Digital literacy: a function of poor design?

You’ll notice that I haven’t written a blog post about the new Apple iPad. There’s two reasons for that. First of all I haven’t got one (yet), and the second is that what would I have to say that hasn’t already been said? The iPad has been included in almost every presentation I’ve seen over the last few months as an example of outstanding design. The tech community have marvelled at the fact that people – such as the very young and the very old – are able to use the device intuitively. People haven’t had to have training to do things they and others find useful.

There are many definitions of digital literacy, the subject of my Ed.D. thesis. As I have discussed before, almost all of them are ambiguous in one of seven ways. Some of them are ambiguous due to semantics, some due to scope, and some because of scale. And some, quite frankly, as a result of a combination of two or three of the above. Many definitions of digital literacy conflate skills with knowledge, wrapping it all up in a Prensky-esque assertion that it is almost the preserve of ‘digital natives’.

This, of course, is nonsense. There is no reason why the mere use of a digital tool should require a separate literacy or, indeed, anything over-and-above the basic skills that primary schools should (and do) teach. It’s my belief that poor usability and bad interface design can be mitigated by the learning of procedural skills early in life. This in the eyes of older people who can remember life before that technology is assumed to be some kind of meta-cognition and a higher level skill that it actually is.

My favourite example of this is the ‘digital camera’. You don’t hear people of school age using this term. It’s an anachronism. Who uses film cameras in nowadays other than enthusiasts? The concept of taking a picture and it immediately appearing on a screen isn’t a difficult concept to grasp, my son happily snapping away as a 2 year-old and learning to frame shots as a 3 year-old.

It’s all about dominant paradigms. If you grew up taking photographs in the send-your-film-away-to-get-prints era, it takes a conceptual shift to move to digital photography. All the while you’re looking for the ‘equivalent’ of something in the digital system from the film system. It doesn’t quite work like that. It’s functionally similar but qualitatively different.

So, to my mind, much – but by no means all – of what we refer to as digital literacy consists of procedural skills. And the learning of such skills can be aided a great deal through effective interface design. For the second time this week I’m going to recommend you look at Chris Messina’s work – this time his rather useful Flickr collection of web usability stuff.

Digital literacy is a concept past its sell-by date. As I argue in an upcoming journal article, it’s lost pretty much any sense of creative ambiguity it may have once had. It also makes little sense from a procedural skills point of view.

We just need to design better user interfaces and nudge people into making more informed decisions. Enough of this talk of ‘digital literacy’! :-p

Image CC BY raneko

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