Literacy -> Digital Flow: dialectic.

This post comes from my (ongoing) Ed.D. thesis, which can be read in full over at You may want to check out my wiki to follow up references.

CC-BY kevindooley

The assumption made by many is that Traditional Literacy has some form of counterpart in the form of ‘Digital Literacy’. Such thinking places use of, for example, the internet on a continuum stretching neatly back from inventions such as writing on slate, through papyrus, the printing press and mass media (TV, radio, cinema). The danger with this ‘artefactual’ approach when examining new technologies, argues Ursula Franklin, is that ‘[technologies] involve much more than simply passing on and/or adding to written or visual texts or information per se… Rather, they are tied directly to ways of interacting with others… and to ways of being, knowing, learning and doing’ (Lankshear & Knobel, 2006:235). ‘Reading with understanding’ on the internet is not as straightforward as the ‘reading with understanding’ of a book or other printed matter. On the most basic level, unlike with most printed matter, there is no correct way to navigate via hyperlink the myriad websites that make up the digital world. But more than this, there is no barrier to publishing. No barriers means no editorial control. No editorial control means potential equal weight and emphasis given to extreme views, incorrect assertions and illegal acts. Thus access to, and use of, technology becomes a moral issue.

Given this and other ‘problems’, theorists have attempted to incorporate extra elements within literacy in an attempt to answer or avoid them. For example, Martin (2005) conceives of ‘Digital Literacy’ as including ‘the ability to plan, execute and evaluate digital actions in the solution of life tasks’ (quoted in Erstad, 2008:50) – something without parallel in conceptions of Traditional Literacy. Martin also adds ‘the ability to reflect on one’s own digital literacy development’ (ibid.) as being an important aspect of Digital Literacy, propelling the term into a level much higher than mere ‘competence’. The heart of the tension is whether or not the technologies involved are ‘transformative’ in their bearing on literacy. A difficulty arises, however, as improvements in technology mean that the goalposts are continually shifting and thus altering social practices. This is an important point raised by Graham 1999:25-6) who wonders at what point something (such as the internet) that extends literacy practices can count at transformative. There must be some revolutionary, transformative technologies, otherwise everything from the invention of the wheel would be an ‘extension’ of existing technologies and social practices. Those who support this ‘revolutionary’ view, such as Taylor & Ward (1999:xvii) believe that because ‘computer networks… improve communicative interaction among students, teachers, and even texts’ then sociocultural practices are altered. It is these changes in sociocultural practices that result in a new form of literacy being required.

This sociocultural practices model conceives of literacy as ‘an active relationship or a way of orienting to the social and cultural world’ (Rantala & Suoranta, 2008:96-7). Unlike models of Traditional Literacy based upon the printed word, the sociocultural practices model conceives of literacy as being a process instead of a state. Literacy is thus bound up with identity, culture and involves a reflective element. Whereas Traditional Literacy is about training and competence, the forms of literacy put forward by the sociocultural practices model involve interaction and creativity. This almost ‘meta’ form of literacy is defined by the mashup, the remix and could be seen as post-postmodernism: making one’s own sense of a fragmented ‘reality’.

The difficulty is that the view of literacy put forward by the sociocultural practices model strains at the very edges of the word ‘literacy’. This, believe Lankshear & Knobel, is a problem relating to conceptions of Traditional Literacy, not a new problem for the sociocultural practices model to face uniquely:

Sometimes… ‘literacy’ [is] a metaphor for ‘competence’, ‘proficiency’ or ‘being functional’. Concepts like ‘being computer literate’ or being ‘technologically literate’ are sometimes used to mean that someone is more or less proficient with a computer or some other device like a video recorder: they can ‘make sense of’ and ‘use’ computers, or can program their video player or mobile phone. (Lankshear & Knobel, 2006:20)

Presumably, Lankshear & Knobel’s conception of true ‘Traditional Literacy’ would be more than the ability to ‘read with understanding’ any printed matter. It would involve some meta-level remixing, the ability to deconstruct the text and reflect on what would have done. If not, then it is difficult to see how they could describe skills in the digital world at a ‘literacy’.

Much has been made of the fact that Norway has a curriculum based on digital skills. Indeed, after a review in the early 21st century, Norway named digital skills as the ‘fifth basic skill’ along with reading, writing, arithmetic and oracy (Søby, 2008:120-1). Some have championed this as ‘digital literacy’ and, indeed, some European Union policy documents consider it as such. However, as Audunson & Nordlie argue (2003:319) point out, ‘[t]he Norwegian language does not use the term literacy to describe a person’s competencies in other fields of activity, be it cooking, social intercourse, skiing – or in the field of ICT and information.’ As a result, the Norwegian example cannot defensibly be referred to as an example of ‘digital literacy’ in action.

If the use of, and interaction with, digital texts is not a ‘revolution’ and if therefore theorists want to continue using the term ‘literacy’, then some type of middle ground must be sought. Most would agree with Lankshear & Knobel’s ‘working hypothesis’:

[T]he world is now significantly different from how it was two or three decades ago… this different has a lot to do with the emergency of new technologies and changes in social practices associated with these… the changes are part of a move from what we have called ‘industrial’ values and ways of doing things and increasing embrace of ‘post-industrial’ values and ways of doing things. (2006:53)

To establish a ‘middle ground’, then, a dialectic should be set up:

[T]he idea of ‘new’ literacies is a useful way to conceptualize what might be seen as one component of an unfolding ‘literacy dialectic’. By a dialectic we mean a kind of transcendence, in which two forces that exist in tension with one another ‘work out their differences’, as it were, and evolve into something that bears the stamp of both, yet is qualitatively different from each of them. (Lankshear & Knobel, 2006:29)

Indeed, Martin (2008:173) believes that ‘transformation is not a necessary condition of digital literacy’ as ‘[a]ctivity at the level of appropriate and informed usage would be sufficient to be described as digitally literate.’ This is a rather conservative and non-specific conception of literacy. It allows for ICT-based, procedural definitions such as those that frame Microsoft’s ‘Digital Literacy Curriculum’ and European Commission reports as well as more ‘critical’ conceptions – as championed by authors such as Buckingham (2008).

To be clear, the forces that ‘exist in tension with one another’ on Lankshear and Knobel’s view are, on the one hand, Traditional Literacy, and on the other, digital skills. The problem is that words used to describe the latter are used imprecisely. As Fieldhouse & Nicholas put it:

Definitions of digital and information literacy are numerous. Within this pool of definitions, terms often are interchangeable; for example, “literacy”, “fluency” and “competency” can all be used to describe the ability to steer a path through digital and information environments to find, evaluate, and accept or reject information. (Fieldhouse & Nicholas, 2008:50-1)

Without an appeal to a dialectic, this ‘ability to steer a path’ would becoming in what amounts to a naming dispute. What remains to be seen, however, is whether the term ‘literacy’ can be stretched to accommodate the higher-level, ‘meta’, reflective elements that ‘new literacies’ proponents envisage.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s