Demystifying Technology · Digital Literacy Reconsidered · Social Justice · Teaching · Technology and Society

A Growing Understanding of Digital Literacy, Part 2: Prioritizing Skills

Since publishing the blog post “A Growing Understanding of Digital Literacy” this past May, I’ve been giving a lot more thought to the urgent need to reconsider digital literacy, and have since published a full paper on the topic in Information for Social Change. In short, I argue that if we are to achieve full digital inclusion and equity so as to assure individuals and communities are empowered to address their own needs and to fully participate in society, democracy, and the economy, we need to bring together traditional digital literacy skills with those of computational thinking, wrapped within a critical sociotechnical perspective. Competencies include technical, information, cognitive, sociotechnical, and application skills.

Expanded Digital Literacy Diagram
Diagram: Digital Inclusion, Computational Thinking, and an Expanded Understanding of Digital Literacy

Last week, though, I was asked a question I couldn’t properly answer by a student in one of my classes: “Is my listing of the skills in an expanded understanding of digital literacy intentionally ordered by priority or primacy?” This question has occupied my thought a great deal, and the result has been this diagram.

People who I would especially consider digitally literate aren’t defined by their technical skill competencies, but rather by their ability to set about harnessing the resources at hand, and using just-in-time learning to acquire the technical skills needed, to achieve the project of the moment. This requires the cognitive and socio-emotional skills that have come to be embedded within the computational thinking framework. (But I would argue that these skills predate by millennia the advent of digital computers.) This also requires the information skills to effectively seek out information and resources, and to recognize and overcome or accommodate forces of exclusion.

Thus, technical skills are not the first skills needed, or the most important skills, but rather skills learned at the time they are needed. The digitally literate also often find the technical skills as a human resource available in the community as a collaborative effort. As such, they may not learn a needed technical skill at all, but have the competency to communicate and collaborate with those who do (a skill highlighted within the computational thinking framework). This moves the primacy and priority to the cognitive, socio-emotional, and information skills that are the basis of application skills.

It should be noted that for full digital inclusion, it is essential that individuals and communities have (1) affordable, robust broadband internet service; (2) Internet-enabled devices that meet the needs of the user; (3) access to digital literacy training; (4) quality technical support; and (5) applications and online content designed to enable and encourage self-sufficiency, participation and collaboration. (NOTE: self-sufficiency is different from self-reliance, a hyper-individualistic form of self-sufficiency.) Further, effective use also typically requires a unique mix of geographic, social, educational, financial, material, time, and other resources.

A critical perspective recognizes that there are a wide range of historical, systemic, and structural barriers that exist and which contribute to digital inequities for people of color, women, and other’s who have been historically disenfranchised. Quite a few are related to under-resourcing. However, I’ve been intrigued as of late regarding the way cultural training can serve as a force for exclusion within the socio-emotional and cognitive competencies, as illustrated in recent TED Talks by Carol Dweck and Reshma Saujani. This further illustrates the need to urgently move away from a digital literacy that so often prioritized or focuses exclusively on technical skills development if we are to achieve full digital inclusion and equity.

Indeed, I would argue that if we are to champion a more just society, we must urgently work to transition from a technical skills-oriented digital literacy program to one that focuses on cognitive, socio-emotional, information, and criticality skills, and only brings in technical skills development as infill training when needed.

More to come as I continue to reflect on, and have dialog with others regarding, the ramifications of radically reconsidering digital literacy…

In the meantime, check out these TED Talks by Saujani and Dweck.



2 thoughts on “A Growing Understanding of Digital Literacy, Part 2: Prioritizing Skills

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *