The first two weeks of ONL221 has provided many opportunities to pause and reflect on my own profile as a digital learner and educator.  Prior to diving deeper into the issues and academic literature on the topic of ‘digital literacy’, if I had to describe myself I would say that I was an ad hoc user of digital tools that was largely driven by metrics such as ease of use, convenience, simplicity and accessibility.  My digital presence is driven largely by professional needs – what do I need to effectively teach and learn; rather than personal needs – what do I need to create a personal identity and presence online.  I generally stick to a narrow set of digital tools and do not explore beyond these tools.  

However, the discussions in my PBL group, the webinar with David White and the academic literature have prompted me to start thinking about how I can be more intentional in evolving my digital literacy: should I try and have a growth mind-set versus a “do what you can to survive” mindset?  This post sets out how I propose exploring my digital literacy further and as the course progresses.

Defining “Digital Literacy”

In their guide – “Developing Digital Literacies” (2014) – JISC defines ‘digital literacy’ as:

“…those capabilities which fit an individual for living, learning and working in a digital society.”

There are a number of assumptions / ideas behind this definition that need unpacking.  First, what is a ‘digital society’?  Secondly, what does “fit” mean here? What level of ‘competency’ do we need to feel like we are ‘fit’ for a digital society?  Thirdly, and finally, do we all share the same interests in getting to this point of digital literacy?  Do we all feel we need to evolve these capabilities in order to ‘live’ as well as ‘learn, work’ in a digital society; or are we actually comfortable ring-fencing our ‘living’ space from our ‘learning and working’ spaces and focusing our efforts on enhancing digital literacy with respect to the latter?  For the rest of this post, I want to focus on the second and third of these questions.

Before I turn to do so, I want to share some thoughts on the question of whether – irrespective of our individual contexts, motivations and personalities – should we nonetheless aspire to evolve our digital literacy levels?  Prior to embarking on this course, I would have taken the position that I was at a desirable level of evolution: I was not intimidated by the digital environment and that it was completely alright that I was not a particularly dynamic and exciting digital user.  However, having met educators from diverse backgrounds and digital profiles, I am provoked into thinking that there is much to explore out there in the digital environment and I would be compromising my capacity as a student and educator if I did not explore how I can grow and evolve.  In the first webinar of ONL221 with David White, I learned about a whole host of new tools and applications (Padlet, Notion, Scrivener, Discord, Trello) and was inspired to start exploring and experimenting with these tools.  While I may not embed all of them in my approaching to teaching and learning, it has opened my mind to embrace the idea that digital literacy does indeed provide new opportunities to enhance teaching, learning and my own research.  It is with this spirit that I will proceed with the rest of this course.  Having set out my starting point – enhancing digital literacy and comfort is a ‘good’ thing – I want to consider next two questions: (a) the question of ‘fit’ – how do we ‘fit’ better in a digital society; and (b) our interests and motivations in ‘fitting’ in.

What makes us “fit” for a digital society?

In fleshing out the definition of ‘digital literacy’, the JISC Guide fleshes out seven elements of ‘digital literacy’ or, as I like to think of it, seven ‘competencies’ that help to scaffold and break down the idea of digital literacy:

Image from JISC’s Developing Digital Literacies Guide (2014)

This is a powerful tool for assessing what areas of digital activity we may need to focus on developing and where we actually have strengths.  This model was produced in 2014; much has changed since then and, especially, over the last two years with the catalyst of the pandemic having pushed / pulled many of us into the digital environment in a way that might not otherwise have happened.  This has led to the proliferation of other models of literacy, competency, citizenship (more on the nomenclature we use to discuss these issues later).  In, “Digital Citizenship in Education: What are the Nine Elements of Digital Citizenship?”, The Scientific World (10 March, 2020), there was a concern to also highlight the attendance responsibilities and rights that accompany the use of digital tools.  These include, not just competencies that allow digital access, commerce, communication but also etiquette, understanding of our digital rights and responsibilities, preserving our digital health and wellness and taking precautions to preserve digital security:

“Fit” in these sense, therefore, includes not just our literacy and competencies, but also an understanding of the rights and responsibilities that regulate our entry into and relationships in the digital environment. 

The question of ‘fit’ also raises the issue of how we measure ‘fit’.  It is, of course, an evolutionary process – we evolve and grow in our ‘fit’ with digital society.  How do we assess where we are at in our journey?  The literature discusses various ways of measuring this.  One prominent model is that proposed by Beetham and Sharpe:

Beetham and Sharpe argue that digital literacy is an entirely developmental process – we start with having access and awareness and gradually develop skills, and then from that practices (where we consolidate our skills and adopt patterns and practices that we consider best achieve our objectives in engaging with the digital space); we culminate in having a digital identity that is grounded in our skills and practices.  

Using the above models – the elements of digital literacy, elements of digital citizenship and also the model of assessing where in our evolutionary process we are – I reflected on how I would map onto these models.  Utilising Beetham and Sharpe’s model, I would put myself on the second level where I have developed ‘skills’ but cannot conclude that I have regularised my use of these skills and developed digital practices or, more than that, a digital identity.  The JISC elements of literacy I have developed are limited to informational literacy, digital scholarship and a measure of media literacy and communications / collaboration literacy.  Of the 9 elements of digital citizenship, I am conscious of my rights and responsibilities, but rarely consider how to actual realise the actions that this consciousness might require.

This highlights to me that how we develop can depend significantly on the context in which we are operating (professional or personal) and the motivations we have to evolve in that particular context.  I turn to consider this issue next.  How do I better understand my current digital identity and the motivations needed to evolve my identity?

Do we all share the same interests and motivations in becoming ‘digitally literate’?

Those researching digital literacy have, over time, developed a number of typologies for understanding different groups of digital users.  The objective of these typologies is to articulate the different degrees of online engagement by different categories of users with a view to proposing that any scheme that aims at enhancing usage has to be tailored to these different groups of users.

In an article on online engagement, David S White and Alison Le Cornu take issue with prior typologies.  In particular, they take issue with the model of ‘digital natives’ and ‘digital immigrants’ developed by Marc Prensky (“Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants” in On the Horizon (MCB University Press, Vol.9, No.5, October 2001).  In addition to the usual concerns with creating typologies (e.g. rigidity of categories, inflexibility and tendency to box individuals into a category), there are also concerns that the dichotomy drawn by Prensky tends to rely on ‘demographic’ features of users – most notably, age.  Put simply, a ‘native’ is someone – typically younger – who is born in the digital environment and is completely at ease there; whereas a ‘immigrant’ is a newcomer to the same environment and who may manage to achieve some level of digital literacy but will never be completely at ease / fully competent).  In responding to these criticisms, White / Le Cornu propose that a spectrum versus category-based typology is a more flexible tool and, in addition, we need to broaden the contextual factors (far beyond the demographic ones Prensky relies on) to better understand the different categories of digital users.  Further, they argue that – unlike Prensky – there is no ceiling to how far we can go in progressing our digital literacy; how far we do is a product of how much we are motivated to do so.  There are other complexities to the disagreement with Prensky, but for now I want to focus on the evolved ‘typology’ created by White / Le Corfu.  

Their focus is on how we – as digital users – absorb digital tools and function differently depending on the context in which we are operating.  We either operate as ‘residents’ or ‘visitors’.  As residents, we view the digital as a ‘place’ with groups of friends and communities we embed ourselves in.  We are happy to share information about ourselves freely and live a large part of our existence online; the digital space is, in fact, a large tool for maintaining and developing a digital identity.  As ‘visitors’, on the other hand – the digital is not a ‘place’ but a set of ‘tools’ in the digital ‘garden shed’.  We enter the garden shed on a needs-basis to utilise tools to further a particular task and we then leave the garden shed – leaving different degrees of trace of our identity as we do so.  Where we are on this visitor-resident continuum will depend on the context in which we are operating – is it the institutional or personal space?  Our motivation-level for behaving as a ‘visitor’ or ‘resident’ will vary depending on the context in which we are operating.  Put diagramatically: 

Image from David S White and Alison Le Cornu, “Visitors and Residents: A new typology for online engagement” First Monday, Volume 16, Number 9 – 5 September 2011

The blue rectangle in this image is there to symbolise the fact that whether we are visitors or residents in either the institutional or personal context will be a question of degree rather than an absolute measurement / categorisation.  During the webinar with David White, participants were invited to consider how they would map themselves using this continuum:

Image of my mapping of my digital self – using the horizontal visitor-residential axis and the vertical institutional-personal axis

What I learned from this exercise is that, in the personal sphere, I am a clear and distinct visitor – only engaging with known communities (family, close friends) and I remain a visitor in the institutional space because I am focused on tasks versus my professional digital identity.  Going back to my earlier conclusion – evolving my digital literacy is a ‘good’ thing – I am keen to further explore my positioning in the visitor quadrant even in the professional space.  While I have no motivation to move to the residential space in the personal context, I now do have a personal level of buy-in to transitioning to the residential space in the professional context.  It is this that I will be focusing on as the course evolves.

Concluding Reflections

Writing this blog post has been extremely challenging.  I am a lawyer by background and used to writing / reflecting on legal topics.  Not only is the underlying academic literature relating to digital literacy distinct in various ways (methodologically, style / language in which its written, and the way questions are asked / answered) but it also relates to a subject-matter I am not confident about – the digital.  However, reflecting on these questions has really inspired me to reflect and ask myself the difficult questions and I look forward to unpacking these further as the course evolves.

Developing my own digital literacy – Reflections on Topic 1 (Online Participation and Digital Literacies)