Digital Literacy: Applying a Fluid Definition

In their chapter titled Digital Literacy, Dobson and Willinsky (2009) present and analyze the development of digital literacy in a chronological manner.  They begin with the use of the personal computer and word processors in the 1980s and end with the collaborative nature of knowledge creation made possible through today’s connected society.  Clearly, through the evolution of media as described by Dobson and Willinsky, a fluid definition of digital literacy has been required to continually accommodate new and changing media of communication.  Chase and Laufenberg (2011) refer to this as the “squishiness” of digital literacy.  They indicate that it leads to three essential questions for educators, “What is it? How do I teach it? How do I know if my students have learned it?” (p. 535).

Aspects of Digital Literacy

Some aspects of digital literacy are generalizable and therefore more concrete and useful in understanding digital literacy at a practical level.  The New London Group (1996), in defining multiliteracies, proposed six modes of meaning.  They differentiated between linguistic, visual, audio, gestural, spatial and multimodal as patterns in media productions of which students need to be aware. These are necessary to effectively access information sources, interpret and remix information and develop new forms of information.  In eliciting these patterns, Avarim and Eshet-Alkalai (2006) suggested students need technical-procedural, cognitive and emotional-social skills.  Further, Eshet-Alkalai (2004) defined five necessary cognitive skills:

  1. photo-visual (reading/interpreting information in visual/graphic form)
  2. reproduction (creating new information production using scattered bits of what already existed)
  3. branching (being able to understand and use hypermedia)
  4. information (being able to differentiate between what is useful/important and what is useless/harmful)
  5. socio-emotional (being able to engage at an emotional level in non-face-to-face environments)

From the ideas of the New London Group and Eshet-Alkalai, Ng (2012) developed a visual representation of these skills where Eshet-Alkalai’s five cognitive skills are interspersed among three overlapping circles containing technical, cognitive and social-emotional aspects.  Futurelab (Payton & Hague, 2010) also presents a clear image of overlapping skills.

Teaching Digital Literacy

In describing the skill sets students are expected to exhibit to show their digital literacy, how integrate digital literacy into teaching becomes clearer.  A further description by Futurelab (Payton & Hague, 2010) also helps:

To be digitally literate is to have access to a broad range of skills, practices and cultural resources that you are able to apply to digital tools. It is the ability to make, represent and share meaning in different modes and formats; to create, collaborate and communicate effectively; and to understand how and when digital technologies can best be used to support these processes. Digital literacy involves critically engaging with technology and developing a social awareness of how a number of factors, including commercial agendas and cultural understandings, can shape the ways in which technology is used to convey information and meaning (p. 4).

This description triggers ideas of how digital literacy skills can be brought into the classroom.  Using websites such as The Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus and critically analyzing the information through source verification is opportunity to engage students.  Gumble (2012) relates a three week American literature project she calls The Art of War.  Her students analyze information in a variety of modes (audio, video, image, text) related to war events.  The students remix the information using an online video creation service called Animoto.  The video must include text in the form of correspondence letters, journal entries, songs, political cartoons, photographs, and poems while with appropriate citations.  Gumble concludes, “Through projects like The Art of War, educators and students can journey together through a myriad of sources to make authentic ideas come to fruition in creative, exciting, and personal ways” (p. 436).

Mitigating Factors

In studying classroom practice of digital learning skills, researchers found several influences on effective implementation.  Henderson (2011)  found teacher expectations of technology use in the classroom are different than what is done at home.  As a result, the skills students learn at school are not transferable to other situations.  Henderson attributes this school-home divide to a lack of tools and access at school as well as teacher inexperience.  In addition, Henderson concluded that teachers do not connect the teaching of technology with literacy and, as a result, often do not incorporate many necessary skills as the technology is being used.  Sefton-Green, Nixon and Erstad (2009) came to the same conclusion regarding the home-school divide when they saw teachers integrate technology into preparing but not delivering their lessons.

Another influence is the nature of the digital skills.  Avarim and Eshet-Alkalai (2006) found that when comparing their five cognitive skills at different age levels, children performed better at photo-visual, reproductive and branching while adults performed better at information.  He hypothesized that there may be inherent differences between those who are born into the non-linear format of the internet and those who take on digital technologies later in life.  He suggested that if some of the skills become innate through environmental exposure, it may be difficult to have students “learn” these skills in contrived lessons.  Avarim and Eshet-Alkalai also theorized that developmental level and innate learning style could significantly affect the acquirement of these skills.  They conclude that much theoretical work is still required to fully understand the links between digital literacy and learning.


In conclusion, determining whether students have learned the expected digital literacy skills should be similar to any other skill.  If the students can exhibit the skill in an authentic context, then they could be said to have learned that skill.  However, the mitigating factors need to be studied and resolved to develop authentic assessments for these skills.  If we want students to transfer the digital literacy skills they learn in the classroom context, then they must match what they will experience outside the classroom.  All of this reflects the New London Group’s (1996) suggestion that general literacies must be taught in situations mimicking real experiences using explicit instruction to teach the skills along with critical framing where the students analyze their work metacognitively and then have opportunity to apply their learning in new contexts.


Aviram, A., & Eshet-Alkalai, Y. (2006). Towards a theory of digital literacy: three scenarios for the next steps. European Journal of Open, Distance and E-Learning, (2), 1–11. Retrieved from

Chase, Z., & Laufenberg, D. (2011). Embracing the Squishiness of Digital Literacy. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 54(7), 535–537. doi:10.1598/JAAL54.7.7

Dobson, T., & Willinsky, J. (2009). Digital literacy (Draft Version). The Cambridge Handbook on Literacy (Draft., pp. 1–30). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Retrieved from Literacy.pdf

Eshet-Alkalai, Y. (2004). Digital literacy: A conceptual framework for survival skills in the digital era. Journal of Educational Multimedia and Hypermedia, 13(1), 93–106. Retrieved from

Gumble, A. (2012). Finding a Voice: Freedom through Digital Literacies. The Educational Forum, 76(4), 434–437. doi:10.1080/00131725.2012.707568

Henderson, R. (2011). Classroom pedagogies, digital literacies and the home-school digital divide. International Journal of Pedagogies and Learning, 6(2), 152–161. Retrieved from

New London Group. (1996). A pedagogy of multiliteracies: Designing social futures. Harvard Educational Review (Vol. 66, pp. 60–92). Retrieved from

Ng, W. (2012). Can we teach digital natives digital literacy? Computers & Education, 59(3), 1065–1078. doi:10.1016/j.compedu.2012.04.016

Payton, S., & Hague, C. (2010). Digital Literacy Professional Development Resource. Bristol: Futurelab. Retrieved from

Sefton-Green, J., Nixon, H., & Erstad, O. (2009). Reviewing approaches and perspectives on “digital literacy”. Pedagogies: An International Journal, 4(2), 107–125. Retrieved from


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