My notes on Eshet, Y. (2004). Digital literacy: A conceptual framework for survival skills in the digital era. Journal of educational multimedia and hypermedia, 13(1), 93-106.

There is widespread agreement that the ubiquity of digital technology presents a whole range of challenges to the people living within these newly digital environments, but there is little agreement about what competencies are involved in meeting those challenges. The term ‘digital literacy’ has often been used as a blanket term to cover a range of competencies (technical, cognitive, psychological, sociological) but this ambiguity about which it refers to has created problems. Eshet-Alkalai is seeking to address this problem, as described on pg 94:

Development of a more clear-cut conceptual framework may improve the understanding of the skills encompassed by the term “digital literacy,” and provide designers of digital environments with more precise guidelines for effective planning of learner-oriented digital work environments

His new conceptual framework incorporates five types of literacy which “encompass most of the cognitive skills applied when using digital environments” (pg 94). It’s interesting to note the studies he references that suggest young people show higher photo-visual literacy and branching literacy than adults but adults show higher reproduction literacy and information literacy.

– Photo-visual literacy: whereas writing became more abstract with time in its transition from visual symbols to abstract letters, the opposite trajectory is true with digital technology as text-based interfaces have led to increasingly sophisticated graphical user interfaces which rely on visual language which is familiar and resonant with the user. Photo-visual literacy is what is necessary to “‘read’ intuitively and freely, and to understand the instructions and messages represented visually” (pg 95). It’s a responsiveness to visual cues for practical action and a capacity to form associations on this basis. In its most pronounced form this is a synchronic literacy, in which different modalities contribute simultaneously to the understanding of a multimedia text
– Reproduction literacy: reproduction became possible in a meaningful way with the invention of the printing press, as opposed to simple manual copying or oral reproduction. This went through its next revolution with digitalisation, leading to “new and unlimited possibilities for reproducing and distributing digital information have opened new horizons for scholars and artists, but they have also required the development of a new set of criteria for originality, creativity, and talent in art or academic work” (pg 97). This literacy involves “the ability to create a meaningful, authentic, and creative work or interpretation, by integrating existing independent pieces of information” (pg 98).
– Branching literacy: the replacement of the scroll with the codex book changed how information could be processed, facilitating navigating to particular points in the text rather than being confined to reading it through row-by-row as in a scroll. It made non-linear reading possible for the first time. Digital media offers a radicalisation of this process, providing users ” with a high degree of freedom in navigating through different domains of knowledge, but also presents them with problems arising from the need to construct knowledge from large quantities of independent pieces of information, reached in a nonlinear, “unordered” manner” (pg 99). It should be stressed this is a function of a particular digital environment, as opposed the technology itself. Early computing imposed a linearity on information retrieval (e.g. absence of hypertext, insularity of databases, paucity of metadata) which seems remarkable in the contemporary digital environment. Branching literacy is the skill at retaining orientation when navigating a complex information environment in a multidimensional way.
– Information literacy: even if the challenge of evaluating information isn’t unique to digital technology, the quantity of information which individuals have to evaluative is. As he puts it, “the unlimited exposure to digital information, which can be published easily and manipulated without difficulty, the ability to evaluate and assess information properly has become a ‘survival skill’ for scholars and information consumers” (pg 101). This involves assessing the credibility, originality and presentational integrity of information encountered online. Information literacy encompasses the cognitive skills used to evaluate information and their efficacy at filtering the torrents of information online for that which is biased, untrustworthy or erroneous.
– Socio-emotional literacy: the capacities for communication and collaboration opened up by digital media also present all manner of challenges about managing interactions through these new means. As he puts it, “Socially-literate users of the cyberspace know how to avoid “traps” as well as derive benefits from the advantages of digital communication” who he suggests are those “who are willing to share data and knowledge with others, capable of information evaluation and abstract thinking, and able to collaboratively construct knowledge” (pg 102).

My notes on Breakstone, J., McGrew, S., Smith, M., Ortega, T., & Wineburg, S. (2018). Why we need a new approach to teaching digital literacy. Phi Delta Kappan, 99(6), 27-32.

The upset of the 2016 American election was immediately followed by a rush to provide guidance on how to negotiate what was widely regarded as a dangerous proliferation of ‘fake news’. However Joel Breakstone et al found the problem was much wider than this in 7,804 responses to tasks which required students to evaluate online content that they collected over 18 months. Media literacy has been widely invoked as the solution to this problem and Google and Facebook have been involved respectively in funding the development of a curriculum in Canada and guidance for students in schools in Italy.

Many of the media literacy initiatives which ensued have relied on checklists, such as the wonderfully named CRAAP Test, inviting students to ask questions such as whether the site is a ‘.com’ and whether a contact person is listed. However this guidance conflicts with what fact checkers do, who immediately begin to read laterally rather than drilling down vertically into the details of the specific site they are looking at. As they describe on pg 28:

When confronted by new information on an unfamiliar web-site, fact-checkers almost instantaneously left the site and read laterally — opening up new browser tabs and searching across the web to see what they could fnd about the trustworthiness of the source of informa-tion. Only after examining other sites did they return to read the material on the original site more closely.

Vertical interrogation leaves an individual easily fooled by simple procedures such as using official-looking logos and buying top level domain names. As they put it, “By focusing on features of websites that are easy to manipulate, checklists are not just ineffective but misleading.” (pg 30). Furthermore, the length of these checklists (e.g. CRAAP has 25 questions) make them unfeasible as practical everyday tools for assessing unfamiliar content online.

In contrast lateral reading involves leaving the site to try and find external sources which offer information about it which can be used to assess its credibility. It is a practical strategy rather than a panacea, taught as part of a broader array of lessons about careful evaluation of online material. Teaching this requires reinforcement across the curriculum rather than a one off class taught by a librarian. This necessitates avoiding “mistaking students’ fluency with digital devices for sophistication at judging the information such devices yield” (pg 31). Teachers need training in these techniques, as well as the time and support needed to apply them across the curriculum.

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.

There’s an interesting piece by Alastair Creelman in Elm Magazine on platform literacy and the collaborations which will be necessary to develop it as an agenda. While transnational initiatives have their value, their efficacy is likely to be dependent upon their mediation by professional stakeholders:

There are excellent guidelines and initiatives from the EU Commission aimed at raising awareness of media literacy issues and digital literacies in general but these need to be implemented at national level and downwards. Teachers need to work with other professions such as journalists, publishers, media specialists, librarians, researchers and civil servants to offer a wide range of training resources and arrange workshops, meetings and lectures focusing on media literacy.

Building the space for these collaborations is important work. But it is costly and requires resources, creating a temptation to accept support from wherever it can be found. However with tech firms increasingly effective in shaping the implementation of digital citizenship, even if a much broader conversation continues around it, the risk is that these spaces are captured to institutionalise an anaemic, individualised and instrumental citizenship devoid of platform literacy. The collaborations between professional groups described by Alastair Creelman could function as an important bulwark against this agenda and it is important that they resist co-option, even if it comes in the shiny and appealing guise of a friendly tech company bearing gifts.

In the last couple of years, I’ve found myself returning repeatedly to the idea of platform literacy. By this I mean a capacity to understand how platforms shape the action which takes place through them, sometimes in observable and explicit ways but usually in unobservable and implicit ones. It concerns our own (inter)actions and how this context facilitates or frustrates them, as well as the unseen ways in which it subtly moulds them and the responses of others to them.

This understanding seems increasingly crucial to me because the alternative might otherwise be a diffuse paranoia. As knowledge of data brokerage and data politics expands throughout society, it generates a certainty that we are being manipulated but an unknowability about precisely who is doing the manipulation, how they are doing it and what the effects might be. Platform literacy helps ground this in a concrete understanding of specific processes and their implications for our agency.

Any recommendations for reading on this are much appreciated! Particularly those with a pedagogical focus. I’ll be working my way through the Digital Polarisation Intiative’s work and the Polarisation MOOC in the meantime.