Digital literacies

The blog post is a work up of a talk I gave in the School of Education at Plymouth University on the 18th April 2012. 

Conole plymouth

View more PowerPoint from Grainne Conole

Jenkins (2009) lists eleven digital literacies which he argues are needed to be part of what he terms today’s participatory culture. They are: play, collective intelligence, judgment, transmedia navigation, networking, negotiation, distributed intelligence, multitasking, appropriation, simulation and performance. I would add a twelfth, creativity. This list demonstrates the complex way in which we interact in digital networks and represents the set of skills we need to be able to harness and appropriate the affordances (Gibson 1979; Conole and Dyke 2004) of social and participatory media. Together these digital literacies enable us to find and manage information and to communicate and collaborate with others. These media offer rich multimedia representations and there are a plethora of ways in which we can interact and connect with others.

The statistics associated with social media are truly profound as this short YouTube video demonstrates.[1] The figures are truly staggering; for example if facebook was a country it would be the third largest in the world. Clearly social and participatory media have significant potential to foster new approaches to learning, teaching and research, however to be used effectively we, as learners, teachers and researchers, need to develop a complex new set of digital literacy skills.

Technologies have transformed everything we do; from the way we find information to the ways in which we connect with others. Arguably anything we want to know or learn is available somewhere on the net. As John Naughton argues, disruption is a feature of the net, not a bug (Naughton 2012).  New technologies have a unique set of characteristics: networked, distributed, peer reviewed and open, they are complex, dynamic and evolving – we co-evolve with the technologies, appropriating them into our everyday practice. Your network and who you connect with defines you.  A number of useful reports give summaries of these new technologies and their implications for education, for example the NSF-commissioned report on Cyberlearning (Borgeman, Abelson et al. 2008), a review of Web 2.0 tools in HE (Conole and Alevizou 2010) and more recently the IPTS report on digital competences (Ala-Mutka 2012). Digital competence is defined as:

The confident, critical and creative use of ICT to achieve goals related to work, employability, learning, leisure, inclusion and/or participation in society (Ala-Mutka, 2012:1).

The IPTS report describes how new technologies are being used for work, leisure and communication, arguing that the network is the key.  It also recognizes that new technologies are more participatory, promoting more open practices. However it also states that the digital divide (Norris 2001; Warschauer 2004) is still present – arguably narrower, but deeper. What are the implications of not being part of the net, when increasingly more and more information is only available online? The report outlines a digital competency framework, consisting of three aspects: information skills and knowledge, advanced skills and knowledge and attitudes. These can be broken down into the following components:

  • Operational skills and knowledge – referring to the technical aspects of digital tools, such as using a mouse or manipulating particular tools.
  • Medium-related skills and knowledge – referring to understanding how to purposefully and safely use specific media. 
  • Communication and collaboration – referring to the ability to effectively express and communicate, as well as understanding the potential and limitations of different media.
  • Information management – referring to navigating the wealth of information available online and making informed judgments about which resources are appropriate in different contexts.
  • Learning and problem solving – referring to acquisition of the skills needed to harness digital tools for learning, working and problem solving.
  • Meaningful participation – referring to the ability to find and participate in digital activities, either individually or in collaboration with others.
  • Intercultural and collaborative attitude – referring to the ability to be culturally sensitive and able to participate with others from different cultures in an appropriate manner.
  • Critical attitude – referring to the ability to critically reflect on the quality and provenance of things they find on the net.
  • Creative attitude – referring to the ability to adopt creative practices in harnessing technologies for learning, work and leisure activities, encouraging open and participatory approaches.
  • Responsible attitude – referring to the need to be aware of the visibility and potential consequences of one’s own digital activities.
  • Autonomous attitude – referring to the fact that the internet is not structured and has no rules or monitoring. Each individual needs to be clear of their own objectives and find and choose appropriate tools and resources to meet these objectives.

The report also lists the benefits in terms of: social, health, economic, civic, cultural and societal. Although it also points out that there are a number of implications/risks, in terms of: personal safety and privacy, the need to act responsibly, ethically and legally, understanding the nature of digital media and issues associated with inequalities.

It is interesting to reflect on how each of us are using these technologies and which are core to our daily practice. Beyond email and general use of the web, there as a number of core tools I now use on a regular basis. I have been blogging now since 2007.[2] Blogging has become an important part of my professional practice. I blog about ideas in development, reports on conferences and project meetings, pointers to interesting research and articles and draft publications. Blogging now sits as a step towards completed publications such as articles or books, and is a good way of working up ideas and getting comments from the wider research community. I use Endnote to manage references and have now built up a comprehensive library of references. Diigo  and ScoopIt are useful as a means of keeping track of interesting links on the web. In terms of social networking I am an active user of Twitter with more than 4,000 followers. I also use facebook extensively, the later for more social interactions and the former for more professional activities. Clearly such tools have enormous potential, but not everyone is comfortable with blogging or participating in social networks. Indeed many have very strong views against these technologies, arguing that they are trivial and raise a host of ethical and privacy issues.

A body of research has emerged in recent years around the competences and skills needed to effectively use and interact with new technologies. Terms such as digital literacies, information literacies, 21st Century literacies have been used; each with subtle nuances and different foci (Jenkins, 2009; Goodfellow and Lea, 2007l Lankshear and Knobel, 2006). Literacies can be seen as a continuum from instrumental skills to productive competence and efficiency. Lankshear and Knobel (2006) adopt a ocio-cultural view of digital literacy and argue that they are the set of social practices and meaning making associated with interacting with digital tools. Fundamentally the central issue is about the literacies needed to communicate with others and make sense of information (and more specifically how to do this in a digital context).

Returning now to Jenkins list of digital literacies, I will now expand on some of the terms and demonstrate how they are realised through use of digital technologies. The web is complex and vast, transmedia navigation is a key skill needed to be able to navigate this terrain. Arguably any information we want is available on the web, but finding appropriate resources and tools and evaluating their relevance is non-trivial. A good example of this is how learners are interacting in a new form of open and free courses, termed MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). Developed by Siemens and Downes  MOOCs have now been running for four years or so. Anyone can participate in these courses, which are organized into chunks of materials and resources around particular topics over a number of months. Thousands sign up to participate in these courses, although the number that complete them and get any form of accreditation is much larger. Evaluation of users’ perceptions of these MOOCs indicates that many get lost easily and find participation far from satisfying. The sheer size and complexity of MOOCs is overwhelming; with each learner having to define their own personal learning environment and learning pathway through the course.

Distributed cognition was defined by Saloman in the nineties (Salomon 1993). In essence this refers to the fact that our cognition is distributed between ours brains and our digital environment. We increasingly use a range of information management tools to collate and aggregate relevant resources, we harness our social networks in terms of getting answers to queries and participating in ongoing discourses and shared co-construction of knowledge. We are no longer isolated individuals, but part of a global distributed network of others and tools.

Anyone who has seen children interacting with technologies, will agree that play is an essential digital literacies. Children don’t reach for a manual when starting to use a new tool, they simply start to interact and explore, learning through playing. This active, learner-centred approach is a key facet of new technologies and increasingly the interfaces of new tools are intuitive and self-explanatory. Play can be mapped to particular pedagogical approaches such as role-play and problem solving. A nice example comes from the SWIFT project,[3] which has developed a virtual Genetics laboratory in SecondLife. To orientate new users to the environment there is a maze that the users walk through, there are various activities they complete along the way and by the end of the maze they are equipped with the basic skills needed to interact in the environment. They can then enter and interact with the Genetics laboratory, playing with instruments, taking measurements and learning basic laboratory techniques.

Networking is also a key characteristic of new technologies; the nature of your network and how you use it defines who you are in digital space. A network is only meaningful if you are connected to those with shared interests. Furthermore, it is important to give as well as take, active participation is expected. Within each social network we interact with others in a variety of ways. With both facebook and Twitter, I have a number of ‘onion layers’ of those I interact with; there is an inner core of friends and followers who I interact with on a regular basis and then a set of layers of users I interact with less and less, and finally those that follow me, but that I don’t follow.

Collective intelligence refers to the ability to be able to work with others to solve a problem or aggregate a set of resources. A good example of harnessing the distributed collective intelligence of the network is the work being done as part of the iSpot project,[4] on promoting scientific awareness. It is an online site where users can share and discuss sightings of fauna and flora around the UK.


The site is an excellent example of collective intelligence (Lévy 1997) and harnessing the power of the masses, as it enables the capture of sightings of flora and fauna from around the country on changes in patterns of nature that can then feed into ongoing research activities. Once registered, a user can add an observation to the Website, suggest an identification, or see if anyone else can identify the species. Users can also contribute to existing observations and there is a forum to stimulate debate. Despite the overall look and feel of the site being focussed on ‘fun’, it feeds directly into real research activities and also enables users to transfer their informal learning/interests into more formal educational offerings if they wish. Evaluation of the use of the site indicates that it is increasing general interest in science and is also resulting in users then signing up for more formal courses (Clow and Makriyannis 2011). The data collected on the site is being used by scientists and is providing them with a rich understanding of the changing ecology across the UK. Galaxy Zoo[5] is a similar initiative. The general public are invited to help astronomy researchers to categorise and chart the galaxy, using thousands of images derived from the Hubble Space Telescope Archive.


Performance is about how you present yourself on the web and the ways in which you interact with others. We each need to find our own digital identity and voice. Some choose to adopt a very professional stance, others are more light hearted. We each need to decide the degree to which we want to adopt open practices; what we share with others and the extent to which we share our experiences and activities. I have a very open approach to the way in which I interact with others online, I share my ideas and thoughts as I go, pass on interesting ideas and references received from other, ask queries of the network, as well as providing useful feedback to others. For researchers social and participatory media offer a rich set of ways in which we can communicate and discuss our research outputs. They extend the reach of the audience; a paper in a closed journal might at best be read by a handful of readers, in contrast a blog post can be virally communicated to thousands in a nano second. There are now a number of new tools emerging that can provide some indication of an individual’s research impact. For example Google Citation Indicator gives the H factor for an individual, along with a ranked listing of their most cited papers. It is evident to me that these kinds of tools will be used increasingly within institutions in terms of promotion and at a national level in terms of things like research assessment exercises. Whether you like it or not, your digital footprint is there and is being monitored.


In addition to Jenkin’s list of digital literacies I would add creativity as an important skill in harnesses the potential of new technologies. Creativity derives from the Latin word, ‘crea’, which means to create or make something. It is about creating something new (either a physical artefact or a concept) that is both novel and valuable. It is about the ability to transcend traditional ideas, rules, partners, and relationships, and create meaningful new ideas, forms, methods and interpretations. I would argue that it is an essential skill to deal with today’s complex, fast and changing society. Technologies offer a wealth of ways to foster creativity; they provide a range of ways for us to communicate and collaborate with others. There are four aspects to creativity:

·        Process: mechanisms needed for creative thinking

·        Product: measuring creativity in people

·        Person: general intellectual habits (openness, ideas of ideation, autonomy, expertise, exploratory and behavioural)

·        Place: best circumstances to enable creativity to flourish.


There are five stages of creativity:

·        Preparation: identifying the problem

·        Incubation: internalisation of the problem

·        Intimation: getting a feeling for a solution

·        Illumination: creativity burst forth

·        Verification: idea is consciously verified, elaborated and applied


Wall (2009) argues that creativity is the new technology:

I think that the 21st century will be a century of creativity in the same way that the 20th was of technology. Much of the creativity, interestingly enough, will be based on the tools provided by technology, especially tools that allow us to create, collaborate and communicate.  

Along with the eleven digital literacies identified by Jenkins, creativity enables learners to connect and co-constructive meaning in rich authentic environments. iCreaNet ( is a global research network of educational researchers focusing on support for development of creative skills in higher educational contexts. Fundamental to the work of the group is seeing ICT resources and environments as crucial means of providing the flexibility and diversity necessary to facilitate creative development and to bring education up to speed with the way that citizens of the earth learn and enhance themselves in the contexts of their daily lives in the 21st century.


This post has explored the types of digital literacies that are needed by learners, teachers and researchers to exploit the potential of new technologies and to enable them to connect and communicate in a plethora of ways. The digital literacies needed are far more participatory and interactive, the distributed network of others that we connect with is as important as the way in which we access and use information on the Internet. We each need to identify our own digital voice and identity, how we want to be perceived and how we want to interact with others. Used effectively social and participatory media offer a powerful means of us communicating and developing our ideas.


Ala-Mutka, K. (2012). Mapping digital competence: towards a conceptual understanding. IPTS report. Saville.

Borgeman, C., H. Abelson, et al. (2008). Fostering learning in the networked world: the cyberlearning opportunity and challenge, Report of the NSF task force on cyberlearning.

Clow, D. and E. Makriyannis (2011). iSpot analysed: participatoiry learning and reputation. 1st learning analytics and knowledge conference, Banff, Canada.

Conole, G. and P. Alevizou (2010) “Review of the use(s) of Web 2.0 in Higher Education.”

Conole, G. and M. Dyke (2004). “What are the affordances of information and communication technologies?” ALT-J 12(2): 113-124 %U

Gibson, J. J. (1979). The ecological approach to visual perception. Hillsdale, New Jersey, Lawrence Erlbaum Associated.

Jenkins, H. (2009). Confronting the challenges of participatory culture: Media education for the 21st century, Mit Pr.

Lankshear, C. and M. Knobel (2006). “Digital literacies: Policy, pedagogy and research considerations for education.” Nordic Journal of digital literacy 1(1): 226.

Lévy, P. (1997). Collective intelligence: Mankind’s emerging world in cyberspace, Perseus Books Cambridge, MA, USA.

Naughton, J. (2012). From Gutenberg to Zuckerberg, what you really need to know  about the internet.

Norris, P. (2001). Digital divide: Civic engagement, information poverty, and the Internet worldwide, Cambridge Univ Pr.

Salomon, G., Ed. (1993). Distributed cognitions - pyschological and educational considerations. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Wall, R. (2009). “Creativity is the new technology.” Zen and the art of being rob

Warschauer, M. (2004). Technology and social inclusion: Rethinking the digital divide, the MIT Press.












2 Responses to “Digital literacies”

  1. Bernadette Says:

    Great summary of Digital Literacies! Plan to share it with my team at school!

  2. Gráinne Says:

    Thanks Bernadette! Glad you liked it!

Leave a Reply