Reviewing Approaches and Perspectives on “Digital Literacy”

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  • This article was downloaded by: [Dalhousie University]On: 07 October 2014, At: 01:06Publisher: RoutledgeInforma Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954Registered office: Mortimer House, 37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH,UK

    Pedagogies: An InternationalJournalPublication details, including instructions forauthors and subscription information:http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/hped20

    Reviewing Approaches andPerspectives on DigitalLiteracyJulian Sefton-Green a , Helen Nixon a & Ola Erstad ba Hawke Research Institute, University of SouthAustralia , Australiab Institute of Educational Research, University ofOslo Norway ,Published online: 23 Mar 2009.

    To cite this article: Julian Sefton-Green , Helen Nixon & Ola Erstad (2009) ReviewingApproaches and Perspectives on Digital Literacy, Pedagogies: An InternationalJournal, 4:2, 107-125, DOI: 10.1080/15544800902741556

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  • Pedagogies: An International Journal, 4: 107125, 2009Copyright 2009 Taylor & FrancisISSN 1554-480X print / 1554-4818 onlineDOI: 10.1080/15544800902741556http://www.informaworld.com

    HPED1554-480X1554-4818Pedagogies: An International Journal, Vol. 4, No. 2, Jan 2009: pp. 00Pedagogies: An International Journal

    ARTICLES

    Reviewing Approaches and Perspectives on Digital Literacy

    Perspectives on Digital LiteracySefton-Green, Nixon, Erstad

    Julian Sefton-Green and Helen NixonHawke Research Institute, University of South Australia, Australia

    Ola ErstadInstitute of Educational Research, University of Oslo Norway

    This paper explores the purchase and usefulness of the notion of digital literacy.Comparing and contrasting theoretical formulations of digital literacy from thetop-down and bottom-up, it reviews how the concept has been used acrossthree research fields in Europe and Australia. An introductory section situatesthe ways in which digital literacy offers itself as a mean of empowerment in thetradition of the new literacy studies but at the same time exposes contradic-tions in terms of access and power. The first domain explored is media dis-course, and this section of the paper examines ideas which have beencirculating in Australia since the early 1990s about the need for children tobecome digitally literate. The second section examines how the concept of digi-tal literacy has developed over the last decade in the domain of school policy,curriculum documents and practices in Norway; and the third section reviewstransnational research to explore how the term digital literacy is used in thedomain of childrens and youth's out-of-school cultural digital practices. Weargue that the term digital literacy incorporates more notions of exclusion and

    Correspondence should be sent to Dr Julian Sefton-Green, Centre for Studies in Literacy, Policyand Learning Cultures, Hawke Research Institute, University of South Australia, St Bernards Road,Magill 5072, South Australia. E-mail: julian@julianseftongreen.net

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  • 108 SEFTON-GREEN, NIXON, ERSTAD

    division than is commonly supposed, and that it exposes the contradictorypolitics of literacy education in new and provocative ways.

    INTRODUCTION

    The term digital literacy has become so popular and widespread over the last10 years that it is almost taken for granted. The term is, of course, synonymouswith the popularity of various digital technologies and their centrality in virtuallyall aspects of life: leisure, work and home. With varying degrees of complexity,the phrase digital literacy is now used to describe our engagements with digitaltechnologies as they mediate many (if not most) of our social interactions (see,e.g., Kress, 2003; Lankshear & Knobel, 2003). Yet, as it is frequently acknow-ledged, the literacies associated with participation in digital practices andcultures are complex (Lankshear & Knobel, 2006). It is clearly far too superficialsimply to equate digital literacy with using digital technologies, because thenotion of literacy evokes a multiplicity of competencies, skills and knowledges(Cope & Kalantzis, 2000). Although there are some examples of the use of theterm with respect to the simple operation of digital technologies, many uses ofthe term digital literacy also include the more complex deep or 3-D (Durrant& Green, 2000) implications of the phrase.

    A number of national government policies now place the acquisition of digitalliteracy high in their objectives, motivated by both civic and economic aspira-tions (see e.g., Commonwealth of Australia, 2006; European Union, 2004;Ministry of Education and Research, 2000, 2004a; Selwyn & Brown, 2000). Thecivic aspirations with respect to a digitally literate population relate to beliefs ininclusion and access; a view that all sections of the population need to be able toparticipate in technologically mediated forms of public life. And the economicmotives with respect to the production of a digitally literate population stem froman interest in reconfiguring schools and higher education institutions for theknowledge economy of new times (Peters, 2001). Digital literacyor someform of technological literacy with respect to digital technologiesis ofteninvoked in top-down government policy as a cornerstone for each of theseambitions and, to meet such objectives, a range of curriculum initiatives havebeen devised and implemented across the world.

    However, digital literacy has also been described as a phenomenon from thebottom-up, as it were, (see Buckingham, 2003). At the same time as govern-ment policy seeks to describe and inculcate digital literacy as a property of theacademy, and as a prerequisite for what it means to be an educated citizen,sociological and ethnographic studies of young peoples media participation haveinvestigated other aspects of digital literacy. Such studies document the highlydeveloped complex emotional and intellectual engagement with forms of

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  • PERSPECTIVES ON DIGITAL LITERACY 109

    commercial digital culturefrom computer games to chat roomsthat takesplace outside of formal education (e.g., Buckingham & Willett, 2006; Gee,2003). Here, the argument is that digital literacy develops in social context, andin concert with other media literacies (as well as with alphabetic print literacy).Obviously, this approach to digital literacy is not in a position to define stan-dards of literacy achievement, and the conceptualization of literacy as used inthese contexts is quite different from its use in education programmes and informs of standardized normative literacy assessment currently being put in placein England, the United States of America and Australia.

    One of the key problems with defining digital literacy lies in its closeness toand/or distance from the norms of print literacy. According to conventionalanalysis, the history of alphabetic print literacy in the English-speaking worldis characterized by its relationship with the emerging middle-class during theprocess of colonialization and industrialization, especially in the ways thataccess to literacy playedand continues to playa key part in regulating entryinto the labour market (Bernstein, 2000; Bourdieu, 1986; Luke, 1989; Moss,2001). The classic studies of the growth of print culture and literacy emphasizejust how important the growth of mass schooling was to the whole project (e.g.,Graff, 1987; Olson, 2003). From this perspective, we can immediately see howdigital literacy would thus seem to run counter to such patterns, in that schools,and the academy more generally, do not control access to digital literacy.Despite the centrality of digital literacy to reading, writing and manipulatinginformation in contemporary society, it would be difficult to claim thatschooled-literacy (in the sense of utilizing the standard codes, conventions andsymbolic languages of communication), is in any way an a priori gateway tothe use, exploitation, creative manipulation of, or communication with, digitaltechnologies.

    Responses to these issues at the policy level are conditioned by the prevailingdefinitions of (usually print) literacy within each national context. Equally, theways in which entry into digital literacy suggest a different disciplinary regimeoften at odds with schooled-literacyand the fact that differential access to thetechnologies has such a big influence on the development of digital literacytogether creates a series of policy challenges for what schools could or should doto support and develop digital literacy. Traditionally, schools control and accreditlearning, and again, it is not clear what role they should occupy in the digitalarena. A final policy challenge relates to the knowledge held by the teachingworkforce, in contradistinction to those held by young people (Green & Bigum,1993). Not only has research in this field continually stressed this tension as char-acteristic of a literacy gulf, it also has important implications for how teachers inschoolsin contrast with many of their studentshave a fragile (and unconfi-dent) evidence base on which to construct and develop digital literacy curricula(Hennessy, Ruthven, & Brindley, 2005).

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  • 110 SEFTON-GREEN, NIXON, ERSTAD

    This paper takes a long term and meta level view of studies of national andinternational programmes and literatures that explore and investigate the notionof digital literacy. The starting point for the paper is the theoretical, empirical andpolitical tensions that have arisen from the coexistence of competing notions ofdigital literacy. The authors have separately and jointly been involved in a rangeof digital literacy research and development projects over the last decade. Wehave been vexed by the commonalities and differences between conceptualiza-tions of digital literacy that appear in top down policy, popular media and cur-riculum contexts, and those that appear in ethnographic research, which adopts abottom-up approach. There is clearly a relationship between what might becalled the formal and informal conceptualizations of digital literacy, but it isour contention that there is a difficult relationship between these two domains,and that discussions from both perspectives have as yet been unable to synthesizethe different meanings accorded to digital literacy in ways that progress debate.

    After 10 to 15 years of popular use of digital technologies, educators now haveaccess to a wide range of theoretical and empirical studies that are beginning totease out the limits and possibilities of the concept of digital literacy and itsimplications for learning and education. Here, we review a range of internationalstudies and explore how the concept of digital literacy is utilized and deployedacross a range of discursive fields. We argue that the concept is fundamentallyuseful but needs to be analyzed far more at the intersection of formal and infor-mal learning domains where top down and bottom up approaches meet.

    The body of the paper is divided into three sections, which have emerged outof a review of the different manifestations of digital literacy across a wide rangeof research, policies and practices in developed countries. The first section dis-cusses how the concept of digital literacy has been discursively constructed incultural policy and media discourse in Australia (Atkinson & Nixon, 2005;Nixon, 1998, 1999, 2005). It illustrates a transnational phenomenon in whichdigital rhetorics (Lankshear et al., 1997) have served to construct selective val-ued representations of what digital literacy is and how young people mightdevelop it and why.

    Section two examines the impact of digital literacy policy and curriculuminterventions in the field of formal education. Here, the case of Norway is placedin the foreground for two reasons: the term digital literacy (or competence inNorwegian) has been enshrined there in educational policy (Ministry of Educa-tion and Research, 2000, 2004a), and research into initiatives in digital technolo-gies and education has been richly resourced there for over a decade.

    The final section of the paper explores international research that describesout-of-school, self-taught or commercially mediated kinds of digital literacy andattempts to characterize models of learning that underpin these kinds of mediausage, discussing how such models may or may not complement or challengeteaching and learning as it is conventionally practiced in schools.

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  • PERSPECTIVES ON DIGITAL LITERACY 111

    DIGITAL RHETORICS IN POLICY AND MEDIA DISCOURSE

    In this section of the paper, we examine the expansion of rhetorics about theneed for children to become digitally literate as this has played out in popularmedia discourse, and against a backdrop of government policy discourse aboutthe need for nations to be networked into the global information superhigh-way. We draw on the long-term research conducted by Nixon in Australia(Atkinson & Nixon, 2005; Nixon 1998, 1999, 2005). Although we do not claimthat what happened there is necessarily representative, other studies do lendweight to the suggestion that similar developments have been occurring acrossEnglish-speaking countries (see, e.g., UK studies reported in Buckingham &Scanlo...

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