Digital Literacies

It was in the 1960s that computers began to be used not only in scientific research but in more familiar workplace settings such as banks and public administration. Consequently, it was around this time that the first calls were made for school pupils and university students to be ‘taught computers’ — that is, how to operate and use them, possibly to program them.



Worldwide, the case was made that individuals and workforces must improve skill levels to remain competitive, and that skills with computers, or ‘computer literacy’, was a significant part of this portfolio. Responsibility for the lack of these skills in the workforce was often laid at the door of an education system, cast as outdated, unwilling, or unprepared for the challenge of educating the workforce of the information society. For instance, Fred Williams in 1982 (cited in Robins and Webster, p. 1987: 108) warned that:


Our schools, with their assembly line instruction and even their bells, are a holdover from the industrial age… Yet we are depending on them to train our youngsters for life in a clearly developing postindustrial era of high technologies.


Yet the question of how such skills should be taught has never really been resolved. Even if we accept the useful general definition offered by Gilster (1997) — that ‘digital literacy’ is the ability to understand and to use information from a variety of digital sources — there remain a multiplicity of possible approaches to relevant teaching that have been suggested over time.


Should digital literacy, whatever one calls it (e.g. computer studies, ICT) be a separate subject — or integrated into all subjects? Should learners and teachers alike just be taught to use particular software packages, like the MS Office suite, or should programming also be taught to all? Should digital literacy encompass attention to broader questions and issues resulting from the spread of digital information and communications technologies throughout society, including, in the present time, problems like ‘fake news’, screen addiction, cyberbullying and so on?


On the MA: DTCE these questions are specifically addressed in the semester 2 optional course unit, EDUC61712 Digital, Media and Information Literacy. We pay particular attention to the meaning of the key word in the term, literacy — thinking about how this implies not just reading, but also writing: that is, not just the consumption of online information, but its production.


To be digitally literate, one must have an awareness of how to use digital tools to express oneself, have a voice in the world somehow: not just by the posting of status updates to the latest social media tool, either, but to retain some control over the technological environment in which one is located, to understand what particular tools bring to work, study and everyday life, and when the benefits of a tool may be outweighed by the problems it causes.


Key questions:

  • How has the history of the incorporation of computers into workplaces and everyday life influenced the way we think about digital literacy education?
  • Are the various ‘literacies’ which are proposed — digital literacy, media literacy, information literacy, health literacy and so on — connected with one another? Does their shared use of the term ‘literacy’ reflect key characteristics that each has in common?
  • How can digital literacy be taught in formal and informal educational settings in ways that are transferable into work and everyday life?

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