Digital literacy as individual and collective empowerment

My notes on Njenga, J. K. (2018). Digital literacy: The quest of an inclusive definition. Reading & Writing, 9(1), 1-7.\

On a view which associates digitalisation with the globalisation of the economy, digital literacy is “synonymous with the ability of individuals to participate in the economy through skills and creativity enabled by the digital technologies” (1). In spite of the many definitions which can be found of digital literacy, Njenga argues that they converge on a focus on “essential competencies of the present-day citizens’ success in today’s highly competitive and globalised market, which often require the performance of basic tasks using technology” (2). It is a competence view of literacy.

However there is good reason to be sceptical of this view: a lack of socio-economic development arising amongst the marginalised from their use of digital technology, the gap between a macro focus on economic indicators & the reality on the ground, the circumscribed character of investigations into digital impact which focus narrowly on field sites and fail to grasp dynamics which unfold beyond and past the field. If we develop these criticisms, Njenga argues we can see a way to a view of digital literacy which is emancipatory, realising the potential benefits of digital technology for marginalised and indigenous communities. Instead we need a contextualised definition of digital literacy, liable to reveal the material inequalities which shape the situational challenges people face as well as the capacity of digital competency to help realise benefits for them within these contexts.

Unfortunately a dichotomy between production and consumption in existing definitions of DL gets in the way of building such an approach. This implicitly valorised production, relegating the rural and the marginalised to the status of mere consumers. If we can retain a sense of the context within which digital activity takes place, we can resit the reduction of digital literacy to mere competency. This helps us recover the critical aspects of learning (problem solving, critical thinking, creativity and self-regulation) and the contextual features (social, economic and cultural) which shape the use of digital technology within particular social contexts. This leaves us with the social model of digital literacy rather than the competency model.

As well as the aforementioned advantages, the social media also helps us recognise the variability in how social and digital factors interact, leaving us with a much more refined empirical picture of the the reality of digital technology use (or its absence). In doing so, we can grasp the uses that are made of a technology ‘on the ground’ which might exceed or trouble the intentions of its designers and those with a material interest in maintaining it. This opens up the question of how uses of digital technology might be empowering or otherwise, defined in the terms of the individuals and groups taking it up.

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