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Digital Literacy

image of ancient greek lady writing with text digital literacies

As discussed in a previous article, Digital Literacies is one of the nine themes of Engaged Digital Citizenship. I wrote only briefly about it though, as it is a complex theme in itself and it warranted having its own article. Of all the nine themes of Engaged Digital Citizenship, Digital Literacy has the most meaning and potential to facilitate knowledge, ideas and communication in community based digital projects. In order to be able to research the benefits and obstacles within digital community-based projects, it is essential to understand what Digital Literacy means: with regard to the practical, pedagogical and lifelong learning. In this article I will discuss why we need to know about digital literacies.

What is Digital Literacy?

The ability to use ICT and the Internet becomes a new form of literacy—“digital literacy.” [Søby 2006]

Digital Literacy, as a term is constantly challenged and questioned. As areas of Digital Literacy expand with new technologies, with it comes the need for newly coined words or expressions, neologisms. There are several new terms which can all come to mean a similar ideal: media literacy, information literacy, digital literacy, technoliteracy, computer literacy, electronic literacy, network literacy, multimodels, multiple literacies or multi literacies. The many forms of the terms are symbolic of the many concepts and ideas, that are coming to the fore, about what digital literacy actually is. As technologies and our ideas of technology change, so to will Digital Literacies. All agree, however, that it has become essential for all of society to know what Digital Literacy is.

Whatever the term used, the fundamental basics are the same. digital literacy is often understood as the ability to participate in a range of critical and creative practices; that is understanding, sharing and creating meaning with different kinds of technology and media. [FutureLab, Martin et al 2006]]

An Individuals ability to adapt, adapt, invent and evaluate technology to positively affect his or her life, community and environment, but also to participate in controlling their own destiny. [Hanson 2005, McCade 2001, Martin 2006]

Allan Martin, is Director of the IT Education Unit at the University of Glasgow in Scotland, as a writer editor of publications on digital literacy, Martin has written extensively on its concepts and importance. In the e-permeated society, a society is also increasingly unpredictable and uncertain, “digital literacy” becomes not only a key factor in enabling participation in education, as well as employment and other aspects of social life, but also a means of gaining some understanding of the world.. i [Martin 2006]

In our today’s society, we have never been so influenced by digital technology, it permeates all aspects of our lives. Society believes it is taking a passive role, but Martin believes we must take ownership of the culture we have made for ourselves. We have made the ‘Information Society, and the ‘Digital Age’ for ourselves. [Martin et al 2006]. His work with the DigEuLit project helped a new European Framework and definition for digital literacy:

Digital Literacy is the awareness, attitude and ability of individuals to appropriately use digital tools and facilities to identify, access, manage, integrate, evaluate, analyse and synthesize digital resources, construct new knowledge, create media expressions, and communicate with others, in the context of specific life situations, in order to enable constructive social action; and to reflect upon this process. [Martin et al 2006]

Digital Literacy is about knowing how to use technology, what to use and when to use it. Its about becoming critical of your tools, your software and hardware, your information and knowledge about that information. To create the best situation for you as an individual, as part of a community and as part of a global society. One in which, as an e-citizen on the world wide web, you have the opportunity to learn and be creative with your knowledge, to have the freedom to express yourself through different forms of media, and the opportunities to use digital resources for play, education or work. The world wide web is not a neutral space, it is essentially human, with the range of emotions that come with being human. Digital tools are not neutral tools, they can be used emotionally to cause joy or pain. It is very important to have the awareness of the digital community you are engaged in, and to be respectful; towards different cultures, different ideas, different individuals who make you your global e-community. These are all fundamental elements of digital literacies.

Mastering ideas not keystrokes

In his book, Digital Literacy, Paul Gilster states this “digital literacy is about mastering ideas, not keystrokes”. Gilster distinguishes the difference between traditional ‘technical skills’ which are perhaps limited and his view of digital literacy [Gilster 1997]. Although he was one of the first to describe the concept of digital literacy, as the term is now generally used, he did not define attributes, attitudes or processes to this new concept. Gilster’s book raises two important points, about being our new e-society:

  1. That the digital environment has revolutionised not only information seeking, but also information handling behaviour.
  2. Technical skills may be less important than a discriminating view of what is found on the internet.

The evolution of literacies from a skills focus through an applications focus towards a concern with critique, reflection and judgement and the identification of generic cognitive abilities or processes, or meta-skills. [Martin et al 2006]. Digital Literacy is now a variable process in which you can and need to access, obtain and contextualise ICT or information and communication technologies.

There are several key elements to digital literacy:

  1. Digital literacy involves being able to carry out successful digital actions embedded within work, learning, leisure, and other aspects of everyday life.
  2. Digital literacy, for the individual, will therefore vary according to his/her particular life situation and also be an ongoing lifelong process developing as the individual’s life situation evolves
  3. Digital literacy is broader than ICT literacy and will include elements drawn from several related “digital literacies”
  4. Digital literacy involves acquiring and using knowledge, techniques, attitudes and personal qualities and will include the ability to plan, execute and evaluate digital actions in the solution of life tasks
  5. It also includes the ability to be aware of oneself as a digitally literate person, and to reflect on one’s own digital literacy development.[Martin2006]

These key elements, that involve the ability to question the information you obtain,  to use your digital literacy knowledge to analyse and re-create new digital forms; these are the elements that make use aware of the prevalence of digital technologies in our society, and how we can use them to create a better community, either locally or globally.

Why we all need to know about Digital Literacy

Society, however, is not static. Digital technology is thus both means and symptom of social change [Martin 2006]

Being able to send an email, search up information on Google, book cheap Ryan Air flights, or post pictures on Facebook is not enough to be considered digitally literate. Our society is now permeated with digital technology, for better or worse. Every day, more life factors change to become digital, from communication to lifestyle, banking to education. Even our currency; we are slowly becoming a paperless society with the advent of e-banking. There are very few types of employment left that do not require some form of digital technological knowledge. Digital literacy is fast becoming a prerequisite for creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship and without it citizens can neither participate fully in society nor acquire the skills and knowledge necessary to live in the 21st century. [European Commission for Education and Culture, 2003]

The prosperity of a nation, geographical region,business or individual depends on their ability to navigate the knowledge space. [Pierre Lévy]

The rate of change to our culture and civilization as a whole is unprecedented. There are key skills that are necessary, for us as individuals and as a community to, for one, keep up to date with the latest technologies, and for another, not be left behind by our rapidly changing culture. This is where the importance of digital literacies lie. The internet presents us with a bewildering array of information choices, and we devise coping strategies according to our level of information savviness and our digital literacy skills to avoid being overwhelmed. [Fieldhouse]. With the constant upgrading of software and hardware, the pressure to be ‘live’ at all times, we can feel like we are falling behind, out of the loop and develop e-fatigue.

With all the benefits that digital technology brings, it also has another downside, apart from being overwhelmed, or aspects such as privacy and censorship; there is an inequality in terms of access and availability. This inequality is now called the digital divide, which I will discuss in further detail later. Another inequality, is ageism; those born after the invention of the world wide web are called digital natives; those before, who have some level of digital literacy are called digital immigrants. However much you use digital technology, and well, its not often you see a digital native, without some form of electronic device, this does not mean you are digitally literate or in any way information saavy.

We don’t especially need to be told what digital literacy is; more so, we need to know what it can do for us. The ambiguity around even the definition of digital literacies, does not allow for growth.

There is too much talk around what digital literacies is, and not enough on time discussing what it is, rather than why we need it. We don’t need to be told what digital literacy is, we need to discuss, build consensus, start aligning around a reasonable definition [Belshaw 2011]

It is easy to focus on the negative aspects of digital technology and the digital divide; however, it is better to take a more proactive stance, and see how we can improve our own and others digital literacy skill set. In his doctoral thesis, Dr. Doug Belshaw identified eight essential elements of digital literacy that lead to positive action:

Cultural: Requires technology use in different contexts and awareness of the values and practices specific to varying contexts

Cognitive: Enables mastery of the use of technological tools, software, and platforms

Constructive: Requires reusing and remixing existing resources depending on need, or possibly adapting them into new resources

Communicative: Requires awareness of different communication devices that are both digital and mobile

Confidence: Places emphasis on gaining competence with digital technologies and the ability to create an environment for practising skills and self-learning

Creative: Creates new data in digital environments while taking risks, developing skills, and producing new things

Critical: Requires the digital learner to develop various perspectives while actively taking different circumstances into account

Civic: Develops and helps acquire the concepts of democracy and global citizenship as individuals become participants in society

Belshaw also worked on developing the Mozilla Web Literacy Map, a framework for entry-level web literacy & 21st Century skills ii .   Mozilla, in developing this framework, produced a white paper on web literacy to help people become good citizens of the web, focusing on the following goals:

  1. develop more educators, advocates, and community leaders who can leverage and advance the web as an open and public resource
  2. impact policies and practices to ensure the web remains a healthy open and public resource for all. In order to accomplish this, we need to provide people with open access to the skills and know-how needed to use the web to improve their lives, careers, and organizations.

They have produced an excellent interactive web page with a breakdown of elements, with colour code guides so you can see the links and overlay of different element.

screenshot of mozilla framework for digital literacies

Using these elements, from Mozilla and Belshaw, I will examine further aspects of digital literacies, allowing space for new technologies and new forms of literacies.


i     Allan Martin and Jan Grudziecki, ‘DigEuLit: Concepts and Tools for Digital Literacy Development’, Innovation in Teaching and Learning in Information and Computer Sciences, 5.4 (2006), 249–67 <http://dx.doi.org/10.11120/ital.2006.05040249>.

ii   Mozilla, ‘Web Literacy – Mozilla Learning’ <https://learning.mozilla.org/en-US/web-literacy/>


Belshaw, D. (2014). The Essential Elements of Digital Literacies. Retrieved from <http://digitalliteraci.es>

DigEuLit Project (2005–2007). Available from: http://www.digeulit.ec/

Gainer, Jesse, (2012) ‘Critical Thinking: Foundational for Digital Literacies and Democracy’, Journal of Adolescent & Adult  Literacy, 56.1 , 14–17 <http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/JAAL.00096/full>

Gilster, P. (Ed.).(1997). Digital literacy. New York: Wiley.

(2006). Digital fusion: defining the intersection of content and communications. In A. Martin & D. Madigan (Eds.), Digital literacies for learning (pp. 42–50). London: Facet Publishing.

LévyPierre. (1999) ‘Collective Intelligence: Mankind’s Emerging World in Cyberspace’ Perseus.

Martin, Allan  and Grudziecki,(2006) Jan  ‘DigEuLit: Concepts and Tools for Digital Literacy Development’, Innovation in Teaching and Learning in Information and Computer Sciences, 5.4 , 249–67

Martin, A. (2006a). Literacies for the digital age. In A. Martin & D. Madigan (Eds.), Digital literacies for learning(pp. 3–25). London: Facet Publishing.

 (2006b). A framework for digital literacy, DigEuLit working paper. Retrieved November 15, 2007, from http://www.digeulit.ec/docs/public.asp

(2005). The landscape of digital literacy, DigEuLit working paper. Retrieved November 30, 2007, from http://www.digeulit.ec/docs/public.asp

(2003). Towards e-literacy. In A. Martin & H. Rader (Eds.), Information and IT literacy: enabling learning in the 21stcentury (pp. 3–23). London: Facet Publishing

Mozilla, (2016) ‘Web Literacy – Mozilla Learning’ <https://learning.mozilla.org/en-US/web-literacy/>

Søby, Morten (2006) Digital Competence—From Education Policy to Pedagogy: The Norwegian Context C6/121-132.Martin,  Digital literacies for learning. London: Facet Publishing.











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