International Perspectives: The limits of ‘digital literacy’

Written by Phil Nichols

Across global organizationsnational governments, and professional teaching communities, it seems like one thing educational stakeholders agree on is that young people need digital literacy. But when it comes to what is meant by “digital literacy,” there is less agreement.

For some digital literacy refers to the skills needed to navigate evolving workplace demands. In this view, young people need digital literacy so they can remain productive and employable in a technologized world. For others, digital literacy is more about responsible technology use (e.g., protecting personal privacy) or online cultural production (e.g., creating and analyzing media content).

In many ways, the multiple meanings of “digital literacy” contribute to the term’s popularity. Its ambiguity allows different interest groups —governments, organizations, teachers, communities, and families — to enlist the concept in different educational agendas that, together, help reinforce the importance of “digital literacy” in society.

As an education researcher who studies how technologies change the ways we practice, teach, and talk about literacy, I follow such discussions about need for digital literacy education closely. In my work, I’ve found that the same ambiguity that elevates digital literacy as a pedagogical priority can also get in the way of teachers’ efforts to improve instruction related to digital technologies.

One reason for this, I suggest, has to do with the term itself. Both of its component words — digital and literacy — carry hefty assumptions that can create confusion when the two are brought together. Addressing these assumptions, then, is important if teaching and learning about technology are to have the impacts its advocates desire.

Digital “literacy”

The first set of assumptions have to do with literacy. Researchers have long demonstrated the fluid meaning of the term “literacy.” At times, it’s been associated with functional reading and writing skills that could lead to upward mobility, for individuals, and economic growth, for countries. At others, it has referred to interpretive practices that help prevent people from being manipulated (e.g., by deciphering truth from falsehood) or prod them toward social action (e.g., by empowering self-expression).

In light of this, it isn’t surprising that framing of digital education as a form of “literacy” reintroduces some of the same conflicting connotations. The uncertainty about whether digital literacy is primarily about workplace skills or critical engagement with technologies and media content is a feature it inherits from “literacy,” more broadly. In both instances, the ambiguity creates challenges for educators. It continually moves the goalposts for what counts as literacy, making it difficult to know if, and when, students’ literacy (or digital literacy) practices are progressing.

Literacy also introduces a second challenge to digital education. Literacy is most commonly associated with the reading and writing of texts. But today’s digital technologies don’t easily lend themselves to readings in the same way as, say, a book or newspaper article. Using a social media network, for example, may involve familiar literacy practices, like reading a message or writing a comment. But the digital processes that make these literacies possible are largely non-textual — at least, as we encounter them. We can’t do a close reading of the code, algorithms, or data processes that make Instagram or TikTok run, even though these play an important role in how we use them.

In this way, focusing on digital education on “literacy” may direct our attention toward the aspects of technologies that are most closely associated with text (e.g., analyzing the content of websites, apps). And, in doing so, it can also paper over other aspects of technologies that are equally, if not more, important for helping young people understand and navigate today’s digital media environments.

“Digital” literacy

A second set of assumptions have to do with the word digital. When most people think about “the digital,” they probably think of it as a space that is distinct from the non-digital, or analog, world. Digital literacy, then, is often understood a kind of literacy that begins when someone enters this “digital” space – say, by picking up a cellphone or logging into a computer.

However, this tidy separation of “the digital” and “the non-digital” can overlook some important ways that the two intermingle. A young person walking through their neighborhood, for instance, may not be intentionally engaging in digital activity, but the phone in their pocket that tracks their geolocation (and the passive surveillance of their neighbors’ doorbell cameras) can enroll this mundane, analog practice in a web of digital relations.

The porousness of “the digital” even holds true for analog literacy practices. In Postprint, N. Katherine Hayles shows how even the seemingly straightforward act of reading a hard copy book is now shot through with digital intercessions: from the code of the manuscript text file; to the software that facilitates its acquisition, review, typesetting, and proofreading; to the formatting standards that allow it to be read across devices (e.g., phones, tablets, desktop computers). We might go further still and note the other, intimate ways that the form, content, and accessibility of books are increasingly shaped by word-processing platforms, publishing metrics, retail algorithms, and shipping logistics. This perspective raises the question of what, if any, literacy practices today aren’t a kind of digital literacy.

Re-framing media pedagogies

One way we might begin to rethink “digital literacy” is by foregrounding the tensions outlined above in our approach to media education. Rather than taking the concept of “digital literacy” for granted, we can ask: How might we avoid over-estimating the power of “literacy” to make sense of our digital technologies? And how might we avoid under-estimating the force of “the digital” in permeating, and reshaping, conventionally analog activities?

Such a view might also encourage us to consider if other terms might be of use in reframing media education so that it is keyed to the specific technological challenges we hope it will address. In my own work, for instance, I have found the metaphor of ecology to be helpful for exploring the social, technical, and political-economic relations in today’s media environments.

What an alternate framing might forego in its immediately familiarity, it can make up for in what it allows us — and the young people we teach — to understand and notice about the operation, uses, and impacts of digital technologies today. Such alternatives need not displace the good work that has traveled under the name “digital literacy,” but they may push us to extend this work in new and unanticipated directions. In doing so, they may also help us cultivate media pedagogies that are proportionate the challenges posed by our emerging media landscape.

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