Exploring 3 Models of Digital Literacy

The New Media Consortium, the group behind the annual Horizon reports on the impact of technology on learning, has produced a short report on digital literacy. The report is based on a survey of 450 educators on their perceptions of digital literacy and how it is being implemented in their fields.

The recommendations in the report don’t cover a whole lot of new ground — students should be thought of as makers, etc. — but, the project is interesting for its attempt to define digital literacy. As the authors of the report — Bryan Alexander, Samantha Adams Becker, and Michele Cummins — note, there are conflicting ideas as to what “digital literacy” entails and how it should be defined. This lack of consensus was represented in the survey results, and they used the range of responses they received to define three different (but interconnecting) models of digital literacy: universal literacy, creative literacy, and literacy across disciplines.

Universal Literacy

In the first model, universal literacy, digital literacy is understood as a set of basic digital skills necessary for engaging with life in a digital society. This conclusion is based on assumptions about the movement of most work to office contexts and the increasing dependence of that work on digital technologies. In this way, the authors see the universal literacy model as being associated with other baseline literacies such as information literacy. Although such skills will often be for consumption, this model focuses on those basic digital skills necessary to allow a person to fully participate, as a worker and citizen, in digital culture.

Creative Literacy

Creative literacy, the second model, goes beyond the universal literacy model to focus on the production of digital content. Where those fluent in a universal digital literacy might produce some digital content, the creative literacy model focuses explicitly on the skills for producing new content, and with it knowledge of related issues like copyright law.

Literacy Across Disciplines

The final model, literacy across disciplines, understands digital literacy as discipline-specific practices. As the report notes, the digital skills associated with sociology, political science, or computer science are different and require discipline-specific instruction. For this reason, it is necessary for disciplines to add to the two other models those specific skills necessary for mastering the discipline in a digital context.

These models, then, provide a means of thinking about digital literacy in education at both a broad level, as a series of skills every student should know, to the specifics of digital skills necessary to particular disciplines. Although they certainly do not exhaust our understanding of what digital literacy is (or can be), they can be a useful tool for designing and implementing digital literacy in educational contexts.

One major caveat applies: The report was sponsored by Adobe, and it contains a number of awkward plugs for Adobe products. In this context, the call for educators to prepare students to use “office productivity software, image manipulation, cloud-based apps and content,” etc. reads suspiciously as if educators should be training students to use Adobe’s cloud-based business model. This does not, in my opinion, completely undercut the usefulness of the three models approach the authors outline, but it is something those who wish to use this report — perhaps to argue for an expanded digital literacy curriculum, for example — should be aware of.

Baner image credit: Juan Cristóbal Cobo