Contradictions of Digital Literacy

I am interested in exploring some of the contradictions of digital literacy that are suggested by the article ““Multiliteracies”: New Literacies, New Learning.” Written by Cope and Kalantzis in 2009, the article revisits the New London Group’s influential article “A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies: Designing Social Futures” (1996). Both the 1996 and 2009 articles place the multiliteracies theory in the context of political changes that have taken place in Western countries over the past 30 to 40 years, namely the shrinking of the welfare state and the rise of neo-liberalism. With political and private power increasingly decentralized in many ways, and the loss of authority that has taken place in almost every realm of Western culture and society, Cope and Kalantzis create a new paradigm for literacy pedagogy that gives stronger agency to the learner. The crux of the new paradigm is that literacy is a process of “design” or meaning-making that incorporates changing practices of multilingualism (hybridity, varied social and cultural discourses) and multimodality (text, image, sound, video, print, digital…).

Digital literacy in the schools

The growing importance of digital literacy is a commonplace. A recent study from the Pew Internet & American Life project reports that 47% of American teachers surveyed “strongly agree” and 44% “somewhat believe” that digital literacy lessons should be taught at every school (Purcell et al, 2012). Although students are now quickly able to find information, the problems of information overload, confusion about credible sources of information and short attention spans have created a generation for whom digital technologies may “do more to distract…than to help them academically” (Purcell et al, 2012). Empowerment, creativity, collaboration, communication…these are all buzzwords of the Internet skill set and the goal of educational reform rhetoric of the past decade. Yet teachers perceive distraction and confusion in the schools. Is this because of a disconnect between the old paradigm of education/literacy (hierarchical, authoritarian, standards based) and the new paradigm where students expect more engagement as well as personal control over their time and efforts? Or is it a result of changes to the brain created by a media diet of constant stimulation? (Richtel, 2012) So we are faced with the contradiction of limiting screen time, while at the same time trying to incorporate more and more technology into our children’s education.

Growing income inequality

Another contradiction is that proficiency with digital technologies is widely seen to even the playing field in many areas, such as publishing (blogs, websites) and education (MOOCs, distance learning). But, of course, proficiency itself is not evenly distributed, and it is the poor, unemployed, and undereducated who overwhelmingly populate a digital underclass, excluded from the benefits of digital technologies (Helpser & Kaczuba, 2011). Income inequality is growing in almost all developed countries (OECD, 2011) – the rich are richer and the poor are poorer. Some studies have placed the blame on technological progress. Since access to the benefits of the ICT revolution is skills biased, the benefits accrue unequally to those with the skills (IMF, 2007), and “those low or no skills have been left behind” (OECD, 2011, p. 2). Over time, as the supply of ICT educated workers increases, inequality due to technological change may lessen, therefore the appropriate policy response is not to reject technological progress, but to improve the ICT skills and education of the general population (IMF, 2007).

Funding for education

Hence we see large scale initiatives such as the Digital Agenda for Europe ( – “the EU’s strategy to help digital technologies, including the internet, to deliver sustainable economic growth” (the tagline of the Digital Agenda website). Some of the specific goals of this overarching Agenda are to implement digital literacy policies and prioritise digital skills for jobs. Yet although government rhetoric and programs are pushing for more advanced ICT skills, appropriate financial support for education has not been forthcoming. It is troubling that the ideas of student-centred learning, distance education, and technology in the classroom can too easily be given lip-service by governments in a way that belittles the role of the teacher and entails no commitment for significant resources to genuinely transform education. In fact, “educational reform” and “21st century learning” can be a good way to cut costs.

A pedagogical solution

Cope and Kalantzis (2009) write: “For every moment in which agency is passed over to users and consumers, power is also centralized in ways that have become more disturbing with time.” (p. 172). Concentration of ownership in the technology industry, not to mention video game and internet addiction and the ‘escape from reality’ effect of media immersion, suggest the opposite of freedom and empowerment. Contradictions are inherent in any complex issue. “The multiliteracies approach suggests a pedagogy for active citizenship, centred on learners as agents in their own knowledge processes, capable of contributing their own as well as negotiating the differences between one community and the next.” (p. 172) If we are aware of the contradictions, we can individually attempt to resolve them to the benefit of ourselves and others.


Cope, B., & Kalantzis, M. (2009). “ Multiliteracies ”: New Literacies , New Learning. Pedagogies: An International Journal, 14, 164–195. doi:10.1080/15544800903076044

Helsper, E. & Kaczuba, D. (2011). Dossier: digital inclusion and ICT policies. Retrieved from

International Monetary Fund. (2007) World economic outlook. Washington, D. C.: IMF. Retrieved from

OECD. (2011). Divided we stand: why inequality keeps rising. Retrieved from

Purcell, K., Rainie, L., Heaps, A., Buchanan, J., Friedrich, L., Jacklin, A., …Zickuhr, K. (2012). How teens do research in the digital world. Retrieved from Pew Internet & American Life website

Richtel, M. (2012, November 1). Technology is changing how students learn, teachers say. New York Times. Retrieved from

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2 Responses to Contradictions of Digital Literacy

  1. joypenner says:


    In my commentary I referred to a study by Hargittai (2010) that found disparities among Digital Immigrants’ use of technology based on socio-economic conditions.

    Hargittai, E. (2010), Digital Na(t)ives?: Variation in Internet skills and uses among members of the “Net Generation”. Sociological Inquiry, 80: 92–113. doi: 10.1111/j.1475-682X.2009.00317.


  2. Deborah S says:

    Hi Arlene,
    In my commentary, I identified challenges students face as a result of information overload such as learning to assess the credibility of information they obtain from the Internet. I also discussed the digital divide not just between developed and developing countries, as well as within Canada as some residents do not have reliable Internet access.


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