So what IS Digital literacy? (and how many bits does it actually have?)

Before our group, the Balancing Act, settled on the theme of Digital literacy for our two week teaching seminar, I hadn’t given the term much thought. I guess I imagined it as a rather woolly, catch-all term for skills which are one or more steps above basic IT skills and which also include awareness of online behaviours.

I have been reading the recommended papers and searching online, and now, from a slightly more enlightened standpoint, I think I can say that ‘Digital literacy’ is a rather, woolly, catch-all term for skills which are one or more steps above basic IT skills and which also include awareness of online behaviours.

That’s not to say the concept behind the term isn’t extrememley important. It is. So important, in fact, that some people believe the term should be pluralised – Digital literacies. Belshaw (2011) argues that

considering a plurality of digital literacies helps avoid some of the problems of endlessly-redefining ‘digital literacy’. 

However, even talking about several digital literacies still doesn’t narrow down the focus. While Belshaw himself writes that:

 I would suggest that the eight essential elements of digital literacies are: 1. Cultural 2. Cognitive 3. Constructive 4. Communicative 5. Confident 6. Creative 7. Critical 8. Civic

others come up with a different number. JISC (2014) have seven, in their neatly presented infographic:


Seven element of digital literacies

And here is a third one -this time with only five (At least the numbers are going down!)


The Five Resources model of Critical Digital Literacy was developed by Juliet Hinrichsen and Antony Coombs at the University of Greenwich.
The model, its elements and diagrams are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

Am I any closer to being able to define it? Perhaps, in fact, we shouldn’t try – perhaps in fact we can’t. Referring to new technologies, Belshaw states that

[…]there is not one defined version of new literacies that is dominant everywhere around the world […]  new literacies seems to be less about pedagogy and educational outcomes and more about individual nations’ internal social cohesion and external competition. {…] attempting to define a single ‘digital literacy’ (or any other new literacy) in an objective, contextless manner is doomed to failure.

He then goes on to justify his preference for the plurality of the term and why he has selected eight elements.

When I was a school teacher and I would ask if anyone had any questions, some eager students would raise their hands and say: “Actually Miss – I have three questions” The stock reponse at my school was always “OK -pick the one you like best and ask me that one :)”

I think there is a case for that here. My favourite is the 8 element approach. I was won  over by the video we are currently discussing in our Unit 2 seminar, and which I will embed here:

Critically speaking (even though I think the 8 elements are great) I wonder if any of it had to be forced a little bit, to fit in with everything starting with a C?

I plan to explore these 8 a little more in a later post.


Belshaw, D. (2011). What is digital literacy? A pragmatic investigation. [online] Available at: 

Developing digital literacies | Jisc. (2014). [online] Jisc. Available at: [Accessed 21 Feb. 2017].

Hinrichsen, J. and Coombs, A. (n.d.). The 5 Resources Model of Critical Digital Literacy. [online] Available at: [Accessed 21 Feb. 2017].

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One Response to So what IS Digital literacy? (and how many bits does it actually have?)

  1. Laurence says:

    It looks as if your blog is very much on track, Mary. I particularly enjoyed reading this most recent post. Your point about not being able to (and perhaps finding no real use in being able to) define what digital literacy is, is excellent – and I suppose as course designers/facilitators, it’s important, at least, to have an understanding of its importance (or lack of), when considering how we might support our learners. Love the TEDx video.


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