Defining and Developing Digital Literacy Part One: Theories and Models

Part One: Theories and Models of Digital Literacy.

Welcome to post one of two supporting the topic of digital literacy/literacies. This post focuses on introducing a few models for understanding digital literacy, or as you will come to see, literacies. The second post pins down the tricky area of embedding the development of digital literacies – our own, and our students – into our learning and life.

Just what is Literacy?

As educators, we probably feel as though we have a fairly good understanding of literacy. We teach students how to be increasingly literate every day. If we look at the Australian Literacy Educators’ Association Declaration on Literacy in 21st Century Australia, we can see that they base their work on the definition of literacy established by UNESCO:

Literacy is the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate and compute, using printed and written (and visual) materials associated with varying contexts.
Adapted from the UNESCO Education Position Paper (2004) The plurality of literacy and the implications of its policies and programs, p.13.

The ALEA (Australian Literacy Educators’ Association) declaration expands on this definition to explain that being literate plays a central role in determining an individual’s life choices and life chances. Being literate means having the ability participate in a range of different contexts in effective and innovative ways.

Since the written word became the foremost way of communicating within society, ‘being literate’ rested largely on reading, writing and being numerate. Literacy was often shorthand the skills of being able to read and write. After all, the word ‘literate’ comes from the Latin, litteratus,  meaning “educated, learned”. Literally “one who knows the letters”. If one was illiterate (in the sense of reading and writing), they could not engage with text and therefore were not able to fully participate within the culture of the written word – and this limited one’s ability to engage in society in general. Therefore we can see that literacy is naturally associated with culture and participation – and that being limited in this participation is a significant disadvantage. This is what ALEA means when it refers to literacy’s role in one’s life choices and life chances.

Having established that the traditional notion of literacy is based upon reading and writing, we also need to address the fact that literacy can have a much wider meaning.

Research by Kathleen Tyner has suggested that literacy can be categorized into tool literacies and literacies of representation. Tool literacies were fairly static for hundreds of years; centred around the printing press and the pen; however are now multiplying at speed with the range of different ways to create expressions of knowledge and meaning. In tool literacies we could include “.” Literacies of representation address the need to analyze information and to understand how meaning is created and includes “information literacy,” “visual literacy,” and “media or transmedia literacy.”Tool Literacies


This leads us to understand that beyond traditional literacy, there are multiple literacies – that is, ways of ‘reading the world’ in specific contexts: technological, health, information, media, visual, scientific, and so on. It could be said that being literate basically means being able to participate within a particular context.

And so we move onto the focus of this article, which is that type of literacy we describe as digital literacy. JISC (a not for profit body supporting higher education in the UK) defines digital literacy as

“The capabilities which fit someone for living, learning and working in a digital society.”

Being digitally literate looks beyond functional IT skills to describe a richer set of digital behaviours, practices and identities. What it means to be digitally literate changes over time and across contexts. If we interpret digital literacy using  the understandings of tool literacies and literacies of representation, we can see that rather than being singular, digital literacy is a set of literacies, which require capabilities across both categories – the technical ability to create expressions of knowledge and meaning, and also the ability to analyse and understand this knowledge and meaning in the way it is expressed. A pretty complex concept – and not something that we are born with or that we might naturally acquire, no matter how much time we spend in front of a screen.

There are quite a few models for defining digital literacies. This is because it is a difficult concept to ‘pin down’ – Doug Belshaw says that in fact we should make peace with the ambiguity because digital literacy will always mean different things to different people at different times and in different places, and that therefore it shouldn’t be ‘pinned down’ at all. Just look at the terms; ‘digital’ and ‘literacy’ – both of them mean so many things, and when we put them together, it creates more variety: are we looking at literacy applied in a digital context, or are we looking at a digital version of literacy – two completely different things!

So rather than walking away from this article with a neat one sentence answer to the question ‘what is digital literacy’? I am hoping you will come away with a knowledge of a range of different models, that you can apply in different contexts as you need.

Visitors, residents, natives or immigrants?


There has been a concept since 2001 that younger people are digital natives, and instinctively understand technology as their birthright, whereas older people, who came to technology later in life are immigrants, and need to ‘learn’ the language, customs etc as they are foreigners. These concepts, first put forth by Marc Prensky, were embraced as they seemed to make sense for many adults who saw younger people interact so naturally with technology they struggled with.

However as time has gone on, we have realised that the situation is not as clear cut as this. Many adults are far more comfortable with technology and do not feel as though they are immigrants, and while  young people know what they know, there are often gaps in their understanding. We can’t assume that just because they play games online or are always on Facebook that they are digitally literate. A new model has emerged based on Visitors and Residents – a continua rather than either/or, with visitor at one end and resident on the other.

This model emphasises the context, the place and space in which we use technology. Sometimes we are a visitor; we use technology for a particular purpose, and see the Web as a tool; other times we are residents, we spend time online socialising, being ‘online’. In this case we see the web as a place where we spend time.

Being a resident or a visitor is seen as a continuum, rather than either or; we change our behaviour and actions based upon our needs. This indicates that we have the digital literacy to alter the way we use technology and the way we view technology depending upon the context.

Digital literacies are context dependent; and therefore different models are useful at different times and for different people.

Model One: Multiple Literacies


Not to be confused with ‘multi-literacies’, one way to understand digital literacy is as a composite of many more familiar literacies, combined in different ways. Our actions online are shaped by our ability to access these different literacies at the point of need.  Some of these literacies include:

Media Literacy – being able to analyze, evaluate, and create messages in a wide variety of media modes, genres, and formats – texting, blogging, gaming, writing for a website, participating in a forum, creating a video, a podcast, interpreting complex messages from a wide range of multimedia and transmedia.

Information Literacy – the ability to access, critically evaluate, understand, store, remix and apply information –for the purpose. As we deal with so much information every day, we need to be able to effectively manipulate it to meet our needs.

Critical Literacy – the ability to evaluate a text (visual, aural, written, spoken) and see beyond the explicit message to understand the implicit messages including bias, political or social meanings -so important now because information online goes through no editing process, and it is up to the person using the information to discern if it is accurate, unbiased and appropriate

Attentional Literacy – an awareness of how one is directing their attention, and the ability to direct attention and apply it without distraction if needed. Particularly important in an age of competing demands on attention and the constant splitting of focus or ‘multi-tasking’ students experience.

Computer Literacy – the ability to use computers and related technology such as smartphones, tablets etc efficiently, with a range of skills covering levels from basic use to programming and advanced problem solving.

Network Literacy – as so much knowledge today is stored in networks (the internet being the most prime example) many argue that a good understanding of how networks work and how to make meaning from networks is vital. There is too much information to carry around in our heads, and so we need to know how to access it efficiently through the many networks that we participate in.

Visual Literacy – the ability to interpret, negotiate, and make meaning from information presented in the form of an image: understanding how visual elements such as line, colour, shape, texture, space, symbols, pattern and composition create meaning. The internet is a visual medium, and important information is not always conveyed in written, linear text format as it used to be.

Often, we are required to combine these literacies, and apply them in different contexts; creating an infographic, for example, would require visual literacy, as the content must effectively convey information in a visual format, but also computer literacy, if one is using a particular app such as Canva to design the infographic. It would require media literacy to create a message that may be communicated visually, as well as network literacy if this infographic is to be published online with the aim of having it spread through a particular community. One task, multiple literacies required.

Model Two: Steve Wheeler’s Digital Literacies

Steve Wheeler wrote a series of terrific blog posts exploring what he considered to be digital literacies.


Steve Wheeler has named the different digital literacies slightly differently:

Social networking skills – somewhat similar to the network literacy mentioned earlier, but with a greater emphasis on the power of being able to use the power of social networks to achieve specific goals; the ability to have your voice heard by so many, simultaneously through social media is a great power; and with great power comes great responsibility. Having social network skills is a literacy in its own right as it is a culture which has its own sets of rules and ways of communicating.

Transliteracy skills – are the skills of being literate across a range of different platforms – what we described as media literacy in the previous model. To create information, share it, communicate effectively across different online platforms takes specific skills and this literacy is what enables full access to and confidence manipulating information in different forms; it is what tells us that on Linked In we present a more formal ‘self’ than on Facebook, which is more social and for family and friends; it is how we know to edit our thoughts to 140characters on Twitter, and to present visually on YouTube; the same message might be shared, but in different formats suitable to different contexts and different audiences.

Maintaining Privacy – this may be considered a literacy, or a skill; certainly it takes a sense of context similar to what is needed for Transliteracy skills, and different tools and spaces require different actions to maintain privacy. It is closely linked to managing identity – what aspects of our life we intend to share and our sense of identity may change depending upon the platform, and purpose. If I am signing up for a Recipe blog, I do not need to give all of my personal details; if I am signing up for Seek to look for employment opportunities, what I choose to share is probably different. Going back to the descriptions of literacy earlier, privacy and identity require both tool and representation literacies; we need to understand how to mechanically set privacy settings, but we also need to be critical in the way we present and represent ourselves.

Managing Identity: this is so important for young people to understand as early as possible, as every interaction we have online leaves lasting traces. Students (and teachers) need to actively manage their digital identity- but to not see it as a separate entity, just another part of who you are. ‘Keep Yourself Nice’ is a good motto! Even when all aspects of your on and offline identity align, it is important to decide for privacy reasons (as well as for how you are going to present yourself) if you are going to try to keep your personal and professional identities separate, or mash them together. For psychological health, students need to be aware that a public persona may not necessarily represent who a person is in real life; this has always been the case, but now people are sharing more, and have multiple ways of expressing themselves, it is even easier to forget that what you are often seeing is only the highlights reel. On Facebook, people may seem to have the ‘perfect’ life; and this can put a lot of pressure on all of us, but particularly vulnerable young people; and they can feel that they are the only ones with personal problems and challenges. We know that this is not true, but it’s hard to fight that feeling of insecurity when it seems like ‘everyone else’ is travelling/socialising/wearing the latest/generally having an awesome time. The concept of online identity management is a workshop in itself (almost all of these topics are!).

Creating content/Organising and sharing content/Reusing/repurposing content– creating, organising, sharing and re-using/re-purposing content to me should be grouped together in the fact that this is all about our understandings of information literacy, critical literacy and visual literacy; it also takes in aspects of network and media literacy. Being able to create different types of content to meet different needs has always been vital; when someone needs directions, we scratch out a rough map, and when when constructing a shopping list we don’t write an essay for example. Similarly, as we now have access to so much content and it is so easy to remix and reuse, we need to be aware of copyright, creative commons, intellectual property so much more than before. In addition, many people list curation as a digital literacy; this to me comes into organising and sharing content, as we have so much content available to us, we need skills and strategies such as curation to manage it so we can find it and share it with others when we need it. ]

Self broadcasting – a new literacy, the concept of building up a ‘digital footprint’ that is positive, and truly reflects not only the person you are but your achievements is important if you are moving into a field where you will be competing with others who have a similar representation online. There are those who question now the need for a CV, as evidence of your work, they say, should be shared online for everyone who is interested to see. Whether or not you agree with this, if one is moving into a field where others have a significant social presence, being able to put your ‘best foot forward’ online is very important.

To me these appear slightly narrower than the multiple literacies, and more specific aspects of digital literacy – almost skill based in some respects. However they are still very important skills for interacting successfully online. They are based more closely with being a permanent online resident as opposed to a visitor, as they do not focus so much on simply finding and using information as much as they do participating, creating and sharing online.

Model Three: Doug Belshaw’s 8 Elements of Digital Literacy


Doug Belshaw is arguably one of the leaders in the field of digital literacy, having written (and shared) his Educational Doctorate Thesis on it. Doug suggests, like many others, that there is not a single digital literacy, but multiple digital literacies, and he has described the 8 elements of being digitally literate that you can apply in different contexts, and in different combinations; almost like individual ingredients that you can combine in different recipes to create different outcomes. Let’s look at what each of them mean individually.

Cultural: Each context and digital environment we interact with and participate within has a different ‘çulture’; the norms, values and codes that shape how you act, what tools you might use and how you communicate. Knowing how to exist within these different cultures is part of digital literacy; e.g. knowing that the way you communicate on Linked In is different to how you speak with your friends on Facebook.  Moving in between these spaces appropriately and effectively is also part of the cultural element of digital literacy; because we often slip across different tools without even thinking, and need to change how we act and interact equally quickly; for example, I might be writing an essay, when a notification pops up that I have received a Tweet on Twitter; do I choose to ignore this notification, or respond to it, and then if I do move to Twitter, I need to change my tone etc from the formal essay writing to the short abbreviated language of 140 characters. Doug also points out that culture and contexts often overlay each other. If I’m at home on the couch typing my essay and a tweet comes up I might decide to spend some time on Twitter; however if I was at work at my desk typing my essay, it would probably not be appropriate to stop working and spend half an hour tweeting. A great deal of digital literacy is cultural and understanding what is appropriate when, where and also why this is so. That’s why it is the first element Doug addresses.

Cognitive: this element represents the ‘’brain power” needed to develop the skills and knowledge required to participate in the digital world. There are skills that need to be learnt (how to use different tools, how to navigate the web, how to touch type) and also there is the knowledge of what tool when, Just like in traditional literacies, there is learning needed to become literate; to increase your fluency and continue to extend how you comprehend and participate digitally.

Constructive: Doug reminds us that to construct something online is quite different to constructing something in the real world. In real life, it is almost impossible to reproduce another’s work quickly and exactly; for instance, I can’t paint a picture that is an exact replica of one  you have painted, or bake a cake that is exactly alike – mine will turn out slightly differently, even if I use the same recipe, ingredients etc. Technology allows us to replicate exactly, at the click of a button; copy/paste. This ability has created a need for skills in construction that are different in the digital world; often, we don’t have to start from scratch, we can remix, reuse and build upon other’s work – and we need to know how to do this appropriately, giving credit to the original creators etc. The concept of Creative Commons has arisen because of this very reason. We need ways to build upon the work of others while giving them credit; like this presentation; I have reproduced Doug’s model exactly on the slide, but I am giving him credit for the image, even though the PowerPoint is my own work. Also, digital literacy means being able to create content that is born digital; Being able to construct digitally is important for students who will live, work, compete in a globally connected social media ecology.

Communicative: Although all of the elements are interconnected, this is more deeply connected with the cultural and constructive elements because the ability to communicate digitally requires the construction of something, that is shaped by the culture within which the communication takes place. So being able to communicate a message effectively requires the skills to construct the message online, and the knowledge to shape it in such a way that it is appropriate for the tool, and the audience, and the purpose. Being able to communicate effectively, through a variety of media is power in the digital world; I can write a blog post, and publish it for public consumption, whereas before the internet I could only submit work to another media (like a magazine or newspaper) for them to consider if they would like to publish it. It was much harder to create and share your own work with the world in general; a painter might have 100 people see their artworks in a lifetime unless they were lucky enough to be hosted in a gallery; now a ten year old can put everything they draw/paint on a site like Deviant Art and have millions of people all over the world view their work.

Confident: to be digitally literate, one needs to be confident in the digital world; you need confidence to be a self-directed learner, to go out and try different things and see how they work. A lot of learning in the digital space is through trial and error, through testing things out, pushing boundaries; all of this takes confidence, and having confidence makes it a lot easier to move forward with any of the other elements of digital literacy.

Creative: There is a lot of talk about how important creativity is and will become in the workforce and in life in general, and creativity in digital literacy is no different. However creativity is not just about being artistic, nor is it always about originality; Doug says it’s about taking advantage of the capacities of digital technology to redesign or revision solutions to problems, finding different ways to respond, and synthesising random or new experiences in unique ways.  We are all creative in our own way, and digital technology gives us new avenues to explore and apply this creativity.

Critical: I have done presentations in the past and blogged about how important I believe being critical is in the digital sphere. Like all of these elements, it really is a workshop in itself.  Everyone has a voice online; which is great; but not all voices can be trusted, not all voices are motivated by what we assume or hope motivates them, and there is no editorial process that lies between the creator and the audience; so these skills are vital in order to ensure the information we seek, find and receive is understood from this perspective. It is also important that this criticality is applied to all forms of media; not just news articles and research, but to images, video, audio; there can be layers of meaning embedded into multimedia which mean that being critical of these types of texts requires different skills to analogue, linear texts such as books.

Civic : being digitally literate means that we can take advantage of the powers of participation to bring about change; for better or for worse. I read an interesting article about how ISIS group are using social media with devastating effectiveness for their cause; they have whole media departments creating content for online distribution and recruiting vulnerable people from all over the world to join them. We can rally in a whole different way online, and the power of the crowd to bring about change is great power; we need to make sure students are aware of this power that they have not just so that they can hopefully exercise it for good purposes, but also to avoid being manipulated by those using it to achieve ends that are not constructive for our society and our world.

So how to develop all of this in ourselves and our students? The second blog post in this series looks at exactly that! Strategies to develop digital literacies in and outside of the classroom.