Digital literacy or digital literacies?

We live in a mediatized world. Mediatization means that media is integrated into our private and professional lives in definable ways. In todays mediatized world it is utmost important to be digitally literate to be able to cope, to create and share meaning and to participate as a person and as a citizen. This is a collage of definitions and perspectives on what it means to be digitally literate and on the importance of digital literacies for learning and teaching.

“To be digitally literate is to have access to a broad range of practices and cultural resources that you are able to apply to digital tools”, Hague and Payton say in the report “Digital literacy across the curriculum” (2010:2). And to be digitally literate you must have digital literacy:

“Digital literacy is the skills, knowledge and understanding that enables critical, creative, discerning and safe practices when engaging with digital technologies in all areas of life.” (Hague and Payton 2010:19).

Hague and Payton present a model of digital literacy which is made of a number of inter-related components:


Digital literacy shows up in the space where the components of the model overlap. Hague and Payton stress that digital literacy is not to be seen as a fixed concept but is to be understood as a dynamic set of resources and practices:

“People’s interaction with digital technologies are multiple, rich and complex; there is a wide array of practices involved in digital literacy. One useful definition for digital literacy is “the constantly changing practices through which people make traceable meanings using digital technologies.” The components above refer to different dimensions of digital literacy; they all support the creation and sharing of meaning and are not separate but mutually reinforce one another.”(Hague and Payton 2010:20).


Belshaw builds on this dynamic view of digital literacy in his doctoral thesis “What is ‘digital literacy’? A Pragmatic Investigation” and sets off from the notion of literacy as a social practice that has been advocated by the New Literacies Studies. Belshaw draws the consequences of the debates on how to define digital literacy and pleads for a matrix of literacies in the line of Hague and Payton’s complex definition. And so Belshaw ends up with a matrix of eight essential elements of digital literacies that overlap as layers of complexity: “A semi-fluid, community-accepted matrix of literacies [that] could be flexible enough to be adaptable to various current contexts as well as having the ability to be updated as necessary in future.” (Belshaw 2012:199).


According to Belshaw’s definition and matrix, digital literacies are plural, context-dependent and need to be socially negotiated (Belshaw 2012:218). So altogether, what it means to be literate has changed:

“Recently, with the dawn of first mass media, and then mass participation with the rise of the internet, conceptions of literacy have had to change. This has put a strain on the static, psychological conceptions of implicit in Traditional Literacy. As a result, what ‘literacy’ means (and therefore what it means to be ‘literate’) has changed. As Lanham puts it, literacy ‘has extended its semantic reach from meaning ‘the ability to read and write’ to now meaning ‘the ability to understand information however presented’.” (Belshaw 2012:175)

Hague and Payton and Belshaw adopt sociocultural, sociosemiotic, collaborative and communities of practice perspectives on digital literacy in their understanding of the model and the matrix. There are elements of community, social practices and cultural understanding involved in their narrowing down what digital literacy/literacies are, and both parties see digital literacy in relation to participation and thus participatory culture. And this leads to the introduction of a third approach to digital literacy: reading in a participatory culture.


Participatory culture is a term that is associated with Henry Jenkins and together with New Media Literacies he evolves their understanding of participatory culture and reading in “Reading in a Participatory Culture. Remixing Moby-Dick in the English Classroom”(2013). Here they define a participatory culture as having:

  1. Relatively low barriers to artistic expressions and civic engagement;
  2. Strong support for creating and sharing creations with others;
  3. Some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices;
  4. Members who believe that their contributions matter; and
  5. Members who feel some degree of social connection with one another (they care what other people think about what they have created). (Clinton, Jenkins and McWilliams 2013:8)(Jenkins et al. 2009:5-6)

In their book Henry Jenkins, Wyn Kelley, Katie Clinton, Jenna McWilliams, Ricardo Pitts-Wiley, Erin Reilly and the other writers introduce their view on the importance of participation culture in relation to reading with this statement:

 “Over the past several decades, our culture has undergone a period of profound and prolonged media change, not simply a shift in the technical infrastructure of communication but shifts in the cultural logics and social practices that shape the ways we interact.” (Clinton, Jenkins and McWilliams 2013:7)

These shifts make it necessary to reimagine what literacy is. In the report “Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture. Media Education for the 21st Century”, Jenkins and New Media Literacies constituted the understanding of literacy, they go on developing in “Reading in a Participatory Culture. Remixing Moby-Dick in the English Classroom”, and in the report they define their concept of reading like this:

“Participatory culture shifts the forms of literacy from one of individual expression to community involvement. The new literacies almost all involve social skills developed through collaboration and networking.” (Jenkins et al. 2009:4).

The social skills required for participatory culture are according to Jenkins and New Media Literacies these, and several of them supplement Hague and Payton’s model of digital literacy and Belshaw’s matrix of digital literacies:

Play – the capacity to experiment with one’s surroundings as a form of problem-solving

Performance – the ability to adopt alternative identities for the purpose of improvisation and discovery

Simulation – the ability to interpret and construct dynamic models of real-world processes

Appropriation – the ability to meaningfully sample and remix media content

Multitasking – the ability to scan one’s environment and shift focus as needed to salient details

Distributed Cognition – the ability to interact meaningfully with tools that expand mental capacities

Collective Intelligence – the ability to pool knowledge and compare notes with others toward a common pool

Judgment – the ability to evaluate the reliability and credibility of different information sources

Transmedia Navigation – the ability to follow the flow of stories and information across multiple modalities

Networking – the ability to search for, synthesize, and disseminate information

Negotiation – the ability to travel across diverse communities, discerning and respecting multiple perspectives, and grasping and following alternative norms. (Jenkins et al. 2009:4)

Appropriation is a core social practice in participatory culture to Jenkins and New Media Literacies, and when Belshaw manifests that remixing and mashup are right at the heart of digital literacies, Belshaw links up with participatory culture. Participation culture is about “opportunities to participate and to develop the cultural competencies and social skills that are needed for full involvement.”(Jenkins et al. 2009:4).

With three apparently different approaches to digital literacy/digital literacies, Hague and Payton, Belshaw and Jenkins and New Media Literacies turn out to have common grounds in sociocultural, sociosemiotic, collaborative and communities of practice perspectives, all of which point at social practices and cultural resources as essential to digital literacies: they must support the creation and sharing of meaning. And so, these perspectives point to what needs to be at stake when digital literacies are taught in schools and higher education:

“This means that an understanding of digital literacy should not begin with technology or digital tools. Understanding cultural and social issues, critical thinking and being creative all make up part of a broad set of practices that students need to wrap around their use of any tool and need to develop in order to participate effectively in any kind of culture.”(Hague and Payton 2010:20)

But at the moment the opposite often seems to be the case in schools and education when digital literacies are presented and involved in teaching and learning: the tools and basic skills tend to have priority to the understanding of the what, when and why of digital literacies. So what can be done? Hague and Payton are stating a starting point for schools:

“An approach to digital literacy needs to start with the knowledge, understanding, skills and learning that teachers already aspire to foster in young people. It is then possible to consider how digital technologies might provide another, sometimes different context for this learning and a way to enhance and support it….In school settings, developing digital literacy means giving students the opportunity to use digital technologies when it is appropriate and useful, and it means encouraging the sorts of active, creative and critical uses of digital technologies which can develop digital literacy whilst at the same time helping students to further their subject knowledge.” (Hague and Payton 2010:20-21).

And Jenkins, Wyn Kelley and New Media Literacies follow up this starting point by adding a more complex understanding of reading to the one in the report presented above. Here they stress that traditional reading is not to be deleted by digital literacies, but that they will point to new ways of reading, writing and understanding information however presented:

“The history of media change throughout the 20th century suggests that one medium does not displace another, but rather, each adds a new cultural layer, supporting more diverse ways of communicating, thinking, feeling, and creating than existed before. But each new medium also disrupts old patterns, requiring us collectively and individually to actively work through what roles different forms of media are going to play in our lives.” (Clinton, Jenkins and McWilliams 2013:11)

Schools have to teach these new diverse ways. Henry Jenkins, Wyn Kelley and New Media Literacies show how. In their book “Reading in a Participatory Culture. Remixing Moby-Dick in the English Classroom”, they cross the divide between digital literacies and traditional print culture and present their ideas on how to work with a canonic novel and literary history in the context of a participatory culture. They take off in known subject knowledge in the middle and high school English classroom as Hague and Payton recommend, and then add up with a broad set of practices and new cultural layers and understandings to develop a new curriculum and an alternative subject didactics. But more about this project in my next blogpost.

Further reading:

Belshaw, Douglas, AJ (2012) What is ‘digital literacy’? A Pragmatic investigation. Doctoral thesis, Durham University.

Belshaw, Douglas, AJ (2012) The essential elements of digital literacies: Doug Belshaw at TEDxWarwick.

Clinton, Katie, Henry Jenkins and Jenna McWilliams: New Literacies in an Age of Participatory Culture In: Jenkins, Henry and Wyn Kelley (eds.)(2013): Reading in a Participatory Culture. Remixing Moby-Dick in the English Classroom, Teachers College Press and National Writing Project

Hague, Cassie and Sarah Payton (2010): Digital literacy across the curriculum, Futurlab

Jenkins, Henry et al. (2009): Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century, MacArthur, The MIT Press

Jenkins, Henry and Wyn Kelley (eds.)(2013): Reading in a Participatory Culture. Remixing Moby-Dick in the English Classroom, Teachers College Press and National Writing Project

 Elna Mortensen

Digital literacy or digital literacies?

3 thoughts on “Digital literacy or digital literacies?

  1. Ebba Ossiannilsson says:

    Very nice Elna, you ahve writtena again a very nice overview, but what is your own reflections about this and how will it involve you in your dayily life with your students?


  2. I follow up the overview here in my next blogposts with examples of how to integrate digital literacies in working with canonical literature and participatory culture and in working with collaborative learning to enhance learner empowerment and foster rhizonomy.


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