by Lesley-Anne Longo
Published at 2023-09-20
You may think of literacy as solely having to do with reading and writing skills. However, there’s another type of literacy we should all be aware of: digital literacy.
Digital literacy still has very much to do with reading and writing skills, but it also involves a much broader set of skills—reading on a phone or a Kindle, interacting with content such as articles online or videos, and creating content yourself.
While the term “digital literacy” is broad, the American Library Association’s digital literacy task force does have a fairly concise definition: “Digital literacy is the ability to use information and communication technologies to find, evaluate, create, and communicate information, requiring both cognitive and technical skills.” The three main points are finding/consuming content, creating content of your own, and sharing content with others.
When you pick up and read a book, as long as you are literate in terms of knowing how to read, you’re pretty much set—you don’t need additional skills in order to interact with that content. Just turn each page once you reach the end, and that’s about it.
Reading on a Kindle, Kobo, or other e-reader adds some additional skills to the set, but not many. You may need a few minutes in order to figure out the basic workings of the e-reader, but generally, it functions much the same as a book: instead of turning the page, you just tap either side of the “page” instead. This form of reading is only slightly interactive.
Reading an article online though, is where things can get tricky. You need to add a number of skills to your skillset here, including how to interact with hyperlinks and additional content such as videos or graphics in the reading experience, and getting interactive elements, such as comments sections or sharing buttons, involved.
Think of your average news article on a news website. Sure, the article is there, but it’s broken up by pull quotes with buttons/options to tweet those quotes, videos on related content in the sidebars, links to other articles on the topic may be scattered throughout the page, there are probably going to be ads as well…the list goes on. How you interact with the text is going to be different from the next person who interacts with it. You might stop reading halfway to click on a related video, or get distracted by a link to a click-bait-y article. The next person who reads the content might skim the contents and interact with the comment section, or tweet one of the available pull quotes. It’s different for every person. You consume the content, but you also decide for yourself how to share or pass on the content to others. Digital literacy encompasses all these skills.
Lastly, consuming content isn’t just about how you read the online article—it’s about how you found it. Digital literacy also involves knowing how to use the internet to find content you want, such as using search engines. Do you know the ins and outs of how to tailor a Google search to get better results? If so, then you have that added layer of digital literacy.
Digital literacy can also refer to the know-how to create your own content, whether that be tweets, videos on YouTube, podcasts, blogs, or articles.
Why would digital literacy work in collaboration with making a tweet? Well, not only are you coming up with the content and writing it down, you need to have the skills necessary to use the medium of your choosing, whether that’s X (formerly known as Twitter), YouTube, Soundcloud, or any other medium out there online.
These days, online content is often meant to be shared. In the past, to share content with someone you had to give them a physical copy of that content, whether it was a printout, a copy of a book, or a magazine. Imagine how hard it would have been to share content just 40 years ago!
Now, the tools we use to create content online are designed for easy sharing and easy collaboration. The participatory nature of these tools means that it’s now easier to become involved in communities, become more engaged in learning about things going on around the world, and contribute to informing and enlightening others with your own content.
However, to quote the late French cultural theorist Paul Virilio, “When you invent the ship, you invent the shipwreck,” meaning that with the advent of these new technologies comes the flip side of using them. These technologies can absolutely be used for nefarious purposes, and have been many times. Learning about appropriate internet behaviours can also be considered a part of becoming digitally literate, as can the process of learning how to distinguish between trustworthy and non-trustworthy content. Critical thinking skills can absolutely factor into digital literacy in this way.
However, this is also where the term “digital literacy” can be become contentious and murky—can you be considered digitally literate if you know how to use Google to find the information you’re looking for, but not adequately assess whether you can trust that content in terms of truth and facts? Are you digitally literate if you can email without issue, but don’t know how to share content on X?
At its core, we can understand digital literacy to mean having the skills you need to live, learn, and work in a society where communication and access to information (and the evaluation of that information) is increasingly managed through digital technologies like internet platforms, social media, and mobile devices. It is becoming increasingly important because identifying information accurately and validating it is crucial as the digital world becomes more and more cluttered. Digital literacy encompasses using devices and software efficiently, but it also involves knowing how to protect personal data and protect yourself from online threats.
Just as fostering literacy is important when it comes to reading and writing, fostering digital literacy skills is becoming equally important as more and more of our content transitions to online sources. If you want to improve your digital literacy skills, Microsoft actually offers a free digital literacy course package, available in multiple languages, that covers working with computers, accessing information online, creating content, safety practices online, and more. It’s definitely worth checking out!
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