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Expanding the Concept of Literacy

In the title of a piece on the Time web site, the writer declares ‘Digital Literacy’ Will Never Replace the Traditional Kind’, which is a classic strawman since you would be hard pressed to find even the most ardent supporter of instructional technology claiming that it should.

However, I’m not even sure there is such a thing as “digital literacy”.  The “traditional kind” of literacy is defined at it’s most basic level as the ability to read and write. In other words, the ability to communicate with other people.

Increasingly students (and adults for that matter) need to know how to communicate using a variety of both analog and digital tools (including audio and video) to be considered literate, which expands the standard definition rather than replacing it.

Among all the straw, the writer actually tries to get at this point, although in a very condescending manner.

There is no doubt that the students of today, and the workers of tomorrow, will need to innovate, collaborate and evaluate, to name three of the “21st century skills” so dear to digital literacy enthusiasts.

Please name a few of those “digital literacy enthusiasts”. And why the skills usually lumped under the “21st century” label are necessarily digital. Or in any way different from those required by successful adults in the 18th, 19th, or 20th century, distinctly non-digital periods of history.

Anyway, she continues…

But such skills can’t be separated from the knowledge that gives rise to them. To innovate, you have to know what came before. To collaborate, you have to contribute knowledge to the joint venture. And to evaluate, you have to compare new information against knowledge you’ve already mastered. Nor is there any reason that these skills must be learned or practiced in the context of technology. Critical thinking is crucial, but English students engage in it whenever they parse a line of poetry or analyze the motives of an unreliable narrator. Collaboration is key, but it can be effectively fostered in the glee club or on the athletic field. Whatever is specific to the technological tools we use right now – and these tools are bound to change in any case – is designed to be easy to learn and simple to use.

Very true. None of those activities require computers, networks, and communications tools.

Unless, of course, you want to involve students with people and information outside of the relatively limited walls of their school building. And expand their literacy skills beyond basic reading and writing.


  1. Rich Davies

    I think you will have a hard time finding people saying that the digital way is one to replace the classic skills.
    There are ways of putting your point across without sounding patronising.


  2. Tim

    I don’t believe I ever suggested replacing classic skills with anything. My point is that we need to expand the idea of what we call “literacy” since the old definitions, strictly centered around text on a printed page, no long apply.

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