it as embracing e-safety and related to/overlapping with media literacy as that is currently understood.
    What I’d really like to see is the conversation at the stage where we at least have *some* kind of shared understanding. I’m dearly hoping that it will be a contested and troublesome category 🙂

  3. I think it *does* matter what we call it, but I agree that any type of mainstream discussion about it should be the short-term goal.
    Most discussion around Digital Literacy seems to cite Paul Gilster’s book of the same name. Some great ideas in it, but also some assumptions I’d questions.
    Have a look at the quotations, etc. I’ve gathered on new literacies at
    (not trying to linkspam your blog, Josie – honest! 😉

  4. Thanks for the links Doug. I’m always saying “I don’t care what you call it” and then someone else says “but words are very important” – probably being to flippant after years of critical theory. The word is important, but it’s a marker, and within reason I’d be happy to compromise on whatever it ends up getting called in favor of a shared definition 🙂

  5. Thanks for that Dan. I *am* proud of the work that’s been going on here in the UK, and very happy to have been able make a small contribution to the policy process surrounding digital literacy. However, I’m keen to see us take the next step sooner rather than later.
    I’m also conscious that because of my work I’m addressing the UK situation in particular in this post. This isn’t at all because I don’t see these issues as international ones, but because I’m looking at practical ways forward. The work Will Gardner and I did for the UK gov around cyberbullying is currently being looked at as a starting point or model by many countries across Europe, as well as in NZ, AU and the US. The broader conversation is international, of course 🙂

  6. Josie, I agree entirely with your arguments for why the e-safety agenda needs to be part of something broader, and I’d add another reason:
    the decent e-safety work is vulnerable; it’s vulnerable to being marshalled in service of, or surrounded by, real misinformation and scaremongering that does parents, and certainly their children, no real good. I felt this very strongly this past week at an ‘Internet Safety’ workshop at my son’s primary school delivered by folk from the Lucy Faithfull Foundation.
    The workshop began with Childnet’s ‘Jenny’s Story’ film and finished with the excellent Childnet / DCSF ‘Let’s Fight It Together’ Cyberbullying film. But between the two there was misinformation – particularly about social networking services – bordering on very unhealthy scaremongering. And that’s why I feel this work is vulnerable: the good letter of that message can be undermined by the spirit of entirely different messages when it sits out there on its own, not connected enough to a wider digital literacy frameworks. This feels very important.

  7. Stuart – huge, huge thanks for that comment. You are completely right – it’s so asy for e-safety work to get hijacked by moral panic and misinformation (especially when delivered by people who don’t understand online environments and practices).

  8. While I understand the concern for words and meanings, I am tempted to say that it needs to go even further, than media/digital/information, all of which marginalise. There is a sense in which these terms tempt us to stick it all in the programme-specific ICT box. But perhaps there is a sense in which what is really required is a new definition of Literacy that reflects the increasingly pervasive use of new technologies in all walks of life, one that integrates the use of new technologies in the same way that “conventional” literacy requires proficient use of paper-based technologies.

  9. Great post Josie. It’s great to go online and actually find the term digital literacy along with the recognition that digital literacy is not (and cannot be) solely a technological literacy. On top of all the skills/literacies you’ve described, it’s also important (i think) to retain auditory/visual/linguistic etc…literacies including analyses for the value of online content – i.e. teaching students (or whomever) how to find content appropriate to their needs.
    great stuff josie!
    i’ll look forward to catching up with you at the Future of Creative Technologies conference!

  10. Josie, can I make a plea for transliteracy here? The trouble with digital literacy is that it doesn’t situate literacy within a wider historical/cultural context, which is a main aim of transliteracy. Here are some links – I’d be interested to hear your response:

  11. Very interesting post Josie and it’s great to see so many comments in support of addressing the many issues surrounding digital literacy. I agree that much work needs to be done to develop knowledge and competencies to prepare graduates for 21st Century life and employment. To this end I am currently working on a project to develop guidance for students so that they can manage their digital identity in order to effectively promote themselves online. Thanks for your links everyone – I shall be following them up. May I also add my own in the hope that it can also contribute to your call to ‘develop new models and frameworks’:

  12. Tx for your great post, Josie. I completely agree that the framework needs to be broadened – in fact I blogged last spring that online safety as we know it is obsolete ( because 1) we now know from the research that the youth most at risk online are those at risk offline (so psychologists, social workers, and risk-prevention experts are needed in the discussion at the very least), 2) youth make little-to-no distinction between online and offline, and 3) the Net increasingly mirrors RL. That’s not all the reasons, of course.
    “Digital literacy” does seem a little broad, at least for a “consumer” audience, so lately I’ve been telling parents that “digital citizenship is the new online safety” (because of the large nos. of youth affected by cyberbullying in US research and this finding from the Crimes Against Children Research Center: “Youth who engage in online aggressive behavior by making rude or nasty comments or frequently embarrassing others are more than twice as likely to report online interpersonal victimization”). At the same time, I don’t think we can exclude “media literacy” because of the importance of critical thinking in the face of manipulation of both the marketing and the grooming sorts. Which brings us full circle – back to your “digital literacy” when we need to cover the full ground. [It’s just that our p.r. folk keep pushing for “catchy.” 😉 ] Happy holidays!

  13. Hi Josie
    A belated response to your very interesting post.
    On information literacy and how it relates to advanced skills needed in the job market I found some of the contributors to last Monday’s (29/12/08) Andrew Marr’s Start the Week programme on BBC Radio 4 interesting ( Richard Susskind ( had some observations on the future role of experts and professionals in an increasing ‘free market’ in information and knowledge. Examples of how this is changing are where a lot of lawyers’ and doctors’ routine work is now to some extent doable by anyone using the internet. If this is true then what is the continuing role of professional? According to Susskind this is where complex contextual knowledge is needed to make judgements on the basis of the depth and breadth of knowledge experts have and where certain types of communication are needed (human to human and empathetic) to help people make decisions.
    A book that focuses on the advanced skills looked for by employers is ‘The New Division of Labor’ (2004) by F Levy & R J Murnane (chapters 4 and 5). These are expert knowledge and complex communication skills. IT skills by themselves are not enough but are pre-requisites to the more advanced skills that are largely intellectual – engaging in sustained reasoning, managing complexity, testing a solution, collaborating, communicating to other audiences – very similar to expert thinking and complex communication skills Susskind is talking about and the definitions of graduate skills as found in many recent reports on HE and its relationship to changes in the economy. I would say these are important aspects of life long learning, digital citizenship and wellbeing in ‘information/knowledge societies’ too. Levy and Murnane’s take on the digital divide is that it is lack of these advanced skills that creates the digital divide rather than routine access to IT and basic IT skills. My interest in all this is how it translates into what we should be doing in higher education.
    On the question of what is ‘information’ and how this relates to ‘knowledge’, my early forays into this territory have been tentatively posted at: I’m sure lots of work has been done on this and I need to catch up.

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