What is digital literacy?

I think we are finding that it might not be so easy to define “digital literacy.” Here are a few references that might help.

The Original Definition?

It seems that the original reference is the book “Digital Literacy” by Paul Glister, which has over 1000 citations according to Google. I couldn’t find a free online copy but here is a link to an excerpt.


This book was published in 1997 and is a bit dated. However, there are still a few relevant ideas. Glister is concerned with giving

“Internet novices the basic thinking skills and core competencies they’ll need to thrive in an interactive environment so fundamentally different from passive media such as television or print.”

Glister describes the internet as follows:

 “The web is about interactivity, the ability to choose information pathways and explore them with new-found ease. “

I really like this characterization. Tying it into some modern educational terminology, I think digital literacy might be defined as the ability to navigate and apply information pathways in the use of information and communication technology (ICT) tools. The definition is broad and doesn’t just mean that a student is proficient in a certain program, what many people would call “computer literacy.”

An Updated Reference

A more recent reference is: Digital Literacies: Concepts, Policies and Practices (New Literacies and Digital Epistemologies) by Lankshear & Kobel (2006). I haven’t gotten my hands on a full copy of this book but it seems they define digital literacy as “the ability to understand and use information in multiple formats from a wide variety of sources when it is presented via computers and, particularly, through the medium of the Internet.” Digital literacy requires various abilities

  • the ability to use technology as a tool to research, organize, evaluate, and communicate information.
  • Create: The ability to generate information by adapting, applying, designing or inventing information in ICT environments.
  • Communicate: The ability to communicate information properly in its context of use for ICT environments. This includes the ability to gear electronic information for a particular audience and to communicate knowledge in the appropriate venue.

Source: http://www.uio.no/studier/emner/matnat/ifi/INF3280/v13/undervisningsmateriale/literacy.pdf

A critique of this approach is the digital literacy should also have it’s own definition in each area. Information is not enough. A student must be able to apply these skills in whatever community they are attempting to engage in.

From the European Computer Driving Licence (ECDL)

Another nice source is the ECDL Foundation, which apparently is “is the certifying authority of the leading international computer skills certification programme.”

Here is an article about how digital literacy is tricky to define. Something we find true ourselves!


Here is a nice, short article in which the ECDL actually defines all of the terms:


Specifically, digital literacy is a

“basic set of skills required to participate in essential ICT user activities. Typical skills would include the ability to work with numbers and documents (software such as word processors and spreadsheets) and the ability to use a web browser, e-mail and internet search engines securely and effectively.”

If we’re talking about a definition “across the curriculum,” this is a bit narrow in my view. Perhaps if we define digital literacy specific to certain areas, we can include specific programs. Perhaps they mean “numbers within documents.”

Is Coding the New Literacy?

There actually seems to be some debate as to whether or not the true modern literacy is actually coding. There are a fair number of academic and popular articles about this. Here are a few with some selected quotes:

Understanding Programming as a literacy – full text available

“Computer programming has a lot in common with textual literacy—historical trajectory, social shaping, affordances for communication, and connections to civic discourse. In this article, I argue that the refrain of “literacy” in reference to computer programming is not only apt because of these parallels, but that our definitions of literacy must shift to accommodate this new form of digital writing. Whether or not computer programming will be a mass literacy remains to be seen. But as code and computers have become central to our daily lives, programming has certainly become a powerful mode of written communication.”

Mother Jones: Is coding the new literacy?

‘”computational thinking,” and knowing all of the Java syntax in the world won’t help if you can’t think of good ways to apply it.’

“computational thinking begins with a feat of imagination, the ability to envision how digitized information – could be combined and changed into something new by applying various computational techniques.”

Readwrite: Kids need to learn digital literacy – not how to code

“If you want to be able to use the machine to do anything, whether it’s use an existing application or actually write your own code, you have to understand what the machines can do for you, and what they can’t, even if you’re never going to write code,” Ari Gesher, engineering ambassador at Palantir Technologies, said at the event.

Coding is not the new literacy

“Programming as it exists now forces us to model, but it does so in an unnatural way. And while teaching ourselves how to program will help us learn how to break systems down, it does so at the risk of focusing on the wrong things.7 We don’t want a generation of people forced to care about Unicode and UI toolkits. We want a generation of writers, biologists, and accountants that can leverage computers.”






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