(re)Defining Digital Literacy

Three Lenses for Thinking About Digital Age Literacies: The Content Dimension (What's On the Screen?), The Procedural Dimension (What's Behind the Screen?), The Contextual Dimension (What's beyond the screen?)

As usual, I’ve been inspired to sit down and publish again largely thanks to the work of some awesome colleagues working to redefine digital literacy – now and into the future.

This time, I’ve got Ian O’Byrne to thank for putting the call, in collaboration with the International Literacy Association and the National Council of Teachers of English. In previous writing, I’ve talked about the importance of supporting our students’ digital literacy practices beyond what’s happening “on screen.” And I think now’s a good time as any to update my thinking on the issue as this conversation kicks off.

Literacy or Literacies?

For starters, I tend to talk about literacy as involving both skills that can be developed, as well as practices, which develop over time and change according to social contexts. In other words, literacy can be understood as both something you have (or can develop), and something you participate in, building on metaphors offered by Anna Sfard. In her own writing on metaphors for learning, she cautions about the dangers of becoming overly attached to a singular view or ideology. Instead, she argues for the value of broadening our lenses of understanding to include multiple ways of knowing. I believe her view applies just as well to how we talk about literacy.

Image: Christopher Sardegna via Unsplash

In line with this initial framing, I tend to use the term literacies in the plural to emphasize the many different ways that people can develop in and express being and becoming literate. So, we can start our definition by identifying literacies as referring to skills and practices involving the reading and writing of texts in a broad sense – media of all kinds, print-based or otherwise, can be considered texts to be read and written. And at the end of the day, I want to emphasize that reading and writing themselves are all about how people create and exchange meaning with one another – not just how we pronounce letters and sounds.

Defining the ‘Digital’

Where people use the term ‘21st-Century Literacies‘ and ‘Digital Literacies,‘ to describe the many different ways people develop in express being literate in virtual spaces, I’ve been moving toward using the term ‘digital-age literacies,’ (which, I recognize, comes with its own baggage). For me, this is mainly to recognize that for many people around the world, our literate lives and identities are necessarily “hybrid,” that is “existing both in the physical word of bodies and books, as well as the virtual worlds of digital and social media.” (Selfie, feat. Jessica Zacher Pandya).

"As we combine literacy with the Internet and these new digital spaces, there are many challenges as we consider these new and ever-changing skills, competencies, and tools." - W. Ian O'Byrne
Image: PIRO4D via Pixabay

Looking Across Dimensions

As Renee Hobbs has helpfully pointed out, it’s hard to conceive of “digital literacy” without talking about all of other stuff that is caught up with it – for her, the idea of media literacy plays a prominent role as well.

In my own research, I’ve also found it helpful to think about digital-age literacies across multiple, overlapping and interrelated dimensions: namely, the dimensions of content, procedure, and context.

Looking at digital-age literacies through different “lenses” helps us understand the different dimensions of our experiences with digital texts.

When I talk about the content dimension of digital-age literacies, I mean the words, images, sounds, and animations and other content rendered “on the screens” that have become a part of many people’s daily lives. As part of the procedural dimension, we can think about the inner-workings operating “behind the screen” in our digital experiences – from what a button-press does in a video game, to how our social media feeds get curated for us. Finally, we can look “beyond the screen” at the contextual dimension of digital media technologies. We can ask questions about whose viewpoints and voices are represented (or left out) of these digital texts, the conditions in which they were produced, and the consequences of our engaging with these different platforms online.

Students in a library “code club” I studied demonstrated complex literacy practices that included visual design, programming, and “reading” social dynamics.

Applying these different “lenses” to our understanding of digital-age literacies helps us expand what counts as being “digitally literate,” and recognizes the variety of ways that all people exchange meaning in across virtual and face-to-face contexts.

Putting it All Together

Thinking through all that, as well as Ian’s initial call to keep it brief, here’s my shot at a working definition: Digital-age literacies describe the diverse and ever-evolving competencies and practices through which people create and exchange meaning through, about, and around digital media technologies. These literacies are often enacted across both physical and virtual spaces. And they can be understood through a variety of “lenses” that enable us to focus on how these literacies are enacted on, beyond, and behind the “screens” that have become a ubiquitous part of our everyday lives.

Digital-age literacies describe the diverse and ever-evolving competencies and practices through which people create and exchange meaning through, about, and around digital media technologies.

Being or Becoming Literate?

On a closing note, I’ll invite us to consider that rather than looking at folks as being digitally literate or not, it might be more productive to think of digital literacy (just like print literacy) as constant state of becoming. While we can still recognize people as existing across a broad spectrum of competencies, it’s also important to recognize that changing the context can quickly change how we understand people’s literate identities – digital or otherwise.

I hope these ideas add to our conversation, and I look forward to hearing what other folks think as well!

Iron Man, Ultron, and the Future of Ed-Tech

A few years ago, I sat on a panel discussion with a few colleagues in my doctoral program to discuss our research and perspectives on educational technology. I have to confess that at the time, I had not done nearly enough work to understand the long and sometimes troubling history of digital technologies in schools. To this day, I’ve only started to scratch the surface.

I was also still somewhat wide-eyed about the promises of new media technologies for improving education. Nevertheless, I found myself making an offhand analogy about teaching and tech that seemed to resonate with others in the audience. I don’t know if I’m the first to come up with it, but since it hasn’t shown up on the first page of my Google search results, I wanted to get the idea on paper, if only for my own clarity.

Discussing, in particular, the recent trends in ed-tech, the analogy that came to my mind at the time was inspired by Marvel’s 2015 Avengers: Age of Ultron film (spoilers follow). Outside of the general message about the dangers of advanced technology going unhinged, I found the superhero Iron Man and his creation-gone-wild-turned-antagonist Ultron to be interesting symbols for two approaches to educational technology.

Tony Stark and his rogue AI square off. Image still from Kjra Gaming on YouTube

For me, an Ultron-inspired approach to educational technology can be seen in trends around what Audrey Watters has called teaching machines – developments in educational technology that seem designed to automate education and ultimately replace the efforts of human teachers. Skipping, for now, the history of these efforts, more contemporary trends such as intelligent tutoring systems and AI-driven “personalized learning” might be recognized as broadly fitting into this category. In the same way that the rogue AI in the film ultimately concluded that humans were the biggest impediment to peace on earth, so too do some of our contemporary approaches to digital ed tech seem to be founded on the premise that it’s people (or at least some bad apples) that are the problem in education. Now where have we heard that rhetoric before?

“How much of an improvement is the right image over the left image? Image courtesy of Mary Jo Madda’s amazing TED Talk on this topic.

In contrast to this (or so I’d like to believe) is another approach to ed-tech, namely one inspired by the character Tony Stark’s use of his own Iron Man suit to augment his abilities in the fight for justice (or so he’d like to believe). In the Iron Man-inspired approach to ed-tech, digital technologies are used to augment the already amazing superpowers of our teachers – resourcefulness, empathy, fueling curiosity, anticipating misconceptions, and using our weekends and holidays to grade and plan. In the video below, you can catch a glimpse of an early-career Dan Meyer’s own Iron Man transformation.

Importantly, the tech that Dan showcases and continues to advocate for isn’t fancy – digital projectors, camera phones, and media that gets students wondering.

And maybe this is the direction we should be advocating for in schools. Digital tools that are built around the practices of teaching and learning – not the other way around. Approaches that support how people learn, rather than how tech companies want us to. These approaches might not give us the superpowers of the Avengers. But they might just help us better understand the superpowers our teachers and students already have.