In Search of an Understanding of Digital Literacies Worth Having

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This is a review of Doug Belshaw’s insightful book, The Essential Elements of Digital Literacies. I have been meaning to write this review for a long time. The book ends with an invitation to write your own conclusion. The problem is that I didn’t really know what to write or how to write it. Should it really be in the written form? Did I need to create a video? Sticking to what I feel comfortable with, I have decided to stick with a post in a similar style to the book itself. So here then is my review …

Literacies as Process ≠ Product

There are two big takeaways from Doug Belshaw’s book The Essential Elements of Digital Literacies. Firstly, that there is no singular definition of literacy, let alone digital literacies. Like the notion of PLN (whatever you want to take that to mean), our definition of digital literacies is something created by a community and continually negotiated. More often than not, this definition is taken for granted, rarely given air. Belshaw does not identify the eight different elements as an answer, but as a point of discussion. The definition is start of this discussion.

I have attempted to write about digital literacies before and in reflection feel that I got something wrong. My focus was on a singular definition and on the product. What I was trying to do was to differentiate digital literacies from more traditional notions of literacy. However, at the end of the day, our understanding of both is flawed. What is important is the process of co-creation. My way of engaging with digital literacies is only one of a myriad of options, while if I were to readdress it now there would most likely be things that have changed. To borrow from the work of David White in regards to residents vs. visitors, some places that I previously resided, I now simply visit, while others I have taken up home in. This is not something that we co-construct within a community, but is something that is in a constant state of flux.

Dean Shareski provides an interesting take on this by mapping his internet footprint using four different quadrants. What I think would be an interesting activity would be to use this framework create a series historical snapshots in order to represent this constant state of change.

It is easy to get sucked into the notion that one must simply do this or join that in order to be digitally literate. However, such focuses on the what and how overlook the most important aspect of them all, the why? At the heart of the process is the constant nagging question, why am I doing this and what am I trying to achieve? I would argue that using a site like http://memegenerator.net/ just about anyone can create a meme, but this misses something. The question that remains unresolved is why we would create a meme? What is our purpose? What are we trying to achieve? It is these questions that are at the heart of the process, not necessarily the product.

Beyond Good and Evil

Associated with this focus on process, co-construction and community, being digitally literate involves embracing choice and consequence. In a post for DML Central, Belshaw outlined five eras of web literacy. Although in no way concrete, the exercises was designed to demonstrate how our negotiation with the web (and web literacies) has evolved over time.  One of the things that stood out for me was the transition from the ‘Web 2.0 / Everything is an App’ stages to the post-Snowden period which we are now in. This unveiling marked a dramatic change to how we saw the internet, but more importantly how we participated with it. As Belshaw stated:

We collectively realised that we didn’t understand what was going on underneath the surface. We were shocked to discover who had access to our data. We started to worry more about how to manage our increasingly-important online identity and reputation.

What is significant about this shift is that the spotlight is placed on the process. Although the web and technology in general had become a means through which so many could flourish, the question has become at what cost?

It has long been said that if you’re not paying for the product, then you are the product. However, it was Snowden’s revolutions and everything that followed which has made this situation real for many. The challenge is what next, this is where digital literacies fits in.

For example, following the Heartbleed compromise, Quinn Norton provides a portrait of the web as a fractured foundation we have so easily come to take for granted. Story after story, she paints a picture of a world where technology barely works and no-one is ever in control, no matter what measures are put in place. One fix leads to another and all we are doing is staying afloat. However, as she states:

Your choice: constantly risk clicking on dangerous malware, or live under an overpass, leaving notes on the lawn of your former house telling your children you love them and miss them.

What is important is that we actually realise this situation. For it is only then that we can even begin thinking about doing anything about it.

Coming from the perspective of big data, Danah Boyd questions the merit and meaning of measuring endless amounts of stats online. This is not to say that statistics are all bad, but the incessant amount of numbers associated with hits, follows, likes are not helpful.

Stats have this terrible way of turning you — or, at least, me — into a zombie. I know that they don’t say anything. I know that huge chunks of my Twitter followers are bots, that I could’ve bought my way to a higher Amazon ranking, that my Medium stats say nothing about the quality of my work, and that I should not treat any number out there as a mechanism for self-evaluation of my worth as a human being. And yet, when there are numbers beckoning, I am no better than a moth who sees a fire.

Such statistics are more often than not a by-product of our actual actions. I follow someone to extend my network. I write a response to a book to bring together my thoughts. What is important is not the number of likes or downloads, but the ability to communicate and participate within a civic society. This is why digital literacies is more than just about simply constructing and creating.

On the flip side of this, Boyd provides a more meaningful take on statistics in her post exploring teen’s use of social media. In it she uses various points of information to confidently create a critical analysis of the different cultural arguments put forward about teens. This was then communicated within Medium, the same platform that the original post was made.

The challenge is to go beyond good and evil to consider the part we play. It is not that we should stop using online programs and applications, we instead need to be more conscious of our role and the influence we can have.

Curate or Be Curated, That is the Question

In a post investigating the place of information in today’s society, Belshaw posits that, “having opinions and using them to make decisions about our role in the world is part of what makes us human”. The problem is that such ‘opinions’ are becoming more and more controlled. Whereas in the past, information may have been curated for us in the form of the same newspaper, meaning that although this was one editorial, it was at least something we could all talk about. These days, with the development of the web, we are each provided with our own curated content. Through the use of algorithms, companies like Google and Facebook are able to predict what we are searching for or wish to see come up in our stream and provide content accordingly. It is creating what Eli Pariser has called the ‘filter bubble’. Here I am reminded of David Weinberger’s warning that, “even if the smartest person in the room is the room, this does not magically make all who enter it smarter”. The first step that we can take is to be aware that our lives are being curated in the first place and then start challenging this curation.

There are many ways to curate your own existence online. Sites like duckduckgo.com allow you to search for content without being tracted, while using social bookmarking sites, such as Diigo and Delicious, provides a means for developing your own curated content.  In regards to housing your data, there are many companies, like Reclaim Domain, that provide a means for people to manage their own content through open source platforms, such as Known and WordPress. Extending this, Alan Levine suggests that even if we do not house our own data, there are also ways in which we can co-claim. That is, keeping a personal copy of all our digital content, rather than relying on the web.

What is important is that many of these changes are near on impossible to implement in isolation. For example, it would not be a very ‘social’ platform if there was only one person there. It is for this reason that there are no clear cut solutions. There are measures that we can take to encourage civic practise, such as using Creative Commons to license work to make it available to be shared and remixed. It is important though to remember that such change involves communication and dialogue for it takes a village.

It is easy to get caught up in the impact of digital and the web, but at the end of the day what really needs to be addressed is our understanding of literacy. Traditionally, literacy is considered as encapsulating reading for understanding, writing to be understood by others and using tools to write. However, as Belshaw suggests, such a definition denies to important aspects, that literacy has always been and will always be social and will involve some sort of technology. The challenge then is to move our understanding of and engagement with literacies beyond ‘elegant consumption’ to consider the what, the why and the how. This all starts with the who and that who is you and your community. As Belshaw suggests:

Being aware of the way that tools shape the way we think and interact with the world is the first step on the way to changing behaviours. As learners, as teachers, as citizens, we have a duty to ourselves and to one another to be mindful of this.

This chapter in a Nutshell

  • Digital literacies are about process as much as product
  • Lets move beyond good and evil and focus on choice and consequence
  • Literacy starts with you, curate rather than be curated

If you are wanting more information on Doug Belshaw’s book, here is a collection of resources to help you:

Or you can simply buy the book, the choice is yours.


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Aaron Davis

I am an Australian educator whose life has granted a breadth of opportunities. I also have a keen interest in ICT and 21st Century pedagogies. My current role finds me supporting schools with the integration of technology.

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