The musings of an empathetic mum, teacher, leader and global digital citizen
(aka Mrs V)

PART 12: Digital Literacy — What is it and Why is it Important?

Okay, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that most people have heard of the term, digital literacy. When I spoke to a few people this week about what they thought digital literacy was, they responded with:

  • ‘… digital literacy is reading things online.’
  • ‘… when you have to read and write things, but you get to use a device instead of paper and a pencil.’
  • ‘… is when you have to use your literacy skills but with a tech-bent :-)’

While each of these statements touch on a small component of digital literacy, none of them come close to revealing the depth and diversity this term really covers. So let’s dive straight in and unpack in a little more detail exactly what digital literacy is and why it is vitally important.

To get started I would like you all to watch this 90 second video on digital literacy:


In this clip they talk about how in the past media was straightforward. People produced media such as newspapers, magazines, radio and television and distributed it to the masses. This meant that the consumer was the last link in the production chain. You would read or view the content and absorb the information from your perspective. In this modern technological era, we now have the internet — which is ‘weblike’ in its structure rather than constructed and delivered in a linear production chain. It seemingly has no beginning and no end.

What hasn’t changed over the years is that media (print, visual and digital) are constructions created for social, political or commercial purposes. Media has always been designed to sell products, services, values and ideas, as well as to provide information, however, unlike a newspaper — which previously could just be folded up and thrown away, or a magazine that could be put back on the rack, media today is ubiquitous… it is everywhere all the time.

Media has infiltrated our social viewing time on YouTube, FaceBook, Instagram and many other platforms. It targets us in our online searching, filling our streams with suggested (targeted) purchasing options, social and political platforms and positions. It — through clever algorithms — can pinpoint your location and push out pertinent advertising and articles to you as you physically walk past certain shops, businesses and the like.

But more than this, the anonymity of the web, and the mega capacity it has to mass reproduce material in a split second via shares, grabs and algorithms means that we need to cultivate a very discerning level of personal literacy. That is, we need to understand what is really being said, who might be saying it, is it real or fake news, is the person presenting a piece of media of the same opinion as those who produced it — or is it being used as a backdoor into something much more insidious.

As an example, I will never forget sitting in an EdTech Conference about eight years ago and watching the presenter bring up a website on Martin Luther King. The content seemed so appropriate, demonstrating historical data which supported the basic tenets Mr King upheld. I also remember the audible gasp as the presenter deepened their navigation of the site to reveal that the site had in fact been set up by a group supporting the ideals of white supremacy.

Digital literacy is critical in helping our children stay safe, and deliver and cultivate well researched and personally-chosen positions, rather than biased and unrefined perspectives. As parents we also have a moral imperative to understand just how media is constructed, presented, who it is delivered by and for, and what it is truly trying to say to us and our children.

Western Sydney University, Queensland University of Technology and Crinkling News found that many children don’t adequately critique the media they consume, or look to the source of a story to verify its truth. Their research found that although young people value the news, 54% rarely checked whether a news story was true and 43% of kids weren’t sure how to tell a fake story from a real story.

Important Aspects of Digital Literacy for Us All to Develop

Professor David Bawden of Information Science at City University, London has developed what I think is a useful framework of the key components of digital literacy.

He lists the four key areas as:

  1. Underpinnings
  2. Background Knowledge
  3. Central Competencies
  4. Perspectives

Let’s investigate each a little further.

Underpinnings are the basic literacy and ICT skills a person acquires throughout their life. They refer to a person’s working level of expertise in both the area of Literacy and ICT. These are always areas we can work on and improve and will assist us and your children in navigating the next three areas of digital literacy.

Background Knowledge or as I like to call it, the nature of the information. When looking at this second area we should be considering questions such as:

  • What do I already know about this information?
  • Where did the information come from?
  • What is the basic chain that this information has followed in getting to me?
  • Who is the author of the information? — It is important not to confuse the owner of the page as being the author of the information, it is often not the case.

Central Competencies are referring to our own ability and skills to find, search, synthesise, critically analyse, create and communicate information from other sources. These are hard skills that we can develop and improve on.

Perspectives refers to a variety of different perspectives with regards to the media I may be consuming at the time. It considers my perspectives, the perspectives of the author, perspectives of the site the information is located on, perspectives of my readership if I were to promote this information further and much more. It is useful to consider the following questions when considering perspectives:

  • What perspectives are presented in the information?
  • How can I verify this information independently?
  • Has this information been used ethically, that is, for what it was intended? Has it been warped to serve a different, even contradictory purpose?
  • Respect for privacy
  • Ethical behaviour — will sharing this information fit within my ethical framework? What does it say to me about the author’s or communicator’s ethics and how do I feel about using or sharing this information?

It is time to jump on the Digital Literacies Train. At school, our staff are continually challenging our students to critically reflect on what their words are saying about them and about others. As they move through the years they are pushed to discern real news from fake, identify and validate their sources, consider perspectives and develop their underpinning skills and competencies. Join them on this journey; develop your digital literacy skills so that you can engage in those awesome ‘point in time’ conversations that can happen at home, in the car and around the table.

Resources for Parents

The ABC has produced this nifty little education site that allows parents and teachers to work with children around the following topics:

  • Questioning News
  • Understanding News
  • Making News

All the best as you develop your digital literacies together!

Stay tuned for our next edition of Tech T@lk!

 Mrs V xox

(Novice Minecraft player, Level 11 Clash Royale Clan Leader, firm but loving digital parent, mistake-maker and Head of Junior School)