Digital Literacy; Another passing phrase or a concept with meaning?

In the last of our core CILT sessions we looked at digital literacy in the realm of primary teaching.

Digital literacy.

What does that even mean?

Wikipedia defines it as;

“The ability to effectively and critically navigate, evaluate and create information using a range of digital technologies”

Douglas Belshaw (2011) outlines eight core concepts that surround the idea;

  1. Cultural – We need to pay attention to the culture in which the literacies are situated
  2. Cognitive – We can’t just consider the procedural ways in which we use devices and programs. It’s the way we think when we’re using them
  3. Constructive – We can’t be passive consumers of technology/information. We should strive to use digital tools in reflective and appropriate ways
  4. Communicative – Digital tools and power structures change the way we communicate. An element of digital literacy is how we take command of that structure and use it to communicate effectively and contribute meaningfully
  5. Confident – in order to be a proficient user of technology, one must have the courage and confidence to dive into the unknown, take risks, make mistakes, and display confidence when “messing around” with new tools
  6. Creative – from his research, Doug says “…..the creative adoption of new technology requires teachers who are willing to take risks… a prescriptive curriculum, routine practices… and a tight target-setting regime, is unlikely to be helpful.” Conlon & Simpson (2003)
  7. Critical – Digital literacy involves an understanding of how to deal with hyperspace and hypertext and understanding it’s “not entirely read or spoken.” Can we critically evaluate the technologies we’re using?
  8. Civic – many schools are beginning to embrace technology to improve our lives and the lives of others in the world


“Literacy” in itself is an interesting term. During this session we discussed what, exactly, is meant by the term “literate”. Of course, in primary education the term literacy is used to referred to reading and writing. So, with that in mind, we could assume that Digital Literacy is the idea that we are learning to encode and decode technology and use it more proficiently.  Just like one can be illiterate (unable to read or write), one can also be “digitally illiterate”; being unable to use computers and/or other technology.  Belsaw believes that the eight elements he mentioned do not compete with one another. Instead, they work together and are interwoven.

During our session we also (in groups) worked with an iOS app named “Puppet Pals”. This application allows you to create basic animation using predefined resources (and the ability to use your own). What was interesting to note across all the groups was how easy most people found it. There was a time when technology was, indeed, very difficult to break into. Nowdays, however, with the advent of smartphones and tablets, computing simply as a “nerds pastime” has practically been eradicated. If you have a phone, you’re a computer user. If you play Angry Birds, you are a computer user.

So what has bridged the gap here, exactly? Well, ease of use is certainly a huge determining factor. If I want to make a puppet show with that application then I can simply tap the icon on the home screen. If I had wanted to do that even five years ago people would be laughing at me. If I wanted to do that with a class of 36 noisy 7 year olds, I’d never have been taken seriously.

Burn, A and Durran, J (2007) state that, when teaching digital literacy, you are enabling children the chance to be expressive, anarchic and subversive. Many would see these words as fairly offputting; Who wants to allow children to be “anarchic” in the classroom, especially if they’re already not the most well-behaved group? However, the concept that you are giving children the tools (and freedom) to express themselves is, in my opinion, crucial to a child’s learning. Allowing children to take these iPads, computers, phones and everything else, working with a teacher and having the chance to work with little creative limitations is an idea that is quite foreign in many schools. For many, school is about instilling facts and the ability to recall them. However, with technology gaining a tighter grasp on the education sector each year, it’s only a matter of time before repeating facts gets swapped out for making hilarious puppet animations with an iPad..within an educational context, of course.

Children need to learn these skills in school, lest they leave education not being able to make use of them wherever they may end up in future.


Burn, A, Durran, J, (2007) Media literacy in schools: practice, production and progression. Chapter 3. Paul Chapman, London.