Digital Literacy at the Learn About Fair 2011

The Learn About Fair is an internal staff development event but we would welcome contributions from others

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Rebecca Galley
22 March 2011

This Cloud has been set up to provide a space for discussion and collaboration relating to the interwoven themes introduced by the Digital Literacy stall at the Open University's Learn About Fair 2011:

The Learn About Fair is an internal staff development event but we would welcome contributions to this Cloud from the wider Cloudworks community.

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Robin Goodfellow
12:32pm 28 March 2011 (Edited 12:33pm 28 March 2011)

Forgive me if I rain on the digital parade for a moment, but if we're talking about literacy again (and not just about someone's skill with a keyboard/mouse/touchscreen) maybe we ought to reflect for a moment on the following grumble, overheard at a recent writing development conference:

The fuss about 'digital' literacy all seems a bit indulgent to me, when there are so many students who still can't write a proper sentence!

Funny isn't it, that normally I'd be the first to leap on the old 'deficit' discourse (students can't spell, students can't do paragraphs, students won't review their work, students can't, student don't, moan moan etc. etc) but when it comes to a contrast with digital-everything cheerleading I sort of find myself with in a sneaky bit of agreement with the grammar bashers. What, after all, doth it profit a learner to have zillions of followers on twitter if they can't write an email to a potential employer umarred by bad spelling, wonky syntax, misplaced apostrophes, malapropisms, inappropriate register, slang, textese etc.

Even though the time may eventually come when college asignments are all presented in Powerpoint, Prezi, Google sites, Flikr or You tube, at the time of writing a hefty proportion of assignments in most subject areas are still essays, reports, reflections etc. written in words and marked according to rather conventional ideas of how sense is made in scholarly communication, and the role that boring old structures like sentences play in making it. What use is it for the digital natives to grumble that it's not 'their' style? If they can't write an essay as well as embed a video in their facebook page they'll end up with a crap degree. And that is likely to steer them towards a crap job (unless they are Mark Zuckerberg - which let's face it a lot of our 'digital literacy' flag waving might encourage them to think they will be).


Matthew Moran
1:04pm 28 March 2011

Perhaps the problem here lies in the word literacy. This word is used more and more to refer to competences or skills, good practice - even manners and etiquette. Digital literacy is a fascinating - and, for educators, challenging - topic because it brings into alignment proficiency with words and grammar, and skills in researching, publishing and networking via digitial media. As educators, perhaps we should be focusing on using digital tools and practices to help students develop their grammar and spelling skills. There's lots happening in the ELT field which could be instructive; The British Council's TeachingEnglish initiative is one to keep an eye on.

Rebecca Galley
1:21pm 28 March 2011

I'm not sure it is even possible to seperate the two anymore (i.e. 'traditional' and digital literacies). Literacy has become social, whether we agree that it should be or not.  An UNESCO international experts' meeting back in 2003 (re-?) defined literacy as "the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate and compute, using printed and written materials associated with varying contexts. Literacy involves a continuum of learning enabling an individual to achieve his or her goals, develop his or her knowledge and potentials, and to participate fully in the community and wider society" (Literacy Assessment and Monitoring Programme, 2004, International Planning Report. Montréal: UIS. p. 2).

Coming from a Learning Design point of view I'd argue that learning itself has become a social practice whether we like it or not too -it makes no sense to teach or learn reading and writing without the social dimension.

Matthew Moran
2:03pm 28 March 2011

So perhaps the problem lies in the world digital! The idea that there are online and offline literacies goes against the 'continuum of learning' idea: children learn the alphabet in a world where ditigal technologies are more or less present. Learners may be agents in a social world, but do they all have uniform access to the skills and technologies needed to participate in the rich learning experience described by UNESCO?

Terese Bird
2:23pm 28 March 2011

The original post seems to infer that digital fluency implies a level of illiteracy in written language. In fact, any encouragement toward digital literacy must of course demand that the scholar represents him/herself properly and well in every digital forum. One such guideline to good digital self-representation would be that linguistic shortcuts taken to fit an idea into a tweet are not appropriate in an essay or in an emailed job application. The fact that students do not realise this reveals the need for improved digital literacy skills (which, I agree with the others, can simply be termed literacy or skills).

Josephine Laogun
4:55pm 28 March 2011 (Edited 4:56pm 28 March 2011)

The term ‘literacy’ is a broad term that can be used in conjunction with any aspect of knowledge and experience and it gives a different meaning in each area it’s used. The word literacy means competence or knowledge in a specified area. Literacy can be applied to any area of human learning and experience.  For example, we have music literacy, political literacy, arts literacy as well as functional literacy (reading and writing for basic instruction), information literacy (using information effectively), and digital literacy (using a range of skills in computer and related technology effectively).

Reading and writing in what language? Should we consider someone able to read and write only in one language a literate? What should we classify him then in another setting where his particular language becomes foreign? Should we categorize someone able to read and write in more than one language more literate than someone who can only read and write in just one?

Reading and writing is a type of literacy but not an exclusive one. Examples of different types of literacy are cultural literacy, mental literacy. Agricultural literacy, diaspora literacy, emotional literacy, ecological literacy, statistical literacy, electracy, media literacy, the list is endless…

Katharine Reedy
9:51am 29 March 2011

Robin your last 2 sentences above made me smile because they sound a bit like the speech I made to my 14-year old son this morning! I think the missing link here is critical thinking - being able to use the technology in a discerning and critical way in order to achieve the particular purpose needed, whether it's writing an academic essay, composing a job application or not getting sacked from your job because of injudicious postings on Twitter or Facebook. There is cross-over with information literacy as far as filtering, evaluating, managing and using online information are concerned. As I understand it, both information and digital literacy require people to reflect on what they have done and how well it worked. They also demand  sensitivity to context, intellectual property and what is appropriate. Being able to insert a Flickr image into an essay is one thing, but being able to explain whether and how it is licensed for sharing via Creative Commons, and to attribute it correctly, is another. Not to mention making clear why they chose the image in the first place and what its significance is.

Perhaps the task of education at all levels is to equip students to be able to choose and use technology appropriately in any context and to be able to adapt to different contexts with fluency and ease. Not asking much then?!


Robin Goodfellow
9:54am 29 March 2011

As someone who has developed an interest in literacy as a research, as well as a teaching, term, I must admit I feel quite a strong resistence to the idea that 'literacy' means (as Humpty Dumpty might have put it) exactly whatever I want it to mean.

It seems to me that 'reading and writing' is not only A type of literacy but THE original meaning of the term (in the anglophone world, that is, I know that other languages don't always have a direct equivalent). All the points we've been raising here about social context, language, media etc. were originally raised by people researching literacy as written language. They had some great ideas about the way it functions as an ideological tool - determining not just how things shall be written but who shall write and how they shall be read - and they made what is to me a really important step in talking about literacies not just in terms of what individuals are capable of, but as systems for representing what communities want to say about themselves, and as systems for keeping members of these communities 'on message'!

Is the 'digital age' changing this? Not in my view. Although I grant that the pseudo-democracy of crowd-sourcing, user-generated content, peer-to-peer sharing, etc. makes it even more difficult to see which communities' interests are actually being served in the process. Whereas the nonsense of the 'correct' in academic writing soon becomes apparent to anyone who enjoys academic thinking, I sometimes wonder where the digitally-literate challenge to the tyrrany of the 'cool' is going to come from?

Robin Goodfellow
3:36pm 29 March 2011

I wondered if anyone else found this diagram at all useful as a substitute for a discussion about defining 'digital' against other types of literacy? I call it the Literacy & Technology Onion and have tried to explain it at . The main point is that the 3 inside layers of the onion are relatively familiar, in terms of both media context and types of associated literacy education, but the outside one, 'sociality', is still up for grabs conceptually, and so is its associated educational practice 'digital  literacy'. In the blog post above I'm arguing that we can't expect to be able to define digital literacy until we know what kinds of practice it constructs.

Mike Harland
7:49pm 7 April 2011

The problem with the word 'literacy' (just as that of 'knowledge') is that it leaves out the element of 'understanding'. 'Knowledge' is too often swapped for mere 'data acquisition': having lots of facts only gives you knowledge in the sense of "information with which to act" but leaves out the idea of "HOW to act", which is knowledge in the sense of wisdom (i.e. true learning). Similarly literacy is not just knowing WHAT some semiotic data (words, signs, sounds, etc.) may say, i.e. possessing the skill to read data (including disambiguating typos, acronyms, abbreviations, emoticons, textspeak, etc. correctly) – literacy involves understanding the implications of what the data represents or means, i.e. HOW it is to be INTERPRETED.

Anybody like myself who is a translator, an interpreter BETWEEN languages, recognises straight away that what you are all talking about is not really the acquisition of "literacy" but skills in interpretation.

As for grammar/spelling and the 'old deficit discourse', inaccuracy and the failure to stick to clear paradigms leads to a disaster in communication for any kind of discourse, whether it be in sciences or humanities. Getting the spelling 'formula' of a word wrong or rearranging the meaning of a phrase is just as bad as mixing the wrong chemicals  - that is why, even in politics, the combination of the 'lawyer politician' we see so often nowadays is a recipe for misinterpretation and demagogy, bending phrases into all kinds of unrecognisable imputations and implications. So please don't try to 'sex up' the pedagogy dossier the same way!

Essentially, once you cross the linguistic divide and therefore have to communicate clearly in another language or discourse by keeping a strict grasp on the dialectics involved, i.e. what BOTH must imply, you realise how accurate interpretation (or 'literacy', if you insist) has to be. Katharine seems to be saying similar things to me, but Robin seems to be mixing free thinking and exploration with the notion of clear interpretation.

'Digital literacy' seems to be just another literacy after all and just as poorly defined as all the rest, because until you add another word that clarifies the concept (e.g. 'knowledge and understanding' is meaningful, whereas 'knowledge' alone is not) you won't get anywhere. 

I would argue that 'digital literacy' is in fact a misnomer and so is the concept of 'sociality'. Sociality predates all of the forms of literacy in Robin's diagram. Other forms of literacy have merely gone through various phases of technological change: e.g. we have just gone through another interim period of techy/IT literacy that forced us to use silly things like screens, keyboards and mice, and luckily we are now returning to a more natural form of communication through semiotic gestures on tablets - I wonder what Moses would say?!   'Mass' sociality is merely a relative concept: we have gone through equally large technological stages of mass communication and shared literacy in the past, even before the printing press and radio.   Cave men used multimedia just like we do today and probably understood the semiotic meaning of their media far better than the majority of the billions of humans around today understand the intentionality of any web page. We could even argue that we are becoming more 'illiterate' through the advent of digital media ... but that would just lead us full circle back to the "old deficit discourse" ...

But then, I'm just a grumpy old linguist who has left the ivory towers of technobabble for whom eccentric concentric circles don't necessarily produce either onions or understanding. Sorry if I am intruding ...

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