Digital Literacy Has 8 Essential Elements

WARNING: Lavish use of parentheses follow. 🙂

As might be expected most digital literacy models have a school (such as New Zealand’s Netsafe’s digital citizenship model) or higher education bias (where JISC’s seven digital literacies is arguably the gold standard).

I however prefer Doug Belshaw’s digital literacy model (shown above) because it separates digital literacy (Belshaw calls them digital literacies, but I prefer to use digital literacy as an umbrella term) into components that are meaningful for everyone, including librarians.

Belshaw’s model provides a holistic approach to digital literacy where knowing how to use tech is just one of the 8 elements (cognitive). The model is broad enough that the elements can be applied to any library situation and role. It is also descriptive rather than prescriptive making it a suitable learning framework for improving the digital literacy fluency of both digital novices and confident digital learners (thanks for suggesting these terms Beth and Lisa!).

Belshaw Elements

I’ve included a super brief description of each element, along with a few examples, below.

Cultural: how to behave

Understanding the culture (history, language, customs and values etc) of the internet and digital environments by:

  • Knowing how to behave online; from netiquette to protection and privacy.
  • Recognising the difference between personal and professional use.
  • Understanding how internet culture is expressed and transmitted through phenomena such as memes, emojis and animated gifs.
  • Being able to seamlessly adjust to the different social environments of various applications.
  • Understanding how online environments have changed the meaning of words such as expertise, publishing and sharing.

Cognitive: how to do

The Cognitive element incorporates what we know of as computer literacy or IT skills with an understanding of the key concepts.

  • Having the ability to use a range of devices, software platforms and interfaces.
  • Recognising common features across digital tools such as navigation menus, settings, and profiles.
  • Understanding concepts such as tagging, hashtags, and sharing.

Constructive: how to use

The Constructive element involves knowing what it means to ‘construct’ something in a digital environment; how content can be appropriated, reused and remixed.

  • Knowing how to responsibly use and build upon someone else’s work.
  • Respecting copyright and understanding the concepts of remix and reuse.
  • Being familiar with the various Creative Commons’ licences.

Communicative: how to communicate

The Communicative element is about as the name suggests, how to communicate in digital environments. For example:

  • Knowing the purpose of various online tools and how they are different or similar to each other.
  • Being familiar with the communication norms and expectations of various online tools.
  • Understanding what identity, sharing, influence and trust mean in digital spaces.

Confident: how to belong

In order participate confidently online we need to feel as if we belong. This involves:

  • Understanding and capitalising upon the ways in which the online world differs from the offline world.
  • Reflecting on one’s learning in digital spaces.
  • Being part of an online community.

Creative: how to make

The Creative element refers to creating new things which add value where the focus is more on the value created than the act of creating something new. For example:

  • Learning how to do things in new ways using online tools and environments.
  • Imaginatively and critically thinking about how we create and share knowledge using digital technologies.
  • Knowing how to curate digital content to create value for readers.

Critical: how to evaluate

The Critical element is probably the element that is most familiar to those of us working in the library and information profession as it most closely relates to both information literacy and the research process.

  • Using reasoning skills to question, analyse, scrutinise and evaluate digital content, tools and applications.
  • Knowing how to search effectively.
  • Being able to distinguish credible sources from less credible ones.

Civic: how to participate

The Civic element refers to individuals having the knowledge and ability to use digital environments to self-organise; to be part of a movement bigger than themselves. For example:

  • Understanding one’s digital rights and responsibilities.
  • Participating in social movements or the democratic process online.
  • Preparing both ourselves and others to participate fully in society.

In the image below you’ll see I’ve added a bit more context by summarising each element in 3 words.

Belshaws Elements 3 words

In the next blog post I’ll attempt to match these elements to a core library competency.


Belshaw, D. (2014).The Essential elements of digital literacies. Retrieved from


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