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Digital Literacy Fundamentals


Today’s youth are often called “digital natives” by adults because of the seemingly effortless way they engage with all things technological. It’s easy to see why: youngsters live in an interactive, “on demand” digital culture where they are used to accessing media whenever and wherever they want. Instant-messaging, photo sharing, texting, social networking, video-streaming and mobile Internet use are all examples where youth have led the charge in new ways of engaging online.

But this enthusiasm masks a potential problem: although young people don’t need coaxing to take up Internet technologies and their skills quickly improve relative to their elders, without guidance they remain amateur users of information and communications technology (ICT), which raises concerns about a generation of youth who are not fully digitally literate, yet are deeply immersed in cyberspace. Therefore, “it is not… enough to assume that young people automatically have all of the skills, knowledge and understanding that they need to apply to their use of technology. All young people need to be supported to thrive in digital cultures; they need help making sense of a rapidly changing world of technology which gives them access to vast amounts of information, which is infused with commercial agendas and which for many reasons can be difficult to interpret.”

A basic question is what exactly is digital literacy?

This section looks at the various aspects and principles relating to digital literacy and the many skills and competencies that fall under the digital literacy umbrella.



What is Digital Literacy?

Digital literacy is more than technological know-how: it includes a wide variety of ethical, social and reflective practices that are embedded in work, learning, leisure and daily life.

Globally, the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) frames its benchmarks for digital literacy around six standards: creativity and innovation; communication and collaboration; research and information fluency; critical thinking, problem solving and decision making; digital citizenship; and technology operations and concepts.

Use, Understand, Create

Traditional definitions of literacy have focused on skills relating to numeracy, listening, speaking, reading, writing and critical thinking, with the end goal being developing active thinkers and learners who are able to engage in society in effective and meaningful ways. These skills are needed for full participation in digital society as well, but they are only part of a larger set of skills and competencies that are required.

Competencies for digital literacy can be classified according to three main principles: Use, Understand and Create.

Use represents the technical fluency that’s needed to engage with computers and the Internet. Skills and competencies that fall under “use” range from basic technical know-how – using computer programs such as word processors, web browsers, email and other communication tools – to the more sophisticated abilities for accessing and using knowledge resources, such as search engines and online databases, and emerging technologies such as cloud computing.

Understand is that critical piece – it’s the set of skills that help us comprehend, contextualize, and critically evaluate digital media so that we can make informed decisions about what we do and encounter online. These are the essential skills that we need to start teaching our kids as soon as they go online.

Understand includes recognizing how networked technology affects our behaviour and our perceptions, beliefs and feelings about the world around us.

Understand also prepares us for a knowledge economy as we develop – individually and collectively – information management skills for finding, evaluating and effectively using information to communicate, collaborate and solve problems.

Create is the ability to produce content and effectively communicate through a variety of digital media tools. Creation with digital media is more than knowing how to use a word processor or write an email: it includes being able to adapt what we produce for various contexts and audiences; to create and communicate using rich media such as images, video and sound; and to effectively and responsibly engage with Web 2.0 user-generated content such as blogs and discussion forums, video and photo sharing, social gaming and other forms of social media.

Creation – whether through blogs, tweets, wikis or any of the hundreds of avenues for expression and sharing online – is at the heart of citizenship and innovation.

Key Concepts of Digital Literacy

Our conception of digital literacy incorporates the five key concepts of media literacy (Media are constructions; Audiences negotiate meaning; Media have commercial implications; Media have social and political implications; and Each medium has a unique aesthetic form) and supplements them with five more key concepts that reflect the added dimension of networked interactivity. These key concepts of digital literacy apply to traditional media as well, with the difference being that while the aspects they describe are relatively rare in traditional media, they are dominant in digital media. Communicating these concepts is essential for enabling students to transfer their learning to different contexts: for example, teaching students to authenticate information for assignments may motivate them to do this for schoolwork, but they may not see the need to do so in other situations. When young people understand how the networked nature of digital media makes it possible for anyone to create online content, however, this helps them to understand why this is important.

As with the key concepts of media literacy, key concepts for digital literacy are essential both in providing a common language for theorists and educators and in being a guiding principle for teachers in a rapidly changing technological landscape. Whatever the topic, tool or platform, the purpose of digital literacy education is to communicate these key concepts to students in a way that’s appropriate to their age and context.

1. Digital media are networked.

Unlike traditional media, there are no one-way connections in digital media. In traditional media, content only flowed one way: producers created it, then sold or licensed it to distributors who then brought it to you. In digital media, by contrast, you’re no longer the final link in a distribution chain but a node in the middle of an infinite network. You can share content with other people as easily as a producer or distributor shares it with you. Collaboration and dialogue are the norm, rather than solitary creation and broadcasting.

These links are always at least two-way, even if you’re not aware of the ways you’re sending data. This means that everyone and everything is linked to everything else. As a result, the barriers to participation are much lower than in traditional media and anyone can publish content and find an audience. This means that users can interact with peers and celebrities at the same time, and also has important implications when we need to authenticate information or recognize a source’s bias and point of view. The networked nature of digital media also makes it possible for formal and informal communities to develop online, whose norms and values are created by their members.

2. Digital media are persistent, searchable and shareable.

Digital content is permanent: everything that is transmitted is stored somewhere and can be searched for and indexed. When considered together with the concept that digital media are networked, this means that most of this content can also be copied, shared or spread at a trivial cost. Even things that are apparently temporary (like Snapchat photos) can be copied, and are almost always stored on the platform’s servers.

Because it’s persistent, digital content is mostly consumed asynchronously: we typically react or reply to something at a time other than when it’s posted, and reactions to our reaction will also come at a later, usually unpredictable time. This can make digital media hard to turn off, since a reaction – or a chance for us to respond to something – may come at any time.

3. Digital media have unknown and unexpected audiences.

Because digital media are networked and digital content is shareable, what you share online may be seen by people you didn’t intend or expect to see it. Your ability to control who sees what is limited: both content creators and traditional gatekeepers and distributors have much less power to control what happens to it once it’s posted. This can make it difficult to manage audiences, and there is always a risk of context collapse when what was intended for one audience is seen by another. As well, you may be sharing content that you’re not aware of with audiences you don’t know about, such as cookies and other tracking tools that record information about who you are and what you do when you visit a website.

4. Digital media experiences are real, but don’t always feel real.

Being networked means that all digital media are, to at least a certain extent, interactive: we are never just passive viewers but always a part of what’s happening. Because it’s interactive we often respond to things online as though we are really there, but most of the cues that tell us how we and others feel are absent. One result of this can be “empathy traps,” features of networked interaction – such as a feeling of being anonymous, or the absence of cues such as tone of voice or facial expressions in the people we interact with – that prevent us from feeling empathy when we normally would, and these traps can make us forget that what we do online can have real consequences. For the same reasons, it can be very difficult to determine someone’s actual meaning and motivation when interacting with them online, a phenomenon popularly known as “Poe’s Law.”

Partly because of this, and also because of the lack of physical presence online (we may not even entirely feel we’re “in” our bodies, as we’re usually sitting and immobile when using digital media), it’s easy to forget that laws, morals and rights still apply online. The norms and values of the online communities we’re part of can also affect our own personal norms and values, as the values of our offline communities do.

Taken together with the lowered barriers to publication discussed above, this can also mean that the people and images we interact with online affect us as much or more than images in traditional media because they are (or seem to be) our peers. The images of ourselves we create online have an extra impact on us because they embody who we imagine (or wish) ourselves to be.

5. How we respond and behave when using digital media is influenced by the architecture of the platforms, which reflects the biases and assumptions of their creators.

One of the most fundamental insights of media literacy is that the form of a medium influences how we “read” or experience a text. While this remains true in digital media, the network effect means that the architecture of a platform – everything from the user interface we interact with to the algorithms that determine how it delivers content to us – affects not just the meaning and message of digital media but also our own behaviour when using them. On the most fundamental level, for example, the networked nature of digital media creates a centripetal effect, as hyperlinks encourage us to move to other texts and platforms. danah boyd describes this architecture in terms of “affordances,” which “do not dictate participants’ behavior, but they do configure the environment in a way that shapes participants’ engagement.”[9]

As with traditional media, these influences are not natural or neutral: they reflect the beliefs, unconscious biases and unquestioned assumptions of their creators. Sometimes these values will be consciously applied: if a platform’s designers consider freedom of speech their top priority, then protections from hate speech and harassment will be an afterthought at best – which will influence who feels free to speak and what kinds of conversations happen. But unconscious attitudes can be at play, too, such as an “engineering mindset” that sees no problem with showing different job listings for Black and White users, or with delivering an ever-narrower feed of news that you’re sure to agree with if that’s the most efficient and effective way to advertise to you. As is almost always the case, commercial considerations are also key: a platform that makes money from user engagement will naturally encourage interactions that produce the most intense engagement, no matter the content or tenor of those interactions.

There is often an interplay between the influence of platforms and users’ own needs, as can occur in traditional media as well. Teens may choose to post casual photos on Snapchat and more formal ones on Instagram, for instance, based on how they see the two platforms serving their purposes differently, but they are also being influenced by the structure of those platforms: Snapchat, where photos are temporary by default, creates an expectation of being casual and “fun,” while Instagram’s persistent feed promotes the careful maintenance of a public-facing profile.

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