Digital Literacy: An Interview with Doug Belshaw

Twenty-first century life is fueled by information technology facilitating our actions and communication. Recognizing technology’s usefulness as well as its limitations, technical skills related to varied forms of information technology use have become necessary competencies for citizenry, success in reaching educational goals and participation in the workforce. We all need to be digital literate – but are we clear what this means?

Doug Belshaw: ‘Literacy is a condition, a way of being, not a threshold or a bar to cross’ (Image by Travis Miller).

Doug Belshaw: ‘Literacy is a condition, a way of being, not a threshold or a bar to cross’ (Image by Travis Miller, flickr creative commons).

Digital literacy is still an evolving concept. In many policy settings, digital literacy is used synonymous to the proficient handling of information and communication technology, demonstrated through the performance of specific tasks, such as using email, search engines, participating in online communities, or handling different computer programs like word processing or spreadsheet software. In this sense, digital literacy is closely related to, and often used interchangeably with, computer literacy and ICT literacy. Other definitions center on retrieval and critical reflection and conceptualize digital literacy as the ability to understand and to critically evaluate different aspects of digital media content and the digital media landscape. In these contexts, digital literacy is likely to be subsumed under the umbrella of media literacy or information literacy.

From the variety of aspects that can be subsumed under and connected to the concept of digital literacy, it becomes clear that it is not a binary concept or an absolute term. Instead, it exists on a continuum. People can be more or less digital literate, and furthermore exhibit individual differences in their aptitude and proficiency regarding different aspects of digital literacy such as basic use of ICT tools, effective retrieval and evaluation of content, creative production of digital text and audio visual media, and the responsible participation in online communities and social networks. Given the oscillating nature of the concept, some researchers choose to deploy the plural and speak of digital literacies.

Digital literacy does not evolve or exist in a vacuum, but is aligned with the educational system, social and political parameters and cultural values. In his seminal book ‘The Essentials of Digital Literacies‘, Doug Belshaw identified eight core elements, namely cultural, cognitive, constructive, communicative, confident, creative, critical, and civic. In our interview he talks about what fuels his interest in literacy, what he thinks about the state of digital literacy, and the role of education in shaping our use of digital technology.

Your research focus on digital literacies began with your dissertation – which you titled ‘the never ending thesis’. What first drew your attention to the concept of literacy?

I kind of stumbled into my thesis by accident, actually. After doing my MA in Modern History and starting to teach, I was really interested in the difference between 19th century and 21st century education systems. The key question for me with my History dissertation centered around “what did it mean to be educated in the 19th century?” As you can imagine, there was a lot of disagreement.

I realized that we were still having the same debate in the 21st century, partly because the landscape had changed again. It seemed that the difference was technological. So the start of my doctoral research was trying to figure out what ‘digital literacy’ might look like given there wasn’t much agreement in the field.

Many people cannot get far away enough from their PhD research topic, what keeps fascinating you about literacy?

I can understand that! Like many people finishing a large piece of research, I vowed never to read a book again. My father lured me back in through Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series.

But, seriously, I’m fascinated by the ever-changing way literacy changes as we learn to read, write, and participate in communities. Following my work on digital literacies I worked on web literacy for Mozilla. Figuring out the practices and habits of mind we need to interact and make meaning online is important.

Is digital literacy ever changing with every new technology or gadget that enters the market or is it a stable set of competencies?

I think that these days I’d answer this question by saying that there are mindsets and there are skillsets. While the skillsets may change over time, the mindsets – ways we approach and conceptualize technologies – are relatively stable. To use a basic example, the combination of keys or the touchscreen swipe it takes to ‘undo’ something in a digital environment may change across platforms. But the fact remains that, unlike in the physical world, we can ‘undo’ things in digital environments. That’s conceptual thing that can take some getting used to.

Can you give a brief overview of the 8 Cs of digital literacy?

In my thesis I talk of ‘eight essential elements of digital literacies’. I’m grateful to those educational institutions, businesses, and researchers who have subsequently refined and applied these. One such person is Ted Parker who divided the eight elements into four skillsets and four mindsets. The skillsets are: Cultural, Creative, Constructive, and Communicative. The mindsets are: Confident, Cognitive, Critical, and Civic. I go into more detail into each one in my thesis and ebook – this would turn into a very long blog post if I went into them here!

How did you develop this framework?

The initial aim of my thesis was actually to come up with one definition of digital literacy to rule them all. I soon realized that this was a futile task given that greater minds than mine had tried and failed. Instead, I realized that literacies are context-dependent, and therefore tried to look at the really central parts of digital literacies referred to by researchers. I did a large meta-analysis and found that these eight elements came up time and time again.

How can practitioners and researchers use it?

Literacy is a powerful weapon, and therefore defining what counts as it takes care and attention. I’d encourage practitioners and researchers to co-create definitions of the essential elements for their particular context. Then, if necessary, they can create an overarching definition that takes everyone’s views into account in a particular context.

Should we use the term digital literacy or digital literacies?

My strong preference is to use the plural: digital literacies. I think that we’re not talking about a single skillset or single mindset here. In fact, I don’t believe ‘digital’ is a particularly useful modifier to ‘literacy’. It’s unproductively ambiguous. But if we have to use the term, let’s talk about literacies in plural, to show that it’s a contested landscape and there’s multiple areas to focus upon.

Computer literacy, media literacy, ICT literacy, digital literacy: The same, similar or different?

I think that this is an example of practitioners and researchers fighting over what I call ‘umbrella terms’. Ultimately, it’s futile. In the research I’ve read, people tend to assume that their favored term includes every other term. So, for example, researchers in the field of media literacy would say that it includes ICT literacy, digital literacy, computer literacy, etc. And the same goes for those in the other fields.

What is your most important message that people should take away from your book?

I’d say three things, actually: that digital literacies are plural, context-dependent, and should be co-created. People should feel empowered to create their own definitions and perhaps remix other people’s work, instead of being unduly deferential to well-known, big-name practitioners and researchers.

How digitally literate are you yourself?

That’s a difficult question to answer as literacies are ever-changing. I guess I would say I’m highly literate in specialized domains. However, I try to keep mixing things up so that while I’m an ‘expert’ in some things, I’m a ‘novice’ in others. After all, literacy is a condition, a way of being, not a threshold or a bar to cross.

What important research areas do you see in the future of digital literacy?

I’m not sure about ‘important’ as that involves a value judgment, but I’m personally very interested in the ethical dimensions of digital literacies. For example, the Snowden revelations around privacy and security are still having repercussions. Also, as we move into more of a virtual/blended reality we need to decide on new cultural norms and ways of beings. When we encode these so we can pass them on, these turn into literacies.

About Doug Belshaw

doug-belshaw-2014-500pxDr. Doug Belshaw is lead consultant at Dynamic Skillset with his main interests being around education, technology and productivity. Doug has been a History teacher and school senior leader, as well as working in universities and with further education providers. Most recently he was Badges & Skills Lead (then Web Literacy Lead) for the non-profit Mozilla Foundation.


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