Digital literacy, what is it?

When in Dublin last year, Leo Casey, Abi Reynolds, and I led a little exercise on the question, “Digital literacy, what is it?” This simple activity led to surprisingly fruitful discussions, often extending more than an hour, although it never produced a consensus answer to the question.

We had found six definitions of digital literacy from leading organizations and then modified each of them a little so their source wasn’t easily identifiable. We then printed the modified definitions on A3 paper and hung them around the room. We asked participants to read them all, stand next to the one they agreed with the most, then discuss.

Every time we tried this, every definition had several strong advocates. One interesting phenomenon was that the Microsoft definition often drew the most supporters, which dismayed those who’d selected it. I don’t want to say more here, because I’d like people to experience the activity as our participants did. If you try it on your own, please cast your vote and justification through the comments (link above).

Here are the modified definitions we used:

  • the term multiliteracies highlights two related aspects of the increasing complexity of texts: (a) the proliferation of multimodal ways of making meaning where the written word is increasingly part and parcel of visual, audio, and spatial patterns; (b) the increasing salience of cultural and linguistic diversity characterized by local diversity and global connectedness 

  • basic computer concepts and skills so that people can use computer technology in everyday life to develop new social and economic opportunities for themselves, their families, and their communities
  • 
development of critical, socially engaged intelligence, which enables individuals to understand and participate effectively in the affairs of their community in a collaborative effort to achieve a common good 


  • the knowledge and ability to use computers and technology efficiently
  • the ability to recognize when information is needed and to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information
  • a new liberal art that extends from knowing how to use computers and access information to critical reflection on the nature of information itself its technical infrastructure and its social, cultural, and philosophical context and impact

With coaxing, I’m willing to reveal the original definitions and sources.

8 thoughts on “Digital literacy, what is it?

  1. Pingback: Reflections on digital literacy | Peggy L Chinn

  2. after much thought i too would choose the last one “a new liberal art that extends from knowing how to use computers and access information to critical reflection on the nature of information itself its technical infrastructure and its social, cultural, and philosophical context and impact.”

    mainly because it offers a zone of development.

    i would be very interested to know more about the sources.

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  3. I’d choose the last definition listed: “a new liberal art that extends from knowing how to use computers and access information to critical reflection on the nature of information itself its technical infrastructure and its social, cultural, and philosophical context and impact.”

    The definitions that address only “how to use computers” or “how to find and use information” (second, fourth, and fifth on the list) seem too narrow. In order to be truly literate, I think learners should be conscious of surrounding social, cultural issues.

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  4. I’d pick the first one:

    the term multiliteracies highlights two related aspects of the increasing complexity of texts: (a) the proliferation of multimodal ways of making meaning where the written word is increasingly part and parcel of visual, audio, and spatial patterns; (b) the increasing salience of cultural and linguistic diversity characterized by local diversity and global connectedness 


    With that said, I think that digital literacies are so hard to define because we really have no agreed meaning of what literacy is. Literacy minus audio and video could also be multimodal. The more we recognize the role of tools and technologies in literacy, the more difficult it comes to defining both literacy and digital literacies.

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  5. Basic computer concepts and skills so that people can use computer technology in everyday life to develop new social and economic opportunities for themselves, their families, and their communities.

    I think the word ‘digital’ tends to emphasize on means whereas ‘literacy’ to the ends of learning. It creates is a kind of tension. I find that the above definition balances these two and resolves this tension to a great extent. Therefore, my vote goes to this definition, although I do not like the word “computer” (it is too narrow and can not be a surrogate for digital).

    This definition is simple to understand yet robust. Some other definitions, such as the 5th in the list, have nothing to do with ‘digital’ stuff; it could, perhaps, provide a definition for ‘information literacy’ as it is equally useful for non-digital information as well.

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