The second part of this opinion piece on the flashy, flimsy and faddish nature of many definitions of digital literacies finished by calling for a more transformative perspective. After all, we cannot ignore the stark reality that 52% of the world’s population still does not have access to the Internet (Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development, 2017b). Moreover, according to a recent Oxfam (2017) report, eight men own the same amount of wealth as the poorest part of the world. The third part of this discussion picks up on the challenge of this divide by locating digital literacies in a wider socio-political context. Put bluntly, it argues that our governments, policy-makers and educational leaders will fail to serve future generations if the definition of digital literacies does not help to promote a greater sense of moral and political agency to disrupt ‘a world where 1% of humanity controls as much wealth as the bottom 99%’ of the population (Oxfam, 2017, p.1). The implications of the growing divide for the future of education, to quote from a forthcoming World Bank Group (2018) report, is that ‘this learning crisis is a moral crisis’ (p.3).
Understanding the wider socio-political context
What this crisis and the disturbing figures from Oxfam illustrate, climbing down from my soapbox for a minute, is that what we choose to define as digital literacies is inherently political and cannot be separated from issues of power and control. To quote Bruner (1993), ‘Meaning is radically plural, always open, (…) there is politics in every account’ (p.1). Put another way the wider socio-political context is crucial to defining and understanding digital literacies, and the much wider concept of critical citizenry in the digital-era. Such a conception of citizenship encompasses an understanding that our own appetite for, and uncritical consumption of, new technology as part of the life those of us living in the developed world have become accustom to is at the root of many of our problems, including the grand challenges of globalization, climate change and an increasingly unsustainable planet. Learning when not to use, replace or update technology is therefore an important part of digital citizenship.
At this point of the discussion it needs to be noted that in the middle of 2017 the NMC published a follow up part II report which more fully acknowledges the socio-political context and different conceptions of digital literacies across international borders (Alexander, Adams Becker, Cummins, & Hall Giesinger, 2017). While the report claims the originally proposed model (Alexander, Adams Becker, & Cummins, 2016) holds up fairly well based on this further research, and in comparison to a handful of frameworks reviewed from other countries (see Figure 7), the authors conclude that context matters a great deal as different institutions and countries adopt different approaches to digital literacies.
Notably, the largest difference observed between the 2016 and 2017 research on the nature of digital literacies is an increasing emphasis on the role of culture and politics. To the authors credit this second report recognizes the ‘…need for a stronger emphasis on thinking through digital literacy in terms of unequal access to information technology, based on inequalities of economics, gender, race, and political divides’ (Alexander, Adams Becker, Cummins, & Hall Giesinger, 2017, p. 13). Having said that, there remains an inherent contradiction in the report’s call for a broader conception of digital citizenship, which encompasses political activism around the world, as very few of the identified exemplars truly reflect this perspective.
Emergence of critical digital literacies
The aforementioned UNESCO report published in September 2017 by the Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development (2017a) takes up the challenge of digital literacy for all. It confronts what the report describes as pronounced inequalities and disparities in terms of digital skills and makes the case for education systems to quickly and radically change to close equity gaps to better equip people to solve real world problems in their communities and beyond. In this context, digital skills, defined as a ‘combination of behaviours, expertise, know-how, work habits, character traits, dispositions and critical understandings’, are claimed to be best understood as existing on ‘a graduated continuum from basic functional skills to higher level, specialist skills’ (Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development, 2017a, p.4).
More specifically, anchored in UNESCO’s Sustainable Development Goal for Education to ‘Ensure inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning’ (SDG4), the report identifies three broad but distinct areas of digital skills for life and work: (i) basic functional digital skills for accessing and engaging with digital technologies; (ii) generic digital skills for using digital technologies in meaningful and beneficial ways; and (iii) higher-level skills for using digital technology in empowering and transformative ways. This third category of higher-level skills are couched in the language of critical digital literacy, which the report describes as:
A set of specific understandings and a disposition towards the politics of the digital society and digital economy. This foregrounds the ability of individuals to analyse the political features of digital technology and manipulate these to achieve particular outcomes. In this sense, it is argued that individuals need to be able to recognize the motivations of actors in the digital spaces (Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development, 2017a, p.32).
More succinctly, this cluster of socio-political skills is discussed in terms of a critical digital mindset, which prepares individuals to be adaptable and versatile in the face of ongoing and potentially far-reaching changes to the digitalization of societies—for better and worse. Above all, the report emphasizes the need to focus on developing the ‘digital agency’ of individuals in terms of their development as digital citizens and digital workers.
Encapsulating the critical and contextual
It remains to be seen whether UNESCO chooses to develop a more explicit and detailed framework or set of international standards to advance the depth of thinking reflected in this latest report. If this is the next step, as suggested in the recommendations, then any follow up project and proposed framework faces at least three challenges:
- to retain a core focus on developing agency and critical mindsets for better futures for all rather than promoting narrow digital skillsets for the more immediate demands of today’s knowledge economy;
- to avoid the trap of over-specifying the type of digital skills required and the levels of proficiency, especially given the contextual and rapidly evolving nature of new digital technologies;
- to recognise and strike an appropriate balance between universal frameworks and the highly situated and contextualised nature of digital literacies.
To some degree the above points are reflected in Doug Belshaw’s (2015) eight essential elements of digital literacies—culture, cognitive, constructive, communicative, confident, creative, critical and civic—as they attempt to encapsulate both a strong critical and contextual flavour (see Figure 8). Notably, this framework, as illustrated by the darker shades of colour in the comparison undertaken by the NMC (see Figure 7), is one of the few that explicitly recognises the importance of learning how to use digital technologies for public engagement, global citizenship and the enhancement of democracy—for better lives and more sustainable futures. That said, Belshaw is wary of efforts to present digital literacies in relatively simplistic frameworks and reports that he has tried to resist requests to do so.
I’ve been asked many times for a diagram of the eight essential elements, something that will fit nicely on a PowerPoint slide. While I can do so—and have done on occasion—I feel that this perpetuates a problem I’ve seen time and time again in my research. People over-specify an answer to a question that differs massively according to the context. This is why you won’t see a definition of ‘digital literacy’ in this book (Belshaw, 2015, p.58).
As Bhatt (2017) reminds us, context is the starting point of the now well-established tradition of research often referred to as the New Literacy Studies. Any attempt to define [digital] literacies need to be ‘…located as part of social practices and occur within culturally constructed instances or literacy events’ (Bhatt, 2017, p.1). Gillen and Barton (2010) point out that ‘Learning is always connected to specific domains of activity–the settings, participants, discourses and dynamics of participation’ (p.5). For this reason, despite good intentions, as mentioned at the outset of this discussion, there is a risk that many current digital literacies models and frameworks lack contextual validity fully cognisant of the complexity of situated practice.
Danger of deskilling
Unfortunately, some of the more flashy, flimsy and faddish frameworks for digital literacies may even be guilty of promoting false clarity of what still remains a messy construct. Indeed, efforts to provide relatively simple and visually attractive models and frameworks, without a stated or explicit theoretical foundation, and divorced from social, cultural, political and institutional contexts, may inadvertently deskill educators from critically reading some of the deeper forces at work in the drive to produce more digitally skilled learners, workers and citizens. Notably, very few frameworks for digital literacies explicitly report how they sought in the development process to address the question of trustworthiness–that is, reliability (i.e., does everyone agree and consistently assign specific digital skills and competencies to the same proposed category?) and validity (i.e., do proposed categories for digital literacies and related skills truly reflect the concept?). From a pedagogical perspective, moreover, there is a risk of promoting narrow instrumentalist approaches to digital skills development, with a growing trend to map and issue digital badges for completion of specific competencies. One of the takeaway lessons from the latest UNESCO report is that the sum of the whole is greater than the individual parts in efforts to cultivate and support critical digital mindsets.
The key point is that the emergence of the digital literacies movement is not neutral and must be seen as part of wider social practice. The concept of social practice recognises that different conceptions of digital literacies are not on an independent trajectory and cannot be uncoupled from wider debates over issues of power and privilege and the struggle to exert control over the education system (Brown, 2016). In this respect, efforts to foster digital mindsets and promote critical conceptions of digital literacies need to strike a balance between the language of opportunity, firmly anchored in the mission of promoting access, equity and education for all, set against deeper levels of critique. Such critique needs to go beyond a focus on individuals developing their digital identity, safety and wellbeing by helping to unravel some of the entangled arguments and competing macro-level discourses often imbued in the language of globalisation, neo-liberalism, and technological determinism. From this critical transformative perspective the goal of developing digital literacies is inextricably linked to enabling a greater sense of both personal and collective agency to help address some of the bigger issues confronting the future of humanity in an uncertain world.
In summary, the digital literacies movement is complex. While the latest UNESCO report is an important move in the right direction this extended three-part blog post shows there is no single overarching model or framework for digital literacies, which fully addresses all of the points raised in the discussion. Accordingly, in exploring the underbelly and wider socio-political practices underlying the concept of digital literacies, we need to ask who is shaping the current movement and for what purpose? What is missing in the discourse? What theory and research underpins specific frameworks? Whose interests are being served when particular frameworks are being promoted? Beyond efforts to produce flashy and visually attractive models how might we reimagine digital literacies to promote critical mindsets and active citizenry in order to reshape our societies for new ways of living, learning and working for a better future—for all?
Importantly, this last overarching question reminds us that local, national and global initiatives must go beyond a narrow focus on mastering keystrokes and even the wider goal of promoting greater participation in the digital society. There is a bigger picture at stake. If we fail to frame digital literacies in this bigger picture, then we limit our efforts to better understand the relative strengths and weakness of different models and frameworks. To this end, the discussion contained in the three blog posts over recent weeks hopefully offers useful insights for the ASCILITE community to engage in more informed debate. From my vantage point here in the Republic of Ireland such debate should heed the words of George Bernard Shaw—the great Irish critic, playwright and polemicist:
Beware of false knowledge; it is more dangerous than ignorance.
Alexander, B., Adams Becker, S., & Cummins, M. (2016). Digital literacy: An NMC Horizon project strategic brief. Volume 3.3, October 2016. Austin, Texas: The New Media Consortium.
Alexander, B., Adams Becker, S., Cummins, M., & Hall Giesinger, C. (2017). Digital literacy in higher education, Part II: An NMC Horizon project strategic brief. Volume 3.4. Austin, Texas: The New Media Consortium.
Belshaw, D. (2015). The essential elements of digital literacies. [Self-published through Gumroad Inc]. Available at https://dougbelshaw.com/blog/2016/01/02/digilit-ebook-199/
Bhatt, I. (2017). Assignments as controversies: Digital literacy and writing in classroom practice. New York and London: Routledge.
Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development. (2017a). Working group on education: Digital skills for life and work. Available from http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0025/002590/259013e.pdf
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Brown, M. (2016). MOOCs as social practice: A kaleidoscope of perspectives (pp.31-41). In E. De Corte, L. Enwall, & U. Teichler (Eds.). From Books to MOOCs? Emerging models of learning and teaching in higher education. Wenner-Gren International Series, 88. London: Portland Press.
Bruner, J.S. (1993). Introduction: The ethnographic self the personal self. In P. Bensen (Ed.), Anthropology and literature. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Gillen, J., & Barton, D. (2010). Digital literacies: Research briefing for the TLRP-TEL (Teaching and Learning Research Programme – Technology Enhanced Learning). London: ESRC Teaching and Learning Research Programme.
Oxfam. (2017). An economy for the 99%. Oxfam briefing paper. Available at https://www.oxfam.org/sites/www.oxfam.org/files/file_attachments/bp-economy-for-99-percent-160117-en.pdf
World Bank Group. (2018). World development report 2018: Learning to realize education’s promise. Available from http://www.worldbank.org/en/news/press-release/2017/09/26/world-bank-warns-of-learning-crisis-in-global-education