1.1.1. From “digital literacy” to “digital literacies”

1.1.1  From “digital literacy” to “digital literacies”

The term “digital literacy” is credited to Paul Gilster (1997, p.2), an American writer on aerospace and technology topics, who referred to it as a logical extension to literacy and defined it 23 years ago as “the ability to both understand and use digitised information”. The concept has been discussed widely throughout the 1990s and has expanded, building upon the discourses of “visual literacy” (using non-textual symbols and images to make sense of knowledge); “technological literacy” (the ability to use a particular technology or technologies); “computer literacy” (developed in the 1980s as a response to the launch of personal computers, describing the computer as a means to achieving a specified outcome); and “information literacy” (related to finding, evaluating, using, and sharing information) (Belshaw 2011, Patti 2020). During the last years it has also included so called “metaliteracy”, as well as related capacities for assessing social and ethical issues in our digital world (Jacobson et al, 2019). 

The definitions and the aspects are innumerable but as Heitin (2016)  puts it in a in a clear and comprehensive way: “Sure, reading and writing are still very much at the heart of digital literacy. But given the new and ever-changing ways we use technology to receive and communicate information, digital literacy also encompasses a broader range of skills – everything from reading on a Kindle to gauging the validity of a website or creating and sharing YouTube videos”. “Digital literacies” differ from “analogue literacies” because digital tools break down traditional barriers of time and space and allow us to mix tools together with greater flexibility (Jones & Hafner, 2012).

The European Union refers to digital literacy as “digital competence”, where competence is defined as a combination of knowledge, skills and attitudes appropriate to the context. With the 2006 European Recommendation on Key Competences (Official Journal L 394 of 30.12.2006) digital literacy is acknowledged as one of the 8 key competences for Lifelong Learning. As mentioned by Yves Punie in the preface of the DIGCOMP report: “Digital Competence can be broadly defined as the confident, critical and creative use of ICT to achieve goals related to work, employability, learning, leisure, inclusion and/or participation in society. Digital competence is a transversal key competence which, as such, enables us to acquire other key competences (e.g. language, mathematics, learning to learn, cultural awareness). It is related to many of the 21st Century skills which should be acquired by all citizens, to ensure their active participation in society and the economy” (Ferrari, 2013).

According to the DIGCOMP framework, the areas of digital competence or digital literacy are the following:

  1. Information: identify, locate, retrieve, store, organise and analyse digital information, judging its relevance and purpose.
  2. Communication: communicate in digital environments, share resources through online tools, link with others and collaborate through digital tools, interact with and participate in communities and networks, cross-cultural awareness.
  3. Content-creation: Create and edit new content (from word processing to images and video); integrate and re-elaborate previous knowledge and content; produce creative expressions, media outputs and programming; deal with and apply intellectual property rights and licenses.
  4. Safety: personal protection, data protection, digital identity protection, security measures, safe and sustainable use.
  5. Problem-solving: identify digital needs and resources, make informed decisions as to which are the most appropriate digital tools according to the purpose or need, solve conceptual problems through digital means, creatively use technologies, solve technical problems.

However, in recent years efforts to describe a “single” digital literacy have been challenged, opening the way to the plurality of “digital literacies” (Ng, 2012 & Street, 1995). As a result, the use of plural conveys the many faces of literacy in the modern technological era, encompassing cognitive, technical and social-emotional skills. Most of the times, the term is mainly used as an “umbrella” for the media literacy skills and digital competences which appear in national curricula, referring to our ability to effectively make use of the technologies at our disposal. Quoting Jill Castek, a research assistant professor with the “Literacy, Language, and Technology Research Group” at Portland State University, Heitin (2016) mentions that “the concept should instead be considered plural—digital literacies—because the term implies multiple opportunities to leverage digital texts, tools, and multimodal representations for design, creation, play, and problem solving”. In a broader sense, digital literacies are the skills, knowledges and abilities required and acquired via multiple ways, so as people to participate in an effective and responsible way to the constantly changing digital society.