Digital Media Literacy in Australia

This is is the draft of a section for my Ed.D. thesis. The bibliography relating to the referenced literature can be found at http://dougbelshaw.com/thesis (I’ve blogged more about my thesis at http://dougbelshaw.com/blog)

Updated and expanded (26 April 2011)


It would be easy to dismiss Australia, a former British colony, as derivative and dependent upon publications, research and policy from the UK, Europe and the USA. Certainly, there is evidence that Australian policy is influenced by outputs from these three. However, Australia has a much more coherent set of policies and strategies relating to New Literacies than other countries.

The dominant form of New Literacy in Australia is ‘Digital Media Literacy’, enshrined in policy documents, strategies and educational frameworks. However, as the Australian Communications and Media Authority’s (ACMA) Digital Media Literacy in Australia: Key Indicators and Research Sources’ document points out, there are many and varied definitions of ‘Digital Media Literacy’. Whilst referencing Ofcom’s (UK) definition – “the ability to use, understand and create digital media and communications” – the ACMA settle upon “the skills and capabilities needed for effective participation in the digital economy” (ACMA, 2009, p.8)

Importantly, resources relating to Digital Media Literacy in Australia are collated, easy-to-find, and demonstrate some coherence of approach. This is possibly due to the structure of government departments: Australia has a Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy. Interestingly, the focus on the ‘digital economy’ is a result of “a unique opportunity to shrink the distances that have historically dominated our domestic and international relationships” (DBCDE, 2009) using as an example the “remote specialist diagnosis of patients” so important in a land as expansive as Australia. Importantly, there is a growing awareness in Australia of the difference between the so-called ‘digital divide’ (which focuses on access to hardware) and the ‘digital use divide’ (or ‘participation gap’) which involves the Digital Media Literacies necessary for 21st century citizenship.

A 2009 report entitled ‘Australia’s Digital Economy: Future Directions’ highlights Digital Media Literacy alongside other issues such as ‘Consumer Digital Confidence’ in a section focusing on the successful elements of a digital economy. The three main partners in building such a digital economy are seen as the government, industry and ‘community’ with Digital Media Literacy included in the latter section. Being a government document, however, it focuses upon the economy and social cohesion:

Digital media literacy ensures that all Australians are able to enjoy the benefits of the digital economy: it promotes opportunities for social inclusion, creative expression, innovation, collaboration and employment. People in regional, rural and remote areas can also have improved access to these opportunities. Digital media literacy gives children the capability to effectively learn online; consumers the confidence to search for information and transact online; and businesses the ability to become more efficient and compete in a global marketplace. (DBCDE, 2009)

The seeming Australia-wide agreement on Digital Media Literacy as the accepted form of New Literacies is explained in part by Gibson (2008). He gives an overview of the ‘literacy wars’ in Australia, quoting Ilyana Snyder on how the press and professional journals keep alive the debates between conservatives and progressives (Snyder, 2008). The battleground over different forms and manifestations of traditional (print) literacy allows, suggests Gibson, Digital Media Literacy to show “some promise of a revival of educational optimism” (Gibson, 2008, p.74). He sees Digital Media Literacy as a way to transcend entrenched positions, for:

When my critical or media literacy can be your illiteracy, the concept has become emptied of definite meaning. While literacy is still central to most notions of education, it is increasingly unclear what exactly we mean by it. (Gibson, 2008, p.75)

This ‘conceptual fuzziness’ stems from a shift in the media by and with which we read and write – and also by what we mean by ‘reading’ and ‘writing’ in the first place. This shall be explored more fully in Chapter 3, but in the Australian context there is an indication from Gibson that agreement over Digital Media Literacy provides a welcome respite from argument and debate over traditional (print) literacy.

The operationalising of Digital Media Literacy has led to initiatives such as the ‘Digital Education Revolution’ in New South Wales. The aim is for elements of Digital Media Literacy to be taught across the curriculum meaning, for example, in that in English lessons students work towards a unit entitled ‘When machines go bad…’ where they “examine and explore their own humanity in terms of their relationship with, and dependency on technology” (Digital Education Revolution, no date). Other modules deal with the creation of new media such as podcasts and using a collaborative online whiteboard.

As would be expected, libraries and librarians in Australia have a history of attempting to develop Information Literacy. Definitions of Information Literacy are influenced from work carried out in the USA by the American Library Association:

Information literacy is a set of abilities requiring individuals to “recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information”. (ACRL)

This definition was adopted in 2000 at the Council of Australian University Librarians in Canberra, revised slightly in 2001, with an Information Literacy Framework (Bundy, 2004) developed in 2004 by the Australian and New Zealand Institute for Information Literacy (ANZIIL). The latter organisation, however, no longer seems to be active with the ‘Information Literacy policy’ of universities such as the University of Sydney referencing 10 year-old standards and documents. Either Information Literacy is so entrenched that it no longer needs developing or, as is more likely the case, the zeitgeist has been captured by Digital Media Literacy.


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