The Essentials of Digital Literacies

When is a cat not just a cat?

When it is being used as an example of digital literacies.

Digital Literacy is a term that is increasingly being bandied about the web. Whilst not (yet?) as misused as digital natives – it is already beating this term three times over in the google matching game:

Over 17 million matches on google, c.f. only 5,620,000 for digital natives

So what does it mean? On the 27th of June, Doug Belshaw will be launching a book which should help you approach/hone your definition, drawing on his Ed D thesis. The abstract of that is refreshingly short:

Digital literacy has been an increasingly-debated and discussed topic since the publication of Paul Gilster’s seminal Digital Literacy in 1997. It is, however, a complex term predicated on previous work in new literacies such as information literacy and computer literacy. To make sense of this complexity and uncertainty I come up with a ‘continuum of ambiguity’ and employ a Pragmatic methodology. This thesis makes three main contributions to the research area. First, I argue that considering a plurality of digital literacies helps avoid some of the problems of endlessly-redefining ‘digital literacy’. Second, I abstract eight essential elements of digital literacies from the research literature which can lead to positive action. Finally, I argue that co-constructing a definition of digital literacies (using the eight essential elements as a guide) is at least as important as the outcome.

CC0 Public Domain Belshaw, D (2011) What is digital literacy? A Pragmatic investigation. Ed D Thesis shared under a CC0 license

Doug’s book builds on this, but is more than just a distillation of these ideas. It has been several years in the making and benefits from the ongoing reflection this has allowed. Its genesis reflects his commitment to open scholarship and shared scholarship.  Draft chapters of the book have been available in advance of the final release, with comments encouraged. Doug used a tapering cost model – the earlier you got involved the lower the purchase cost. The final edition is DRM-free and sharing is permitted: he includes the line ‘You’re welcome to share it with your friends, but please do encourage them to purchase a copy if they find it useful.’
We all have to eat…

The book comprises nine chapters. The first is an introduction, which explains how the remainder of the book is structured and suggests paths through it. Chapter 2 attempts to define the problem this book addresses. Doug explores the ideas of ‘digital’ and ‘literacy’ (in reverse order) and the reader learns to replace the concept of  literacy with  literacies. Chapter 3 stresses the ambiguous nature of such ideas, arguing that this ambiguity should be actively embraced rather than avoided. Models of digital literacies are critiqued in chapter 4, with an alternative – Doug’s eight Essential Elements of Digital Literacies offered in chapter 5. The rest of the book tries to apply this framework. Chapter 6 uses memes as an way to understand digital texts. The next chapter looks at remixes (with a brief nod to copyright) and chapter 8 (perhaps unsurprising given Doug’ s current work at Mozilla) looks at coding the web. The final chapter provides a conclusion and encourages the reader to rip and remix the book.

Doug manages to draw a lot of ideas together in his book – we travel from the invention of the printing press to the World of Warcraft. He blends ideas from academic disciplines – education, linguistics, history, computing, philosophy – with everyday life – gaming, cooking, even furniture.  The result could be a terrible pastiche, but it is not. Doug avoids this by weaving the thread of digital literacies through the book, thus demonstrating the value this lens can provide. Some chapters are flagged as skip this if you like, but I think they are accessible enough and worthy of reading. Some sections  (such as the challenge  to the requirement for linear progress in education) leave you wanting more (note this is not necessarily a criticism).

A real strength of the book are the well-chosen examples used throughout – no technical knowledge is assumed. To  illustrate the potential confusions around copyright Doug uses the concept of recipes (yes, as in cooking) and he derives an enormous amount of meaning from an ugly looking baby* and cheezy cats when analyzing internet memes.

*Apologies to his mother,  flickr user Laney G. Checking her photostream shows said picture to be an uncharacteristic shot. He’s better looking than me, I think I should stop there…

In summary, The Essential Elements of Digital Literacies is a short, informative book written in a clear, often amusing style. If I was being really picky it could probably benefit from one less font, but that is a minor criticism and does not detract from the thoughtfulness of the debate. I think it is one of those books that cannot be read widely enough and I recommend it to anyone. Reading it will not instantly make you  digital literate, but it will give you an understanding of why this is important and offers a framework to help you reflect on your own practice and that of others.

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