- Maha Bali: Knowing the Difference Between Digital Skills and Digital Literacies, and Teaching Both
- Doug Belshaw: Essential Elements of Digital Literacy (chapters 2, 4, 5, 7)
Defining Digital Literacy
I think I learned more about myself while reading these than I did about digital literacy. I took it for granted that I knew what Digital Literacy meant before I started, but now I’m not so sure. When I don’t know how to define a term, my first stop is usually the Dictionary application on my Mac rather than Dictonary.com or Google (I know, I’m old-school).
So, if I’m reading this correctly, Digital Literacy is either the ability to read and write in binary signals or data, or reading and writing about fingers (if using the 3rd definition for digital). Hmmm… Maybe I’ll need to look somewhere else this time. Jokes aside, I like combining them into:
“Competence or knowledge”…”relating to the use of computer technology.”
I’m always game for a good definition, and I like this one for its simplicity. Notice that the definition for literacy is pretty straightforward, but once we add a noun or an adjective like digital in front of it things quickly become nebulous, and there are many of these phrases in common usage such as “wine literacy” given as the example in the Dictionary app.
Back to my original statement: what I discovered about myself during these readings is that I have a difficult time stomaching over-analyzation and breaking down of terms into components and categories that I don’t see a practical use for. In the two readings for this assignment, Digital Literacy is broken down into 8 components that conveniently all commence with ‘c’.
To me this division seems unnecessary. At some point it might be useful to talk about cultural aspects of digital literacy–or any of the others–but in Chapter 5 Doug Belshaw is pretty insistent that these eight elements are “essential” and claims he has “yet to come across a context…that didn’t require each of these elements to some extent.” This implies that they are distinct from one another and important to consider at all times, which I’m not sure I can agree with.
Whenever I read a text in which someone attempts to divide a topic into separate elements but then claims they are all interrelated and it’s difficult to isolate them from one another, as Mr. Belshaw does repeatedly throughout the rest of the chapter in defining each of his elements, it makes me wonder why we are spending so much academic effort trying to define-by-division a concept that wants to remain whole. Another example of this is Gary Chapman’s The Five Love Languages. There is certainly some truth in Belshaw’s examination of the concept of digital literacy, also in Chapman’s case, but maintaining 8 distinct elements seems overcomplicated.
Further evidence that maybe we are doing unnecessary work in attempting to define the term Digital Literacy comes from the origin of the term. According to chapter 4 of Belshaw’s thesis, theneverendingthesis.com, Andrew Molnar, the man who coined the closely related phrase Computer Literacy said:
“We coined that phrase. It’s sort of ironic. Nobody knows what computer literacy is. Nobody can define it. And the reason we selected [it] was because nobody could define it, and […] it was a broad enough term that you could get all of these programs together under one roof.”Ch. 4 of theneverendingthesis.com, but originally from thefreedictionary.com, according to Belshaw (I couldn’t find it there.)
Digital Literacy is arguably even more vague and broad than Computer Literacy, a term that was intentionally created to be difficult to define, but yet people feel the need to break it apart and define it.
Digital Skills v. Digital Literacy
I will say that I appreciate the distinction between digital skills and digital literacy that is asserted by both Maha Bali and Doug Belshaw. These two terms are often used interchangeably, but it seems to me that it is useful to distinguish them from one another and point out their differences. I especially appreciated Bali’s idea that the skills “focus on what and how” while digital literacies deal with the “why, when, who, and for whom” part of our online activity. This makes a lot more sense to me than differentiating between cultural and civic, or creative and constructive literacies, where there is so much obvious overlap.
Another way of saying it, using my simplified definition for Digital Literacy above, is that the “competence” relates to the skills associated with computer technology and the “knowledge” is what Bali associates with literacies, or all of Belshaw’s eight c’s all rolled into one.
Digital Literacy and Digital Citizenship
These two terms are intertwined, but not identical. On Monday, three of my children will begin formal swimming lessons for the first time, and it strikes me that the relationship between Digital Literacy and Digital Citizenship is a little like the relationship between learning how to swim and becoming a swimmer.
Being a swimmer can mean quite a few different things, differentiated by intensity of a person’s commitment to the activity and their proficiency at it. On one end of the spectrum, it could mean that an individual simply knows how to swim and can do so when necessary, but it can also be a way of life: swimming every day for exercise as part of a healthy lifestyle, in training for an athletic event, or for a country on an olympic team. I believe being a digital citizen likewise can be an occasional activity or something done every day as a major component of a person’s life. For both activities, there are skills and techniques that need to be learned and practiced in order to become a more effective swimmer and digital citizen. Learning and practicing those skills develops proficiency in the activity and at some indefinite point in the development of those skills we can label the person a swimmer, or digital citizen.
Perhaps even more importantly, establishing literacy in each activity is best done with legitimate practice in an authentic setting. As Belshaw claims: “When presented with something for the first time it’s almost impossible to learn the skill independently from the context in which it’s performed.” (Belshaw, Chapter 4) I certainly hope that my kids are taught to swim in the water, and not sitting in a classroom listening to a lecture.