The Essential Elements of DIgital Literacies


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In his book The Essential Elements of Digital Literacies, Doug Belshaw suggests that there is no one ‘all defining’ definition of literacy, let alone digital literacy. Rather, it is something that we co-construct based on our community and context. It is for that reason, that he uses the plural and talks about ‘literacies’.

Instead of coming up with a clear definition which soon loses meaning, he provides eight elements to make sense of the different examples of digital literacies. The elements are:

  • Critical – the analysis of assumptions behind literacy practises
  • Civic – the something being analysed
  • Confident – the connecting of the dots and capitalising on different possibilities
  • Cognitive – the ability to use computational thinking in order to work through problems
  • Creative – doing new things in new ways that somehow add value
  • Cultural – the expectations and behaviours associated with different environments, both online and off
  • Constructive – appropriate use of digital tools to enable social actions
  • Communicative – sharing and engaging within the various cultural norms

One way of thinking about at these elements is in regards to ‘mindset’ and ‘skillset’, the is a way of thinking and a way of doing. While another way is as a set of questions:

  • What are the cultural expectations and behaviours associated with different environments and contexts, both online and off?
  • What are the steps/workflow involved in properly understanding the problem at hand?
  • How is the use of these digital tools leading to and enabling social action?
  • What are the norms for sharing and engaging within this context?
  • How confident are you at connecting the dots and using different digital tools?
  • How are you doing new things and what value are you adding back?
  • What assumptions are behind the literacy practices?
  • What is the something we are actually doing and creating?

Although each of these elements are interrelated, they are not all necessarily at play in every instance of digital literacy. It is for this reason that they are ‘elements’ not a definition. What the book provides is a starting point for how to talk about digital literacies.

One of my take-aways was that literacies have always had a close affinity with technology. Too often we associate ‘technology’ with computers or other such devices. However, as Belshaw points out, whether it be the printing press or using a pen to write, technology has always had an integral part to play

Another take away was that digital literacies are not merely about what we do or how we do it, instead it is about why we do it. Although the focus in schools is on ‘authentic’ assessment, whether it be creating a blog or producing a book, if this is not attached to a clearly defined why then we may be missing the point. This is often one of the issues with incorporating ICT in the classroom. Students create PowerPoints or digital posters with little reason as to why. This is where referring back to the elements can help highlight areas of improvement, a constant reminder as to ‘why’ digital literacies are important.

For more information, watch Doug Belshaw’s TED Talk:

Or Steve Wheeler’s video reflection on Digital Literacies:

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