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The Definition Of Digital Literacy

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the-definition-of-digital-literacy-flickering-bradThe Definition Of Digital Literacy

by Terry Heick

When we think of digital literacy, we usually think of research–finding, evaluating, and properly crediting digital sources. The “research” connotation makes sense, as it is the sheer volume of sources and media forms on the “internet” that stand out.

But we are living in a world where the internet is disappearing, replaced by sheer connectivity. Are you “on the internet” when you tweet? Skim through a social reader like Flipboard? Send a text? Mark up a pdf and sync it with the cloud so you can access it later? Are the cloud and the “internet” the same thing?

As the internet dissolves into something more seamless–that no longer requires a clunky web browser to make itself visible–we might adjust our perspectives in parallel.

Take the idea of “literacy,” for example. Literacy can be reduced to the ability to make sense of ideas. This often means reading, but also viewing, observing, writing, creating, designing–each a kind of literacy, and each with nuanced fluencies of their own.

Technology improves literacy only insofar as it improves a learner’s ability to identify, analyze, evaluate and create media. In fact, it remains entirely possible to fill learning spaces with apps, mobility, notifications, charts, fluid social streams, visualized data, and all-out holograms of Greek philosophers teaching them directly, and only improve their familiarity with these forms and their spectacle rather than the ideas and people behind them.

Literacy implies a fuller understanding and a rounder knowledge. A literate person is aware of multiple information sources, the pros and cons of media forms, and the value and credibility of information. A literate person can process diverse data sources, and suggest macro relevance and micro application of seemingly disparate ideas.

The Definition Of Digital Literacy

Cornell University offers a definition that works, but seems a bit limited, and dated as well: “Digital literacy is the ability to find, evaluate, utilize, share, and create content using information technologies and the Internet.”

This isn’t wrong so much as it focuses too much on technology and “the internet.” Literacy can’t be about the forms unless we’re talking about form literacy. Digital tools exist for access–finding information. Then finding better information. Socializing thinking. Connecting and contributing to digital communities you care about.

It is also a matter of “literacy” to understand concepts like digital footprints and identity. This reflects the overlap between digital literacy and digital citizenship, much in the same way there is overlap between traditional literacy and citizenship.

To settle on a definition then, here’s one that reflects the depth and breadth of the concept without getting overly wordy or complex:

Digital literacy is the ability to interpret and design nuanced communication across fluid digital forms.”

The Definition Of Digital Literacy; adapted image attribution flickr user flickeringbrad

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Great post!

Sean Federbusch

Another well written and thoughtful gem Terry. People voice concern to me about the appropriate use of technology in schools and I am reminded of a speaker at QUE2014 who said, “I would rather they bully online. At least that way I can trace it. If it happens on the playground, it’s harder to tell what happened.” We all understand the real and important issues with safety and appropriate use, but her point helps me to approach the issue of digital literacy and citizenry from the perspective that, as educators, part of our new role in this landscape is to… Read more »

Lebogang Mosimango

I remember reading somewhere that “Digital literacy is a condition, not a threshold-for it affects the ones identity, because every time one is given a new tool, it gives one a different way of impacting it to the world”, given the above definition, i certainly agree with you. overall a great post indeed.

Alison Kaye

Great post!

Charlie Chung

Great stuff–I especially like the point about digital citizenship, that’s an important part of this. Young people now are the first generation that will have a complete record of their online discussions archived & available for all of their lives…it’s one thing to hear some stories from grandma, but in the future one will be able to spend hours looking at digital records of her teenage years, see evidence of her mid-life crisis, etc…


My definition also goes beyond critical reading/thinking and it also includes being able to create content that communicates using various data types, but I cannot boil it down to one sentence. For a bit more than one sentence, see the intro to the e-text for the digital literacy class I teach: