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How Does Digital Literacy differ from Traditional Literacy and Which Comes First?

June 18, 2012
Mike Vigilant's Question

Mike Vigilant (@mikevigilant) asked on Twitter, “How much (if any) of digital literacy is tied to actual literacy, and which comes first?”


Literacy is a competency of knowledge in a specific area; traditionally known as reading and writing and to be literate is to have that competency. Traditional literacy (and we will assume reading and writing) is at the core of all traditional learning, that being in a school or institution but also other, non formal learning environments. Gee (1987) also notes that, in middle class learners, literacy skills are learned outside of (and often before) school and what is done in schools is a refinement and practicing of those skills.

The notion of digital literacy is regularly up for debate; what is digital literacy? Is it relevant to our learners? And what level is an acceptable level of digital literacy? When I was at secondary school (I finished in 2001-2007) digital literacy was unheard of but computer literacy was an important area of the curriculum and was measured by the student’s ability to create a publication using Word, an effective spreadsheet using Excel and a Powerpoint presentation and according to Dr Alison Hramiak (2012), very little has changed. A feeling exists among educators “that teachers will have to learn a new vocabulary, before our students leave us behind” (Hramiak, 2012) since students, often with access to better ICT facilities at home than at their place of learning, will multitask “in three different windows and they’ve got three magazines open and they’re listening to iTunes and they’re texting with their friends and they’re doing their homework.” (Tapscott and Williams, 2011). These sorts of students (much in the same way as Gee’s belief that literacy skills are learned outside of the classroom) are digital literate without ever having to formally learn the skills. This generation of students are widely becoming known as digital natives.

Gunther Kress, in his book Literacy in the New Media Age (2003), suggests that our view on literacy needs to be broadened to envelope media communications, including screen, online, image and more recently, I believe, social media literacy; digital literacy is social, it’s informative, it’s engaging, it’s participatory,  and it’s evolving at a very fast rate. Tom Whitby (2012) believes that “Digital Literacy is a responsibility every educator must accept in order to be relevant in a rapidly changing digital world.”. It isn’t something that necessarily has to be met at a similar pace or indeed, kept ahead of but an acceptance, an acknowledgment that the world online is moving and changing at a tremendous speed is vital in order to remain relevant and aware of the learners needs. Although the chasm in knowledge may appear vast, what does seem evident is that learners have a competency but not an understanding, similarly to when learners have the ability to read but have no understanding of sentence structure, grammar or lexis; this is where the gap can be bridged.

But the question now is how can these “digital native” students be taught how to practice and refine their (digital) literacy skills in a classroom environment? Carlacio and Heidig (2009) have developed a theory that in many senses the “digital natives” are already literate in the sense that they “can text, blog, and Twitter; they socialize on, embed videos in, and share photos and links on their Facebook pages; and they are experts at finding information (or so they believe) via Google.” but they do not have what they call “critical literacies” and so that is what we need to be focusing on. Dustin Johnson (2012) says “Digital Literacy training must take place in a context in which the product is relevant and meaningful to the student.” and so for this to happen the learners need, obviously, to be in a classroom with access to audio and visual recording equipment, editing software and to be connected to the internet. They need to engage with the idea of digital literacies by demonstrating their knowledge of digital literacies. So then, in a closed but social forum (mimicking something like Twitter of Facebook), the students should discuss their (online) research about gathering information and presented in the (student’s) preferred digital format, this in turn, can be peer assessed therefore making it social. What also needs to be in place is the understanding of how the internet is moderated and so their discussion should be (digitally) socially acceptable too, encouraging their demonstration and understanding of online etiquette. The final “product” of the students can be a communally created wiki which could be published online for further development and criticism.

This way of learning is participatory, fulfills the students desires to be multitasking, online and social. The learning process takes place in a social, digital environment as does the assessment product, all of which (discussion, research, findings and assessment product) can be overseen by the educator who may also benefit from feeding back using an online, social medium throughout the process. The task not only allows students to understand how they’re using digital resources but to reflect on it critically and demonstrate that through their use of digital resources.

In conclusion, “how much of digital literacy is tied to actual (traditional) literacy?” A lot of the same skills are used; comprehension, analysis, discussion and indeed, reading and writing and so it is clear that they are intrinsically linked however it is also clear that a being able isn’t quite the same as being truly literate. “Which comes first?” is a tough question and although, traditional literacy and digital literacy are intrinsically linked and without reading and writing one would hugely struggle to participate online, how beneficial is traditional literacy in this new, fast moving, digital world? I think, eventually, the impact of traditional literacy classes will be overshadowed by the benefices of a great and critical literacy of the digital world.

Carlacio, J. & Heidig, L., 2009. Teaching Digital Literacy Digitally: A Collaborative Approach. In Teaching Digital Literacy Digitally: A Collaborative Approach. Massachusetts, pp. 1-13. Available at: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/cbdv.200490137/abstract [Accessed June 15, 2012].

Cope, B. & Kalantzis, M., 2000. Multiliteracies: Literacy Learning and the Design of Social Futures. Harvard. Available at: http://vassarliteracy.pbworks.com/f/Pedagogy+of+Multiliteracies_New+London+Group.pdf [Accessed May 16, 2012].

Gee, J., 1987. What Is Literacy? In Families and Literacy. Harvard: Harvard University Press.
Hramiak, A., 2012. What does it mean to be literate in 2012? Friday 10 February. Available at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/teacher-network/2012/feb/10/literacy-digital-teacher [Accessed June 13, 2012].

Johnson, D, 2012. Digital Literacy training must take place in a context in which the product is relevant and meaningful to the student. Jun 12, 2012, https://twitter.com/DustinJohnson21/status/212583465634377728 [Accessed Jun 12, 2012]

Kalantzis, M., Kress, G & Luke, A., 1996. A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies: Designing Social Futures. Harvard. Available at: http://vassarliteracy.pbworks.com/f/Pedagogy+of+Multiliteracies_New+London+Group.pdf [Accessed May 16, 2012].

Kress, Gunther, 2003. Literacy in the New Media Age, London & New York: Routledge.

Tapscott, D. & Williams, A.D., 2010. MacroWikinomics: Rebooting Business and the World, New York: Atlantic Books.

Vigilant, M, 2012, How much (if any–not a loaded question) of digital literacy is tied to *actual* literacy, and which comes first? Jun 12, 2012 https://twitter.com/mikevigilant/status/212584817085255680 [Accessed Jun 12, 2012]

Whitby, T, 2012. Digital Literacy is a responsibility every educator must accept in order to be relevant in a rapidly changing digital world. Jun 12, 2012, https://twitter.com/tomwhitby/status/212582098547113984 [Accessed Jun 12, 2012]

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