Defining Digital Literacy

Last year the print and digital magazine  TEACH, the largest national education publication in Canada, asked readers “What Does Digital Literacy mean to you?” In the June 13th, 2012 English version of the magazine,, two responses were published. I wrote the first one, in the contexts of digital literacy for older youth and adult learners, and in the context of myself as a learner. Contexts for the author of the second definition, Mudita Kundra, are secondary school students, but also the author herself as an educator, graduate student and job seeker.

Is digital literacy really literacy? Why does anyone care how digital literacy is defined?

In his 2012 book, Adult Basic Education in the Age of New Literacies, Dr. Erik Jacobson, Assistant Professor of Education  at Montclair State University in New Jersey, wrote: “…I believe positing something called ‘digital literacy’ makes the same mistake previous accounts of literacy did by assigning too strong a definitional essence to the media being used. One of the responses to great divide theories has been what has been called the New Literacies Studies (e.g. Street, 1994; Heath, 1983; Barton & Hamilton, 1998), whose key methodological stance is to look for specificity in how individuals and communities use the written word on combination with other semiotic resources).” “Digital literacy” may not be a separate kind of literacy but rather a descriptive phrase for how people get and perhaps use meaning in a digital milieu.

Definitions of digital literacy range widely, from computer basics to highly sophisticated understandings of technology, and critical thinking about what we read in a digital milieu. As you will see in both definitions reprinted below, for both Kundra and me, there is a sense in which it means savvy, comfortable, fluent and adept in reading and acting in the digital world. Given that range of meanings we who use the term need to define how we are using it and, more important, keep in mind what practices these literacies may have in common, what is different, and what is actually new. Asking ourselves, “Is this a new practice, a new combination of existing practices, or just a new medium for a well-established practice?” might clarify our thinking and might have an effect on what we and our students learn.

In the spirit of TEACH Magazine’s inquiry, What does digital literacy mean to you? Use the article Leave a Reply feature below to tell us what you think, and please include your name and, if you wish, your location and email.

Below is a reprint of the the TEACH Magazine definitions.

Digital Literacy: What does it mean to you?

Image retrieved from on January 14, 2013

As part of TEACH Magazine’s Digital Literacy Initiative, we asked our readers, What Does Digital Literacy mean to you? Readers wrote in and explained how being digitally literate impacts them as educators, librarians, administrators, or principals.

At one end of the spectrum digital literacy means basic comfort and competence in using computers, smart phones, electronic tablets, and other web-accessible devices. Toward the other end it means what some call information literacy, the ability to judge the quality of information one receives through electronic means. If literacy is getting meaning from print, then digital literacy is getting basic meaning from what you read — or have read out loud to you – through the use of a digital electronic device. It is also, at the higher end of the spectrum, sorting out wheat from chaff, using the higher order thinking skills of analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.

For me digital literacy involves reading widely, keeping informed, knowing when and how to be critical and when to embrace new information, new ideas. It also means how to approach new technologies – hardware and software – skeptically, fearlessly, and with enthusiasm. It means being limber in how one thinks, agile in using technology, expecting as normal seismic shifts in new information and communication tools.

Digital literacy is also fun. Unlike print literacy, we expect through digital literacy to be offered visual and sound embellishments of text. Digital magazines should be beautiful to see and hear. They should be interactive, with opportunities for talking and writing about what we read with others.

Digital literacy opens a door to digital learning. We are seeing the dawn of online courses, digital chautauquas and online study circles. We are also seeing the early stages of using digital technologies to learn anywhere, anytime, and as fast or slowly as one wants, with more easily accessible and better learning resources.

David J. Rosen, Ed.D. is President of Newsome Associates in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts. His interests include integrating technology in the adult education classroom, using technology for learning outside the classroom, and education and employment for out-of-school youth. He is an implementation advisor for the Learner Web, a major national adult learner support initiative.

Every time there is a buzzword in the education world, we look for definitions. Internet search engines show a neat set of no more than 30 words describing terms such as digital literacy in no less than 20 different ways. The basic definition of literacy remains the same: the ability to read and write. But to be literate in any given field is the ability to comprehend and to be well versed in it. I shall define digital literacy by sharing the different contexts it exists within the world of education. I write as an educator, a graduate student, and a job applicant.

As an educator, I have applied digital literacy skills in my secondary school science classrooms. I have used instructional media like iClickers and SMART boards for interactive activities and virtual laboratories. I have also used grade management software like MarkBook to deduce and analyze trends for individual students and whole classes. Online instructional tools such as Wikis empower digitally smart educators to collaboratively design and deliver resources to nurture young minds.

For students to be digitally literate, they not only need to learn how to use technology, but to be critical of the information they gather. Students are exposed to information digitally—articles, statistics, videos. They require explicit instruction that information might be old, biased, fake, illegal, or discriminatory. The Ontario provincial curriculum, like many others, talks about imparting 21st century skills, and digital literacy falls under that category. Educators are evolving instruction to teach students to discern information by being analytical thinkers.

The need for this evolution has been evident during my master’s degree in Educational Studies, which I recently completed at Johns Hopkins University in the United States. The course assignments emphasized technology integration. And despite being familiar with e-databases like ERIC, I got a lesson in digital literacy as I worked entirely from online libraries to conduct literature reviews. My digital knowledge base kept expanding.

Just as I was beginning to think that I am digitally savvy enough, I ventured back into the arena of job-hunting. Not only did I have to learn where to look for job postings requiring my new skills, I needed to understand the digitally focused language of these postings. Applications submitted electronically often go through a preliminary scan and the use of correct keywords in my cover letters is critical. A considerable number of jobs also ask for the ability to develop courses for web-based instruction. The need to improve digital literacy and grow my digital skills has only just begun.

Yes, literacy is the ability to read and write, but it is also the ability to understand. It is this understanding that has allowed me to be educated, to be scientifically literate, and to teach. It is this understanding that now allows me to be digitally literate, to learn and employ instructive and assistive educational technology, to search and critique information, and to learn more and apply further in this century of e-learning.

Mudita Kundra is a secondary science educator formerly based in Toronto. Her academic background in chemistry and interest in stargazing led her to pursue a master’s degree from Johns Hopkins University in teaching earth and space science.

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4 Responses to “Defining Digital Literacy”

  1. djrosen Says:

    Digital literacy is traditional literacy on steroids. In some ways obtaining literacy digitally is more important than conventional methods of learning because of its finality in delivery. Once you hit the ‘send’ button or the ‘enter’ key, opinion and response is out there for all to peruse and to judge.

    In order to be a proficient communicator today, you need to understand not only what technology is being used by the majority, but also the value of that usage in engaging the learner and the class.

    Social media is a great example of how this digital literacy works. If you use Twitter or LinkedIn to get your opinion out there on trivial subjects, you may lose your credibility as a scholar or expert in a certain field. However, if you use the digital tool as your medium of education, with professionalism and documentation you will be rewarded with success in achieving digital literacy.

    – Joanne Borgesi (posted to the LINCS Technology and Learning Community of Practice January 14, 2013)

  2. Hard Skills to Soft Skills | Digital Coach Blog Says:

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  3. The Spectrum of Digital Literacy | Digital Coach Says:

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  4. jdavidhale Says:

    Reblogged this on Digital Coach.

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