What is Digital Literacy?

Author: Stephen Downes
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Short response to a questionnaire.

1. What is Digital Literacy

Digital literacy is a type of literacy, specifically, the type of literacy that arises in the digital context. By ‘the digital context’ we mean the multimedia and inter-networked context enabled by digital technology.

What’s significant is how it advances beyond traditional literacy, which is essentially the ability to read and write well. By ‘well’ in this context we mean rather more that rote ability, but rather, to be able to find meaning, to be able to evaluate critically, to be able to communicate with intent, and similar capacities.

In the digital world we look at these abilities as applying to more than just text. The initial result is that people have defined a whole set of literacies, such as visual literacy, mathematical literacy, social literacy, emotional literacy, or which digital literacy is only one type. But these literacies also challenge the idea that literacy is itself a semiotic concept, that is, it challenges the idea that literacy is (merely) about symbols, meanings and representation.

For my part, I think that ‘literacy’, understood in this wider context, applies to what we might call pre-symbolic, or sub-symbolic, concepts. That is, the normal ideas of meaning, representation and truth are one small part of of literacy, rather than definitive of it.

What I have done over the years is identify a set of six ‘critical literacies’ that capture pre-symbolic literacy. These are core skills that enable a person to be ‘literate’ in whatever domain – language, mathematics, video, whatever. These include pattern recognition, semantics, context-awareness, use or application, explanation and inference, and change.

So Digital Literacy, properly so called, would involve being able to apply these skills to digital media and digital technology – from being able to identify patters, rule-sets and principles, to being able to represent meaning, value and truth, to being able to understand and work with technological change, and the rest.

2. What impact does digital literacy have on your personal, professional, and spiritual* life? (*However you interpret this.)

The basis for the definition of critical literacies (and therefore, digital literacy) I outlined above comes from my understanding that I am essentially an embodied neural network that experiences and interacts with the world.

So in an important sense, there isn’t really a distinction between ‘what makes me literate’ and ‘who I am’. In another paper, I argue that “consciousness is experience”, and the literacies I describe are various aspects of my consciousness.

Developing myself both personally and professionally means engagement in environments that stimulate a wide range of experiences that will create and foster the development of my neural network (ie., the development of myself) with more refined and effective literacies – that is, making myself a better and more nuanced perceiver.

One might think of it as tuning my capacities to my environment, the way you might tune an instrument, so that it captures and expresses itself harmoniously with everything around it. So (for example) I can see patterns others don’t see, express myself in interesting ways, be able to predict events, etc. This allows me to assist others who do not have these particular capacities (because they have given themselves different experiences and different abilities).

3. Who are you? (context matters)

My name is Stephen Downes, I work as a researcher for the National Research Council of Canada, and I work in that area where philosophy, education, media and technology intersect with each other. I will be 60 years old this year, and have been fortunate enough to do this work for that last 25 years.

I grew up in a small town in eastern Ontario (which is where I now live), worked hard (as a dishwasher, janitor, 7-Eleven clerk, security guard, etc), studied philosophy (BA, MA, almost a PhD), taught college and university classes, taught myself computing technology, edited a newspaper, produced another, and have lived (to the best of my ability) an idealistic and progressive life.

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What is Digital Literacy?
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