Digital K-12 Literacy

Developing digital literacy in K-12 students. The responsibility of teachers or a term to far?

To be literate is to be able to read and write. To be literate within the digital world – to be digitally literate requires, perhaps, a broader definition of reading; and to simply write is no longer adequate. We collectively could accept that literate has updated its meaning to encompass the additional expectations of its description or we could adopt a new technology encompassing term that does justice to broader requirements of a descriptor for the digitally literate?

Before the advent of [electronic] technology and computers, literacy was typically described as the ability to read and write; the ability to encode (write) and decode (read) written text at a level adequate for communication (Kirsch, Jungeblut, Jenkins, & Kolstad, 2002).  The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) also provides a useful and reasonably non-controversial definition of literacy – albeit one that emphasizes print texts – “the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate, compute and use printed and written materials associated with varying contexts (Wikipedia, 2004). The National Literacy Act of 1991 (USA), defines it as “an individual’s ability to read, write, and speak in English and compute and solve problems at levels of proficiency necessary to function on the job and in society, to achieve one’s goals, and to develop one’s knowledge and potential.”
Members of every culture and society have the world of everyday experience mediated by technologies, traditions and cultural norms or expectations (Petrina, 2007:168; Achterhuis, 2001:71 in (Belshaw, 2010). Modern communication and information media are no longer technologies for ‘early adopters’ (Newrly & Veugelers, 2009). We (teachers) educate children for success in the world that awaits them, but we do this from a context of the world in which we have been successful; the world changes. It is this change and it’s association with the second part of these literacy definitions that bring to account a requirement for a more broadly encompassing interpretation of literate. One that is appropriate to a digital realm, yet not so broad as to become nebulous.
An appropriate and practical definition is problematic due to the contexts in which such definition might be used.  It must be sufficiently useful so as to be functional in practice i.e., can teachers talk to other teachers with this term and have the ‘right’ common understanding; it must be acknowledging of historical practices (therefore not wholly specific to the use of technology); and the notion of ‘digital’ must also be sufficiently encompassing to embrace existing and developing technological approaches to encoding and decoding.
Attempts to encapsulate literacy appropriate to developing technology have been occurring since the mid 1980s.  These have included subtle changes via a notion of  “emergent literacies”, in describing young children’s media-related play (Spencer, 1986), to a more descriptive definition of digital literacy from Gilster.
“ . . . the ability to understand and use information in multiple formats from a wide range of sources when it is presented via computers.”

In 1969 John Debes conceptualised visual literacy from a belief that the standard definition of literacy was insufficient to encompass the capacities required to interpret visual media. Readers of picture books will identify strongly with this. In some ways this is a reasonable restitution against the notion that only text based narratives that can provide meaning and information. A likewise more apt term may be applicable to the technologically savvy today.
In parallel to the term visual literacy, and due to the advent of computer based technology, there was another developing term; technological literacy. This was both the capacity to operate and be accommodating of developing technologies. As the adoption of personal computers grew, the terminology began to change to computer literacy. While technological literacy suggests both competence and an associated attitude, computer literacy indicated more of a vocational approach (Buckingham, 2008).
As computers have changed to become more end-user focussed and away from the domain of the ‘geeky’, the associated meaning of computer literacy has also changed, now indicating someone’s capacity to use computer applications, therefore much more skills or competency based rather than approach or attitudinal. As computers became progressively connected via the web, additional skills were needed to cover communications such as emails, instant messengers, blogs and wikis. With this change grew the term IT literacy. At this point terminologies blur, information technology and information literacy are widely different arenas, yet popular use has information literacy associated with computing technology.
Definitions of literacy have taken, of late, a divergent view; unitary or pluralist. The unitary viewpoint considers literacy as a skill. There is a developed ability to which we can refer, a single referent. It also implies that the skills can exist outside of a context of use, allowing the ‘owner’ of the skills to utilise it to their own situation. The pluralist view is that there are many literacies, generally socially constructed. All these multiple literacies tend only to suggest a [socially] learned or acquired state – acquisition of a class of associated skills and competencies (Martin, 2008). A majority of  recent literacy definitions can be seen as supportive of this pluralist view.
While there is merit to each of, computer literacy, information literacy, visual literacy and others, there is no clarity over their intention to be encompassing (umbrella) terms or if they are part of an as yet undefined encompassing term rendering them a sub set or component. In his 1997 book, Paul Gilster used the term digital literacy, a term that had actually been around for a while, to explain how each of these individual literacies were developing. It is interesting to note however that the book itself does not ultimately provide a single unifying definition of digital literacy; although his long descriptor is sufficiently wide reaching to cover K-12 teaching situations, which this paper is most concerned with:
the ability to understand and use information in multiple formats from a wide range of sources when it is presented via computers. The concept of literacy goes beyond simply being able to read; it has always meant the ability to read with meaning, and to understand. It is the fundamental act of cognition. Digital literacy likewise extends the boundaries of definition. It is cognition of what you see on the computer screen when you use the networked medium. It places demands upon you that were always present, though less visible, in the analog media of newspaper and TV. At the same time, it conjures up a new set of challenges that require you to approach networked computers without preconceptions. Not only must you acquire the skill of finding things, you must also acquire the ability to use these things in your life (Gilster, 1997).

In my own practice it is the emphasis on the process of thinking through to the deeper value of technologies and their application to students (their stage of life) that becomes important. Not only should you use the internet successfully, and to do so, be critical of what is found and learned and then put that to some purpose. Additionally adopt new technological affordances in the same deep manner rather than for their initial market hyped function.

New Zealand’s educational system constructs its K-12 “New Curriculum” with the attendances of digital literacy being at once part of and also influencing in life situations:

Digital literacy is the ability to appreciate the potential of ICT to support innovation in industrial, business and creative processes. Learners need to gain the confidence, skills, and discrimination to adopt ICT in appropriate ways. Digital literacy is seen as a ‘life skill’ in the same way as literacy and numeracy. (Ministry of Education, 2003: 5)

How are K-12 teachers caught up in this and why is that last part of Glister’s explanation the most vital; making things appropriate to a stage of life? There exists, commonly, a situation which we shall refer to as “digital myopia”. A phenomenon of adults watching younger people’s apparent ease and familiarity with emerging communications methods and all digital technologies. It is a misinterpretation of their ability to read and write in new ‘digital’ ways, in spite of the fact there is even a sub language adopted to provide speed and efficiency known as leet speak. The constant mobile phone texting among youth and their adoption of iPods, games consoles, laptops for education, and so on, has a surface appearance of competence or digital literacy. To anyone with lesser fundamental knowledge this appears to be sufficient. This is further misinterpreted due to their ready adoption and eagerness for anything new. This however is all cursory. Closer examination reveals familiarity only with a single function, only with the primary capacity. There is little to no deeper understanding and no cognizance of the potential or capacity to broaden any functionality or to apply it in unfamiliar circumstances. As example, all students can take a photo with their mobile phones. Few can post that image to a web site, associate a narration with it and present it as a response to homework.  Almost all mobile phones can record video and many even edit them. No student thinks that this is a way to respond to assignments or home work or stay in touch with distant relatives or express themselves in any way. Few of them realise the potential of their technology to exchange/interchange this information among other digital technology users and that they have the capacity to behave in collaborative ways. They have adopted the superficial. Their lack of capacity to move to deeper understandings is partly due to their educators having only taught them within the constructs of their (the teachers) own education, wherein there were no digital technologies.
So it is that a definition of digitally literate must be broader than the notion of competence. It must indicate an understanding at a sufficient level that the superficial functionality is deepened to a new level of value, it must encompass an attitude such that digital literacy includes a willingness or aptitude appropriate to exploring beyond that superficial, and adopting of habits that result in gaining greater value from the digital world.
The Ministerial Council on Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs’ (MCEETYA) 2007,  provide a potentially improved and better definition, particularly from an Australian and education based viewpoint.  It reported on Information and Communication Technology (ICT) literacy for years 6 and 10 and identified six processes: (Ainley, Fraillon, & Freeman, 2007):

Accessing information (i.e., identifying and retrieving it)
Managing information (i.e., organising and storing it)
Evaluating information (i.e., for its integrity, relevance, usefulness)
Creating new understandings (i.e., creating knowledge and authoring)
Communicating with others (i.e., creating and sharing products)
Using ICT appropriately (i.e., being critical, reflective, strategic; accounting for ethical and
legal usage)

Additionally, within this document they define three broad elements of digital proficiency:
Working with information
Creating and sharing information
Using ICT responsibly

This encompasses the practicality and every day value in stipulating the skills and competencies required to be considered literate (thereby also giving hope to teachers with no experience a basis on which to develop their own) and also covers, in a modest way, the attitudes and habits expected of someone who is literate. It would be reasonable however, to brand this listing not [the basis of] digital literacy but “literacies of the digital” (Martin & Grudziecki, 2006). A pluralist view and not yielding of a single unifying meaning of digital literacy.

It is interesting to note from the same document that they evaluated Australian school students’ ICT proficiencies by these measures, only 49% of year 6 students and only 61% of year 10 students met ‘challenging but reasonable’ expectations in the above six measures. Compared to traditional literacy, as measured by NAPLAN this is a bit low. Yet ask any adult their perception of youth’s digital literacy and they would rate it much more highly. Digital myopia.

How, as educators, are we to position our selves for the responsibility of developing in students a digital literacy which as yet is indefinable by a simple term. The components or proficiencies listed above are clear and important in their own right, and a pluralist view allows us to develop these individual literacies and value them for their own sake. Yet it would be unreasonable to make the notion of digital literacy a conglomerate effort, because an omission of one or more proficiencies, or an incompetence in one or more of the collective would define a student as digitally illiterate. This latter point making assumption that teachers have their own level of competency sufficient to measure and judge.

Do we take a unitary view and aim to teach students all the components and attitudes of digital literacy as an isolated subject – in the same way we approach Mathematics or English? Do we take a pluralist view that the many literacies that compose a digital literacy could wholly and successfully be incorporated into other subject and covered while in situ, resulting in a situation that collectively certifies students as being digitally literate?

The ultimate answer to that might come down to a pragmatic viewpoint where the answer becomes, whichever the educational system decrees so. In practical terms, for teachers to overcome such issues and remove the initial barriers to approach, we can follow a model such as the DigEuLit project (Martin & Grudziecki, 2006). Presented here as a representative example, it provides a set of conditions adaptable to each school’s individual situation. Martin and Grudziecki propose levels or stages in digital literacy development.

Digital Competence: A broad ranging level encompassing skill levels from basic visual recognition and manual skills up to critical, evaluative and conceptual approaches. Significantly it also includes attitudes and awareness. This requires growth and appropriateness of level as determined by life situation. This approach covers students even after they have passed the K-12 stage and enter the workforce or proceed to tertiary education. This is quite a traditional approach to studying any subject K-12 so quite manageable by classroom teachers.

Digital Usage: The application of the digital competence within a specific domain or context. Here students would utilise their existing digital literacy and apply it to suit each situation. Particularly suitable for students in senior years where individual subjects require a different  approach and call upon different components of digital literacy. As schools adopt and adapt to the current wave of “digital education transformation” (Gillard, 2008; Rudd, Smith, & Conroy, 2007) students will be able to capitalise on their competence and apply it to constructing a supportive structure in the nature of Wenger’s “Community of Practice (CoP)” (Wenger, 1998). At Presbyterian Ladies College – Sydney (PLC), a whole school approach to this is in practice where students undergo a program of professional development in digital literacy and are then encouraged to apply them and form CoPs, via construction of dynamic personal learning networks, a digital equivalent of CoPs.

Digital Transformation: This ultimate stage becomes apparent when the digital usages which have been developed enable and lead to creativity and innovation. This signals a significant change within the student’s domain and knowledge domain.

The task or problem arises out of the individual’s life context; it may concern work, study, leisure, or any other aspect of the life context. In order to complete the task or to solve the problem, the individual identifies a competence requirement. He/she may then acquire the needed digital competence through whatever learning process is available and preferred. He/she can then make an appropriate use of the acquired digital competence. The informed uses of digital competence within life-situations are termed here digital usages. These involve using digital tools to seek, find and process information, and then to develop a product or solution addressing the task or problem. This outcome will itself be the trigger for further action in the life context (Martin & Grudziecki, 2006).

At PLC, indicators of some success at this level are demonstrated by students’ responses to being asked to present. No longer are responses limited to “how many PowerPoint slides do you want Miss?” and lead to presentations as varied as short movies constructed through mobile phones, podcasts, online digital narratives, use of Photostories1, and other web 2.0 presentation systems.

Is it important that we address this concept of digital literacy within the context of school.  Young people themselves are concerned about what they see as the ‘unmanageable scale’ of the web (Green & Hannon, 2007). They are looking for and need some guidance on how to use technology for purposes beyond “Facebook” and to be required to think more deeply on it’s application. The role of teacher becomes to not cover simple mechanical skills and application features but to develop transferable skills and attitudes that will foster adaptability and capacity to exist in a world of rapid change.  They particularly must assist students to construct – via technology – relationships with educationally supportive people both seen and unseen, proffer ways to access and evaluate information now available in formats never prior thought of, and utilise the capacities of technology to suit the current generation of learners in their situation rather than adhere to the tried and trusted traditional methods.

What might K-12 teachers consider in their partnership with students in developing the literacies of the digital? There is a gradual progression of material for teachers developing student digital literacies that allow them a smooth pathway from traditional practice to one of “Nouvelle Comprehension” (Treadwell, 2008).

Traditional literature, ported from print, to digital form. This is the start of bridging the divide between the word of classical classrooms, the world from which educations systems are constructed, and the material upon which exams are still based, and the world in which most students live. The web provides access to tens of thousands of texts. These include out of copyright ‘classic novels’ and even contemporary material, which is often proved both in their original format and with supportive or backgrounding material. Text books have likewise moved to digital form. This provides much benefit since in this form linkages to up to date or related information become available. Additionally teacher input to the content of the text books can also be layered over. Applied teacher insight makes a digital format text book vastly more valuable.
On line literature developed to suit media. Material that was written considering the affordances of the digital world. According to Angela Thomas (2010) narratives produced for digital media proffer six new affordances:
And a sixth, that results from the capacity of students to construct and create their own literature on the web, and in doing so be involved in their own “Identity Construction” (Thomas, 2010).
On line narrative based interactive options. Generally these take the form of games. Mostly fantasy adventure based, but with strong educational underpinnings. One developed with educational purposes specifically in mind is Quest Atlantis (Technology, 2002). These are again a valuable bridge between traditional narratives the digitally enhanced, where the narrative is dynamic, partly under the control of the student/participant and rooted in the digital world that makes up not just the school time of students but their leisure and home time.
On line literacy development applications. The affordances of web 2.0 makes this a large field from which to draw appropriate educational utility. Serving both as demonstrator of the scale of the web and a tool with which to manage that scale are shared databases of useful sources, such as or similar collaborative recommendation sites. Literacy development is further supported by hundreds of so called ‘Web 2.0’ applications. These range from Wikis to blogs to micro blogs and collaborative applications in all genres of software.
Development of literacy attitudes. To demonstrate new/changed attitudes or habits appropriate to to developing literacies, there are many exemplars available to teachers. Examples should certainly include YouTube items displaying other student’s talents in new media. Theseq can range from simple musical talents being enhanced through a competence/literacy of new on-line media – or an approach that exploits the affordances of the web for personal promotion2.

This has been a consideration of the need to apply a sufficiently encompassing descriptor for the traditional and new literacies students hold and are expected to develop, from a context of a brief look at the multiple literacies that make up or are connected with digital literacy. Dependent on the situation, “literacies of the digital” is an apt, and sufficient self descriptive for even novices in the field to understand. Yet, “digital literacy” while nebulous does provide recognition of the expanded notion of traditional literacy. I believe that, over time, as teachers and students incorporate and engage progressively more deeply and ubiquitously with technologies of all kinds, the nature of “literate” will simply expand to incorporate those skills and approaches to technology that to day are the cause of change. At some point, in the not so far off future, when assumption of technologically based skills and attitudes become norm, then the the term literate will simply encompass all of that which we now struggle over. Until then, digital literacy will suffice, but far more important will be the desire and freedom and support for achieving it, no matter what the definition; because digital literacy will be a vital element and measurement of student success. Teachers hold an onus to provide this and K-12 students should expect no less.


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