Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Digital Literacies

Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_110



The notion of what constitutes digital literacies in the present knowledge economy is debated. Some view digital literacies as the set of skills needed to successfully engage with digital technologies. Others would argue they are the skills required to code software and the computational thinking skills of programming, designing, collecting, and analyzing data and the system-based literacy practices needed to communicate with simulations and games. New voices argue digital literacies encapsulate the proficiency to use digital technologies, as well as the soft skills needed to engage in co-creative endeavors, with humans and machines in creative, wise, and ethical ways. Regardless, Bill Green’s “3D” (dimensional) model of literacy remains a salient point of reference to think about and understand the operational, cultural, and critical dimensions of digital literacies. The aim of this entry is to present an overview of the complexity of digital literacies in a future characterized by rapid and uncertain socio-technical change. It also explores how digital literacies, when viewed as anticipatory, can be leveraged to ensure children, young people, and adults engage in co-creative endeavors with each other and machine to maximize their potential for lifelong learning in ethically sound ways.

Digital Literacy Origins

Before the term digital literacies was embraced across educational contexts, Paul Gilster introduced the singular form, digital literacy, in 1997 to describe students’ or learners’ abilities to understand and use information presented via computers in multiple formats from a diversity of sources (Gilster and Glister 1997). Yet digital technologies, particularly Web 2.0., have and continue to extend understandings of digital literacy, calling for a much broader view. The New London Group (1996) highlighted this idea more than 20 years ago when they introduced the term “multiliteracies” to describe the multiple literacies children, young people, and adults need to access, negotiate, and communicate across their working, public, and private lives. Multiliteracies as a new approach to literacy pedagogy at the time highlighted individuals’ competencies to critically, confidently, and creatively use print and nonprint literacy practices to achieve their own goals and participate in society. At that time, proponents of multiliteracies argued meaning making requires becoming proficient in using different semiotic modes to communicate across a diversity of technological devices, but they did not explicitly refer to these as digital literacies.

The term digital literacies, in the plural, was first introduced by Linda Labbo, David Reinking, and Michael McKenna in 1998 to describe workplace abilities where individuals collaborate to access information, manage and manipulate data, purposefully navigate through multimedia, and critically read and write digital texts (Labbo et al. 1998). A year earlier, Colin Lankshear coined the term “technological literacies,” essentially the same as digital literacies, to highlight the social practices in which a multiplicity of texts are designed, modified, and shared digitally (Lankshear 1997). Later, Lankshear and Knobel (2003) furthered the plural use of the term digital literacies to highlight the diversity of social and cultural practices and ways of knowing required to successfully use digital technologies. Most literacy scholars still adhere to this definition of the term where they view digital literacies not as individual skills but as social practices embedded within a given sociocultural context regardless of whether it is face-to-face or virtual.

Thinking About Digital Literacies in 3D

In 1988, Bill Green put forth a 3D (dimensional) model of literacy that has become extremely influential when thinking about literacy and digital literacies. From a sociocultural perspective, Green’s 3D model contends that literacy needs to be seen as having three interlocking dimensions: the operational, the cultural, and the critical. Importantly, these dimensions bring together language, meaning, and context where no one dimension dominates the others. How digital literacies might be described using Green’s 3D model is outlined below, with the understanding that digital literacy practices are always in flux, much like technology-driven transformational changes taking place across society.

The operational dimension of digital literacies includes how to use technologies in the basic sense. This includes the functions of turning devices on, installing and configuring software, wirelessly networking devices to each other, downloading apps for use on mobile devices, and using search engines. This dimension also includes the abilities of sending emails, using authoring software, managing data, and supporting new ways of learning, collaborating, and communicating across devices, interfaces, time, and space (e.g., through virtual reality and augmented reality). For many children, young people, and adults, this could also include using social networking; designing systems; coding, modifying, and/or hacking systems, prototyping digital solutions, cloud computing, and software and web development. In many ways, the operational dimension of digital literacies is skill oriented with a ranging understanding of the major concepts that support the functionality of digital technologies and software or how they work.

The cultural dimension of digital literacies requires understanding and competence of how to operate digital technologies and also how to use digital literacies to consume, design, or produce and interact with a variety of digital technologies to make meaning in particular contexts. This can be either real time or virtual. By making meaning, users understand that digital technologies assist them in gathering unlimited knowledge and intelligence in real time to predict, prevent, and solve their problems. Users also recognize that the use of digital technologies is not neutral and that humans have an increasingly complex relationship with machines. For example, users understand digital technologies are designed and networked in particular ways to create new services and products. They also understand how digital technologies do things in the world and how they can either promote a user’s or users’ agency to engage in beneficial or harmful practices using their digital literacies. Whether users learn, communicate, experience pleasure (increased dopamine release in the brain triggered by playing, interacting, and communicating in virtual worlds), or engage in active learning through simulations alone or with others, they are aware of what they are using digital technology for. Socioculturally, their digital literacy practices are working to shape their digital identities and are largely reflective of their lifeworlds. More simply, the cultural dimension of digital literacies is understanding that digital technologies are used to make meaning but, more importantly, do something in the world within a particular context.

The critical dimension of digital literacies includes being able to assess and critique software, hardware, and other digital technologies, knowing they are designed to be used for particular purposes across diverse contexts. Here users draw on their digital literacies to make sense of complex ideas and engage in design and computational thinking to solve problems they identify. Users also understand they can redesign, modify, or appropriate digital technologies for purposes they articulate themselves. By doing so, they understand how to anticipate, develop, and exploit digital solutions and knowledge to solve problems in the present and into the future. From this critical perspective, they are aware of their digital literacies and the implications of their use as they design, redesign, or modify current and emerging systems and practices. Understanding this critical dimension situates children, young people, and adults well to solve problems or dilemmas and use strategic foresight and anticipatory digital literacies to meet future challenges. This is because an anticipatory stance allows them to acquire new digital literacies to serve their own interests. Paramount to the critical dimension is highlighting that users learn soft skills, particularly the ability to learn and engage in emergent leadership through problem solving, being flexible and adaptable, and possessing a degree of foresightedness. Because many children and young people are now socialized into digital literacy skills and practices outside of school, they understand they must play an active role in learning new digital literacies to adapt and innovate to work, live, and predict in “smarter” ways outside of school.

Thinking about digital literacies in 3D emphasizes that digital literacy proficiency is achieved as people individually, collaboratively, and communally participate in the social and cultural practices of making meaning and using digital technologies to take action for “real” purposes. But thinking about literacy in 3D highlights critical ethical issues. This is because humans are facing serious global challenges explicitly linked to advances in digital technologies. The question “digital literacies for whose ‘real’ purposes and to what end?” is imperative. When making meaning and taking action is increasingly about having the anticipatory digital literacies to use digital technologies, it is equally important to consider how digital literacies can be used productively to improve life on Earth for all living things, as well as to do harm.

Rethinking Digital Literacy Proficiency

It is difficult to predict what digital literacies will be needed in the future when all things or physical objects are assigned an IP address, and sensors have the ability to transfer data over the Internet of Things (IoT). The IoT is characterized, in part, by objects such as washing machines and fridges using the Internet to collect and exchange data, self-driving cars that rely on sensors, and implanted chips that can monitor body functions and report them directly to doctors. Also known as the Internet of Everything (IoE), the IoT represents a transformational shift to society and understandings of digital literacy proficiencies as literally everything becomes “smart.” The IoT is important for all educators, especially literacy educators. As more people and “everything” is connected to the network and harvesting more data from the network, individuals need increasingly sophisticated digital literacies to harness that data to improve decision-making at the school, in their daily lives, and in future workplaces. The IoT highlights that much of the world’s knowledge is already at users’ fingertips and accessible from mobile devices. The implications for literacy education are immense. The IoT highlights what is important to teach is not the retention of knowledge, coding skills, or simply operational skills. What is more important is being able to rethink digital literacy proficiency to understand how technologies and coding languages work, what they are most useful for, whose interests they likely serve, and how to use new and emerging technologies with ethical foresight.

It is disconcerting how many digital literacy practices, some of which require users to engage in complex meaning-making activities, remain largely ignored in educational institutions that still focus on learning discrete skills that will likely not be needed in the yet-to-be imagined educational institutions, industries, and professions of the future. This presents a serious dilemma in regard to children, young people, and adults’ digital literacies because they are often not using their digital literacies to manage uncertainty. Rather they are still taking exams, writing essays, and giving presentations where they essentially regurgitate knowledge. They are less likely to be using their digital literacies to apply available knowledge in real-world settings where they are required to use critical thinking and written and oral communication skills to engage in entrepreneurial, sustainable, or ethical pursuits.

As educational institutions begin to catch up and transform their teaching and learning spaces to more closely mirror the spaces individuals in the real world use to solve pressing problems (e.g., sandboxes and makerspaces also known as DIY spaces where individuals can gather to cocreate, coinvent, and co-learn), students will need robust anticipatory digital literacies to share, collaborate, and experiment with each other, their teachers, and machines’ artificial intelligence (AI). As classrooms become more participatory – where participation is largely mediated by technology – educators need to rethink literacy instruction. This means new spaces must be designed to foster individuals’ digital literacy skills, practices, and proficiencies on a daily basis. This calls for strategic foresight when (re)conceptualizing literacy education in complex, changing, and ambiguous times.

Strategic Foresight to Separate Hard and Soft Digital Literacy Trends

Strategic foresight is needed to separate hard digital literacy trends from soft trends. A hard trend is based on measurable and concrete information or events. This means it is something that will almost certainly happen (e.g., the increasing use of mobile apps, the announcement of new government regulations, strategies or action plans, etc.). Applying strategic foresight based on the certainty of hard trends is strategic because it is low risk. Hard trends allow individuals, organizations, and governments to predict what digital literacies they need to capitalize on to access emerging opportunities and avoid disruption as they cocreate and coexist with ever-smarter machines. A soft trend is a less certain prediction based on statistics that might happen. To only focus on these without separating them from hard trends increases risk and the potential for disruption. Importantly, when individuals, organizations, and governments use strategic foresight to identify soft trends, they can use their digital literacies to influence and change these trends as they work for a preferable future over a probable one. In times characterized by uncertainty, educational leadership needs to actively separate hard trends from soft trends to accurately appropriate ongoing rapid technological advances so that students of all ages recognize their capacity to use their digital literacies to act as a force of change in their communities, nations, and the world.

In many ways, strategic foresight is akin to what Anna Craft calls (2014) “possibility thinking,” where individuals – drawing on their “little c creativity” – ask “what if?” and “as if?” questions to solve the challenges they face in their everyday lives. She views this kind of strategic foresight or way of thinking as critical to fostering a wise, humanizing creativity (WHC). This is creativity guided by ethical action that is mindful of its consequences and pushes individuals to vision, scan, map, forecast, and plan their future. When individuals use strategic foresight to analyze, perceive, and separate hard digital trends from soft trends, they can articulate what digital literacies they need to become proficient with to tap into their individual, collaborative, and communal creativity to prepare for and cope with change toward a common good.

Anticipatory Digital Literacies

A digital literacy proficiency that is anticipatory is fundamental to successfully navigate technological advances that are bringing about hyper-change. Anticipation can be viewed as a literacy practice or an essential competency when it comes to thinking about the digital literacies needed to use digital technologies to adapt to new realities in working, public, and private lives. One could even argue that anticipatory digital literacies are currently needed by individuals, organizations, and governments to adapt to new realities just to survive in the world characterized by risk and uncertainty where humanity faces serious transnational global challenges.

As machines, clothing and body parts become “smarter,” humans’ digital literacies need to be anticipatory. This means they need to learn how to engage in strategic foresight exercises to anticipate and incorporate new digital literacy practices into their present literacy practices. They also need to understand this anticipatory stance will help them learn, design, and work smarter – not harder – individually, collaboratively, and communally. If digital literacy proficiency is predicated on anticipation and being open to uncertainty, individuals can use their digital literacies to make plans, test ideas, and enthusiastically engage in strategic foresight activities to identify hard digital literacy trends.

Such an anticipatory stance toward digital literacies is desperately needed to address the global challenges all living things face as they witness and participate – intentionally or unintentionally – in the destruction of the Earth (e.g., climate change, sustainable development, clean water, violence against women, global ethics, terrorism, etc.). With computers gathering information from overlapping data sets on just about everything in real time, anticipatory digital literacies are needed to successfully use new and emerging analytic methodologies to make disparate information and data useful. Such an anticipatory stance better prepares individuals to simultaneously manage change and address global challenges as they collectively march into an uncertain future where threats to equality, democracy, peace, and survival are certain.

The Ethical Dimension of Digital Literacies

Humans have a complicated relationship with digital technologies because of the unforeseen way they can complicate or improve life on Earth. This highlights why Green’s critical dimension of digital literacies now needs more attention than ever. The critical dimension is also, to some extent, an ethical dimension where users of digital technologies need to understand their digital literacies can be used for good or evil. And that behavior, including which occurs digitally, and not necessarily in the physical realm, always has impacts and consequences on the welfare of self and others as users are both making and being made. Yet, this is much easier said than done. It could even be argued that for a future characterized by uncertainty, what is actually needed is a 4D (dimensional) model of literacies that also includes an ethical dimension. This is because ethics is about behaving and living properly. Increasingly ethics involves not only relationships with people but also machines’ AI. An ethical dimension includes individuals, organizations, communities, and countries using anticipatory digital literacies to adapt to new realities in wise and humanizing ways. This would be characterized by children, young people, and adults using their anticipatory digital literacies toward a common good where they balance their own interests, other individuals’ interests, and larger communal and global interests over both the short and long term to transform the world they share into a better place.

While Green’s critical dimension highlights the need for individuals to be able to assess and critique new technologies, knowing they are designed to be used for particular purposes in the present, a critical stance is not usually anticipatory. Thus, individuals do not know, or likely even think about, whether they are leveraging their digital literacies to design solutions that have the potential to be equally beneficial or destructive into the future. One example is the rapid and encompassing pervasiveness of social media that is not only used to boost motivation in classrooms and students’ proficiency with technologies but is also quickly eroding citizens’ privacy as they are constantly coming under 24 h surveillance. Another could be the use of drones that make military action and bombing more acceptable and routine because a machine is taking action. But who or what is responsible for the devastation or loss of life? More importantly how are they/it responsible? These examples highlight why the ethical dimension of anticipatory digital literacies is both timely and paramount. Students, regardless of their age, need to be taught to think in anticipatory ways about how their use of digital literacies can positively or negatively affect each others’ and the Earth’s well-being.


A new increasingly seamless interaction between humans and machines is unfolding at an astounding pace. Unprecedented uncertainty characterizes the kinds of digital literacies that are, and will be, needed to participate not only in the workforce but also in education across primary, secondary, and tertiary settings. That is, schools in these settings need to offer a different kind of education that is no longer largely reflective of the old industrial model and not preparing them for the jobs of the future. New technologies are continuing to disrupt all aspects of lived existence in most parts of the world. As a result, many businesses and organizations are adapting and transforming to meet the needs of diverse individuals. Conversely, most educational institutions continue to resist any transformational change as well as new technologies. Instead they focus on reforms that aim to raise standards through standardized testing and increased accountability rather than provide students (regardless of their age) a personalized, supportive, and nurturing education. Rarely do schools encourage students to actively scrutinize socio-technical trends with the goal of behaving in responsible, sustainable, and ethical ways to tackle the interdependent global issues humanity faces. The time has come to be more intentional about the ethical dimension of digital literacies and how they are fostered (or not) in educational institutions. Paramount is also considering how they work and whether what digital literacies can do or achieve is something an individual should strive for. The ethical dimension of digital literacies has been relatively ignored until recently, and what scholarly discussion that has occurred mostly revolves around using digital games to teach ethics and ethical thinking.

At a time when young people are increasingly mobilizing technology and peer-to-peer networks for their own purposes, the ethical dimension of digital literacies becomes more important than the operational, cultural, and critical dimensions. When individuals use strategic foresight and view their digital literacies as anticipatory, then business as usual in educational institutions, businesses, and organizations will have to change. This is because anticipatory digital literacies will help them understand the myriad ways present institutions and systems – including schools – are not serving their essential needs (education, employment, access to clean water, free Internet, etc.). This will likely push them to acquire the digital literacies they believe they need, whether it is to find work, solve pressing problems, foster collaboration by promoting collaborative goals, or just survive. This is already happening. But it is important to remember that the forces of globalization, interdependence, and disruption are forcing people to manage risk, uncertainty, and change in very different ways. The growth of disruptive technologies that are changing life on Earth forces one to recognize what could be termed the dark or harmful side of digital literacies. Because digital literacies can be used for either unequivocally good or deliberately harmful ends, a new global challenge emerges. Education must help individuals understand the ethical dimension of their anticipatory digital literacies so they use them thoughtfully and with respect for others and the Earth, recognizing the interconnections between all human things and machines. Such a disposition is crucial for the greater good.



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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.College of Arts, Society and EducationJames Cook UniversityTownsvilleAustralia