Wikipedia defines digital literacy as "the ability to locate, organize, understand, evaluate, and analyze information using digital technology. It involves a working knowledge of current high-technology, and an understanding of how it can be used" (1-19-2011, 20:13). Along side this definition, digital literacy depends greatly on an individual's ability to adapt to the advancements in the technological world, with little to no instruction. As technology continues to advance, and more and more cultures become digitally literate, an ability to not only understand the medium, but also interact with it, becomes crucial.

1 Goals
2 Problems
3 Electronic vs. Digital Literacy
4 Digital and Visual Literacy
5 In the Composition Classroom
6 For Technical Communicators
7 Further Reading

Goals of Digital Literacy

According to, "The goal of Digital Literacy is to teach and assess basic computer concepts and skills so that people can use computer technology in everyday life to develop new social and economic opportunities for themselves, their families, and their communities."

Digital literacy promotes collaboration and can lead to innovation on a global scale. When masses of digitally-literate people collaborate on the same projects, those projects tend to evolve much faster than they would have otherwise. Digital literacy allows people from different backgrounds to interact and use their unique skill sets to tackle information or technology challenges which produce better products.

This collaboration ascribes to a new economic model for goods and services - wikinomics. Through openness, peering, sharing, and acting globally, rapid accumulation and dissection of information is possible. Organizations are quickly taking note of the way such behavior can be used to augment normal business practices, leading to better products with more transparent methods of production.

Problems of Digital Literacy

As literacy is fundamentally gained and gauged by education, one of the major problems of digital literacy is the knowledge of teachers. Formal training in digital literacy is relatively rare in education programs, and ever changing technology necessitates a continued learning on the part of teachers. As the 2010 Horizon Report states: "As faculty and instructors begin to realize that they are limiting their students by not helping them to develop and use digital media literacy skills across the curriculum, the lack of formal training is being offset through professional development or informal learning, but we are far from seeing digital media literacy as a norm. This reality is exacerbated by the fact that as technology continues to evolve, digital literacy must necessarily be less about tools and more about ways of thinking and seeing, and of crafting narrative" (5).

The call for an increase in "thinking" digital literacy instead of "tool-based" digital literacy applies not only to educators, but students as well. In an interview on National Public Radio's program "To the Best of Our Knowledge," Microsoft computer scientist Jaron Lanier, author of the popular best-seller You are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto, and one of //Time Magazine's// World's 100 Most Influential People of 2010, argues that technology users, youth in particular, are notably inept in the digital world, despite their ability to use gadgets. Citing their demonstrated inability to avoid "trolling," or bullying, online, their lack of separation between a digital and a real persona, and their failure to discern computers as tools and machines rather than agents of intelligence, Lanier's concern is that without a revolution in how digital literacy is viewed, human individualism and creativity will give way to what he calls "hive mentality" and "foolish collectivism" ("Digital Maoism"). Instead, Lanier advocates for an ethics-based, critical approach to digital media as being an integral part of what it means to be digitally literate.

A 2008 study by Dr. Tabitha Newman of Timmus Unlimited, a British research firm ("A Review of Digital Literacy in 3-16 Year Olds: Evidence, Developmental Models, and Recommendations"), affirms Lanier's thesis and reveals that the prevalent view of young people as being digitally literate is not only false, but also poses serious problems for approaches to technology-based education. She notes that though users between the ages of 3-16 are perceived as adept technology users, evidence reveals that they are able to do little more than locate information via technological channels. They still lack the ability to evaluate information and solve problems by using technology, and they apply little or no critical thinking processes to digital environments. By way of analogy, it is as though young digital users possess phonemic awareness and word recognition, but lack the abilities to read a text, make sense of it, evaluate it and analyze it, or otherwise interact with it. In "book" terms, they are functionally illiterate. However, this demographic's ability to handle a wide variety of savvy "gadgets" reinforces the facade of their digital literacy.

Timmus calls for educators to articulate what skills actually comprise digital literacy, identify which of these should be taught at each level of digital development, and create a sound school curriculum that focuses less on gadget mastery and more on the critical thinking skills necessary to navigate wisely in a digital age.


Electronic Literacy vs. Digital Literacy

The difference between electronic and digital is not immediately clear. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, digital (adj 1) means, " Senses relating to numerical digits and (later) their use in representing data in computing and electronics. In later uses typically contrasted with analogue." A common definition of electronic (adj 2a) is, "Of a device: operating according to the principles or methods of electronics, such as a transistor, microchip, or electron tube; operating by means of or employing such devices." We commonly understand digital as the opposite of analogue. However, in either case, electronic devices may be used to appreciate digital and/or analogue media (a record player may be the best example). Nevertheless, digital and electronic are often understood as "not real" or "inorganic." Although, //The Matrix// problematizes this dichotomy.

A New York Times article discusses Electronic Literacy as reading and writing in the online environment. The piece details the "passionate debate about just what it means to read in the digital age," for students, educators, and policy-makers. On one side, we have the traditionalists, usually part of an older generation, who claim that "digital reading is the intellectual equivalent of empty calories"; the more time students spend online, the greater the decline in reading test scores. Opposing these arguments are "Web evangelists" who assert that students "should be evaluated for their proficiency on the internet just as they are tested on their print reading comprehension." The article begs the question: Is it enough for students to simply be reading, no matter the "quality" of the content, and regardless of the non-traditional environment (sporadic and circuitious vs. "sustained, focused, linear attention")?

Digital and Visual Literacy

According to Educause Quarterly a study was performed that focused primarily upon digital and visual literacy--both being terms that interact often and overlap, sharing common meanings. Digital literacy represents a person's ability to perform effective tasks in a "digital" environment; "digital" meaning, information that is represented by means of numeric form and the primary use by a computer.

Educause Quarterly states that Visual Literacy is often referred to as Visual Competencies, coming from seeing and integrating sensory experiences. It is focused on sorting and interpreting visible actions and symbols. A visually literate person has the ability to communicate information in a variety of forms, and maintain the appreciation of the masterworks of visual communication. Individuals who are visually literate have a sense of design--containing the imaginative ability to create, amend, and reproduce images, digital or not, in a mutable way. Those who are visually literate have the imaginations that seek to reshape the world in which they live, so much so to create new realities. Both terms (digital and visual literacy), have sub-classifications such as information literacy, lateral literacy, and reproduction literacy. Because this is such a new phenomenon, there tends to be variations and redundancies in the terminology. The lack of extensive research related to Digital Literacy, and to its impact on each learner, also explain the lack of variations and redundancies. Although this may be the case, there is a common understanding that has emerged--a recurring theme that characterizes a very unique environment. Literacy, advances a person's ability to creatively and effectively use and communicate information.

Digital Literacy in the Composition Classroom

According to Cynthia Selfe and Gail Hawisher's Literate Lives in the Information Age, digital literacy is important in order to function within the university and the community at large: “In the United States, for example, the ability to read, compose, and communicate in computer environments – called variously technological, digital, or electronic literacy – has acquired immense importance not only as a basic job skill, but also, every bit as significant, as an essential component of literate activity … Today, the ability to write well – and to write well with computers and within digital environments – plays an enormous role in determining whether students can participate and succeed in the life of school, work, and community” (2). Therefore, teaching students how to compose essays cannot be divorced from teaching them how to word process, utilize web searches, and consume and produce digital media.

According to Barbara Jones-Kavalier and Suzanne Flannigan, students are ever-increasingly native language speakers of the Internet, and professors in classrooms are increasingly non-native speakers of the language. This is problematic in the composition classroom because “digitally literate students [are] being led by linear-thinking, technologically stymied instructors” (Jones-Kavalier, Flannigan). They go on to say that often times, even when funding and technology are available, no training is offered to teachers; furthermore, any teachers who do master technological skills do so on their own time. In order to connect “the dots” people must become 21st-century literate – meaning that people need skills to be both digitally and visually literate. They define digital literacy as a “person’s ability to perform tasks effectively in a digital environment, with ‘digital’ meaning information…primarily for use by a computer. Visual literacy, they say, “emerges from seeing and integrating sensory experiences” (Jones-Kavalier, Flannigan). They argue for a “common language”, saying that it is better to have the skills and competencies to comprehend and discriminate within a common language, than to be left out, unable to understand.”

Digital Literacy for Technical Communicators

Technical communicators require a passing familiarity with digital literacy in order to perform their work because modern technologies have fundamentally changed the way documents are developed, written, revised, and shared. With the first generation of the internet, technical writers needed to understand the effects that the digital environment could have on the reading and comprehension of a document. With “Web 2.0,” these professionals must now be aware of when and how to effectively use the many tools available to them, including blogs, wikis, and social media sites.

In general, successful technical communicators need the ability to:
  • Learn new technology and software quickly
  • Read, write, and communicate using digital technology
  • Think critically (i.e., make well-informed decisions about what is useful online)
  • Adapt to cultural changes (e.g., make use of social media)
  • Adhere to standards (e.g., practice netiquette)
  • Work collaboratively
  • Design information that addresses multiple audiences online

Further Reading on Digital Literacy

  • Selfe, Cynthia L. and Gail E. Hawisher, eds. "Introduction." Literate Lives in the Information Age: Narratives of Literacies in the United States. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2004. Print. [..]
  • Lanier, Jaron. You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto. New York: Knopf Publishers, 2010. Print.
  • Lanier, Jaron. "Digital Maoism: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism". (30 May 2006). Edge. Web.

For Educators
  • Hawisher, Gail E. "Globalism and Multimodality in a Digitized World: Computers and Composition Studies." Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition, and Culture. 10.1 (2010): 55-68. Print. [..]
  • Digital Literacy Across the Curriculum from UK-based

For Technical Communicators
  • Spilka, Rachel. Digital Literacy for Technical Communication: 21st Century Theory and Practice. New York: NY: Routledge, 2009. Print. [..]

Spotting a Questionable Link