Who needs ‘digital literacy’?

Policy-makers are showing growing interest in ‘digital literacy’. But what does digital literacy mean, and how and where might we teach it?

 

Over the past year, policy-makers have increasingly been talking about ‘digital literacy’. Although moves to regulate the internet seem to be proceeding apace in the UK and across Europe, digital literacy is now regularly presented as one potential solution to the problem of fake news and disinformation, and to other forms of online risk. But what do we mean by digital literacy in this context, and where is it likely to happen?

Here are four notable examples of this new wave of interest:

This month, the UK government published a White Paper on Online Harms, which proposes a new regulatory framework for online platforms. Among other things, it recommends a range of online media and digital literacy initiatives with the aim of preventing radicalization, combating ‘fake news’, and keeping children safe online.

The British Parliamentary Select Committee report on fake news and disinformation, published a couple of months ago, concludes with a chapter of far-reaching recommendations on digital literacy, which I have discussed here. It goes so far as to suggest that digital literacy should become ‘a fourth pillar of education, alongside reading, writing and maths’.

A few months earlier, at the end of 2018, the European Commission published the report of a high-level expert group on online disinformation, which made similar recommendations. Here again, media and information literacy is described as a means of empowerment, a way of developing people’s resilience in an increasingly complex digital environment.

And last summer, the UK’s National Literacy Trust published a report on ‘critical digital literacy’, produced in collaboration with an all-party parliamentary group on literacy. Along with the rather tired approach of a Children’s Charter on Fake News, it too places a central emphasis on the need for children to learn to question online information, both in school and at home.

There are some differences among these reports, but they share a view of the importance of digital literacy as an accompaniment (if not a potential alternative) to centralized regulation. Digital literacy is presented as an essential means of dealing with the growing risks and challenges of digital media. It entails an awareness of digital rights, for example in relation to privacy and freedom of expression; but in all these reports, it also entails critical understanding, not only of how these technologies and platforms operate, but also of how digital media represent the world. So far, so good.

Despite this recent wave of interest, ‘digital literacy’ isn’t a new idea – although it seems to mean quite different things to different people. Some definitions are expansive and social: they look at people’s engagement with digital media in the context of their everyday lives, and their motivations and purposes in using (or not using) media. This was broadly the approach of an earlier high-level expert group convened by the European Commission, in which I was involved almost ten years ago: you can find the report here. By contrast, other definitions are much more reductive and instrumental: they are primarily about technical know-how, and learning to operate hardware and software. One example of this approach is the European ‘driving test’ on computer skills, promoted by the ECDL Foundation.

Underlying these differences are different concepts of literacy itself, which have been considered at length by literacy scholars such as Brian Street. On the one hand, we have a concept of literacy as a set of psychological attributes or competencies, which individuals either do or do not possess. On the other, we have a view of literacy that sees it in terms of material and social practices. To some extent, these differences can be aligned with a distinction between functional literacy (literacy as a set of instrumental tools) and a much broader (and necessarily more political) notion of critical literacy.

I had an early attempt at defining this more critical notion of digital literacy almost fifteen years ago, back in the days before social media; and this article was later included in a collection edited by Colin Lankshear and Michele Knobel, which amply illustrates the diversity of definitions of digital literacy.

These days, I find the notion of digital literacy much less useful – and to some extent, positively misleading. The fundamental problem is that the idea is defined by technology itself. It makes little sense to distinguish between texts (or media) on the grounds of whether they are analogue or digital: almost all media (including print media) involve the use of digital technology at some stage or other. Fake news and disinformation operate as much in old, analogue media (like newspapers) as they do online. Meanwhile, news organisations based in old media make extensive and increasing use of online platforms. The boundaries between digital and analogue may still be significant in some situations, but they are becoming ever more blurred.

This technologically-defined approach leads inevitably to the view of digital literacy as a matter of technical know-how. For example, some commentators seem to assume that teaching computer coding is the same thing as teaching digital literacy – or at least that children who learn to code will somehow automatically develop a more ‘literate’ approach. In my view, this is a dangerous confusion: it reduces the complex set of understandings we generally define as ‘literacy’ to a narrow set of procedural skills. 

The further problem here is a more practical one. Even if we can agree on what digital literacy is, where and how would we expect it to happen? The reports I’ve mentioned are less than helpful in this respect. The government apparently responded to the Select Committee’s interim report by claiming that digital literacy ‘is already taught across the national school curriculum’ – a claim that is itself a piece of fake news. Yet this illustrates the point: if any use of digital technology can be equated with ‘digital literacy’, then the term itself is fairly meaningless.

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In the UK, we might well look to the subject of English – or, as it is now more frequently labeled in primary schools, of ‘literacy’ – as the logical place for digital literacy to sit. Yet if we look at the government’s subject content documents for English, which define the broad parameters of the national curriculum, digital media (and indeed media of any kind) are almost entirely excluded. The specification for English Language GCSE does make mention of ‘journalism (both printed and online)’, and the need to study ‘bias and the misuse of evidence’. However, it also states that students should only be assessed on their understanding of what it calls ‘high quality, challenging texts’: ‘instant news feeds’ – that is, social media – are explicitly excluded. (I’ve had my say on the implications of this emphasis on ‘quality’ in relation to Media Studies in an earlier post.)

Meanwhile, English Literature GCSE and A-Level are predictably concerned with the study of ‘high quality English literature’. There’s no discussion of the processes or criteria by which ‘quality’ is identified; and there are no references whatsoever to visual or audio-visual media. English Language A-level does include ‘a wide range of spoken and written forms of English, including electronic and multimodal forms’, although this course is only taken by a small minority. As things stand, the opportunities for studying media within English are now significantly reduced when compared with the situation in the 1970s and 1980s, when news and advertising (among other topics) were routinely included in most courses.

Meanwhile, at primary school level, ‘literacy’ is very much defined in terms of verbal literacy – and the model of literacy has become steadily more reductive. The curriculum is dominated by what are spuriously termed ‘knowledge-based’ approaches to language, although it is a very partial (and often quite arcane) form of ‘knowledge’ that is seen to be at stake here. (There’s a larger debate here, which I may deal with in a later post; but the children’s author Michael Rosen often has some sharp and pithy things to say about all this.)

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By contrast, the National Literacy Trust report places a central emphasis on what it calls ‘critical digital literacy’. It has also produced suggestions and resources (of variable quality) designed to support teaching about online news in particular. Yet astonishingly, the report completely omits any mention of the subject in which teaching about news has been a staple concern for the past fifty years: namely, Media Studies. I’m getting tired of saying this, but media teachers have developed some very sophisticated approaches to tackling this area, which go well beyond the rather tiresome approaches to ‘spotting fake news’ that are generally on offer. Once again, the key point is that we are talking about media here, not only about digital technology: what we need is not technical know-how or skills in ‘spotting’ fake news, but systematic approaches to analyzing and teaching about media.

As I’ve argued in earlier posts, digital and social media do bring new issues to the table for media educators. For example, we need to be teaching about how algorithms and search engines work; about the new forms of discourse and representation that have emerged online; and about the debates and controversies that surround issues like hate speech, online ‘addiction’ and (yes) ‘fake news’. Unfortunately, the revised specifications for Media Studies offer very few opportunities for doing this.

Nevertheless, media education offers a clear and well-developed critical framework for teaching and learning about digital media, and a plethora of engaging and challenging classroom strategies. This is the kind of approach that should be informing current discussions of ‘digital literacy’. We really don’t need to reinvent the wheel.

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