6 top experts expose digital literacy mistakes and how to overcome them

Digital literacy is one of the most valued skillsets for living and working in today’s world.

But because the impact and use of technology is changing our lives so rapidly it can be difficult for anyone to know what aspects of digital literacy to focus on. And what to avoid.

ANY kind of digital literacy learning seems to be a never-ending workout for your brain. It also tends to be time-consuming. And mightily frustrating – software updates rank high on my ‘mightily frustrating list’.

But does it really have to be so…complicated?

Are we making a mistake when we focus on teaching and learning ‘the tools’ and not on the fundamental building blocks of being a healthy and happy citizen?

To find out if there could be another way to tackle digital literacy I reached out to 6 digital literacy experts and asked each of them four questions chosen from a list I drafted (based on the 4-hour chef) below:

  1. What are the biggest myths you see about becoming digitally literate?
  2. What are the biggest mistakes novices make when becoming digitally literate?
  3. What mistakes are common at a pro level?
  4. Can you learn the building blocks of digital literacy without access to the web? Where would you start? What would be the biggest misuse of time?
  5. If you had four weeks to teach a beginner (adult professional) how to become digitally literate what would your teaching look like? What if you had 8 weeks?
  6. What are your favourite instructional books or resources on digital literacies? If people were to teach themselves what would you suggest they use?

I got some very fascinating insights to these questions. However, I found that when I tried to interpret these insights I lost each individual expert’s ‘voice’.

So although I’ve edited as much as I can, this is an EPIC post and will involve a decent amount of scrolling.

You can either skip to your favourite expert using the quick links below or grab a drink, get comfortable and let the scrolling begin.

  Maha Bali

“I would not recommend learning about [digital literacy] from any book or to teach oneself.”

Read more about digital literacy from Maha.

 Doug Belshaw Dr Doug Belshaw

“As with the stock market, past performance isn’t a reliable guide to future success, so just because something looks ‘stupid’, ‘unimportant’, or otherwise outside my/your/our frame of reference doesn’t mean that it’s not worth investigating.”

Read more about digital literacy from Doug.

 Jo Coldwell-Neilson Jo Coldwell-Neilson

“Other myths (this one usually held by library staff) is that information literacy is digital literacy (rather than DL encompassing IL).”

Read more about digital literacy from Jo.

 Helen Beetham Helen Beetham

“Teaching digitally requires ingenuity and responsiveness rather than rigid instructional pathways.”

Read more about digital literacy from Helen.

 Iain Maclaren Dr Iain MacLaren

“The focus seems often to be on ‘competence’ and an identified set of specific skills, rather than recognising the importance of ‘confidence’.”

Read more about digital literacy from Iain.

 Michael Stephens Dr Michael Stephens

“How can people navigate a continually plugged in, all-access world? I think of these skills as life literacies or simply how we make sense of the world.”

Read more about digital literacy from Michael.

Maha Bali

Maha Bali Maha Bali

Assoc Prof prac @CLTAUC.
Part of @HybridPed @vconnecting @DigPedLab @ProfHacker @dmlresearchhub Was #PhDmum @SheffieldUni. Writaholic/Learnaholic

blog.mahabali.me
@Bali_Maha 

What are the biggest myths you see about becoming digitally literate?

MYTH: People tend to conflate digital competence (technical skill) with literacy.

REALITY: I feel literacy is about the critical reflection on why we use something, rather than just knowing how to use it “properly”.

Can you learn the building blocks of digital literacy without access to the web?

Someone once told me they were taught about privacy and digital footprint before they were able themselves to get on social media and it was like getting a driving license without ever having ridden in a car.

I think you can teach some of the rules of thinking about digital without web access, but you can’t really ensure someone understands them and can apply them until they have web access and actually do the stuff.

Where would you start?

I would start with where people are. So that’s not one specific spot that would work for everyone. In the Egyptian context, social media has been used for citizenship in revolutions and protests, but we also know it is widely surveilled in ways most people in the US wouldn’t have to worry about.

If my students are all on Facebook then we need to discuss the literacies relevant to using Facebook. If my students are all journalists who will be blogging, we need to discuss the ethics and literacies of that.

I don’t know that there’s really any one particular starting point or approach, and lots of what you learn about with one tool or literacy or action can transfer to others… So it is probably cyclical.

What would be the biggest misuse of time?

Here’s what I would consider a waste of time: Teaching about digital literacies and citizenship as mainly a matter of guarding privacy.

People need to understand those things for sure, but they also need to know how the web can potentially empower them. And often, those most vulnerable also have the most potential to use the web for empowerment.

And that’s why we need to foster literacies so folks can continuously make these decisions with eyes wide open.

What are your favourite instructional books or resources on digital literacies?

I don’t believe you can teach something like digital literacies in isolation. (Tweet this)

I would not recommend learning about it from any book or to teach oneself. I think you need to apply it in a context with other people.

It’s not like information literacy where you can learn to assess the credibility of an article without interacting with anyone. With digital literacies, some part of it is social and you would have to actually practice it to truly understand it.

No matter what someone tells you about Twitter and its potential and pitfalls, you won’t imagine it unless you’re using it or at least observing it for a long time.

If people were to teach themselves what would you suggest they use?

One of my favorite pieces of writing on digital literacies is Doug Belshaw’s thesis and its derivatives because it shows the complexity of digital literacies, that they’re not just one thing. The JISC Digital capabilities framework is also useful and breaks things down differently also.

Maha later blogged about whether digital literacies are generic or context-specific.

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Dr Doug Belshaw

Dr Doug Belshaw

Open Educational Thinkerer.  @WeAreOpenCoop co-founder. #digilit #openbadges

dougbelshaw.com
@dajbelshaw

What are the biggest myths you see about becoming digitally literate?

MYTH: Digital literacy is test-able.

REALITY: The three things I stress time and time again in my keynotes, writing, and workshops on this subject are:

  • Digital literacies are plural
  • Digital literacies are context-dependent
  • Digital literacies are socially-negotiated

As such, there is no stance from which you could call someone ‘digitally literate’, because (as Allan Martin has pointed out), it is a condition, not a threshold. There is no test you could devise to say whether someone was ‘digitally literate’, except maybe at a very particular snapshot in time, for a very defined purpose, in a certain context.

MYTH: I think the main mistake that we make is to equate surface-level, procedural skills with depth of thought and understanding. I’m certain this is where the myth of the ‘digital native’ came from.

REALITY: Use does not automatically lead to expertise and understanding. (Tweet this)

What mistakes are common at a pro level?

By ‘pro level’, I’m assuming that this means someone who is seen as having the requisite digital knowledge, skills, and behaviours to thrive in their given field. As such, and because this is so context-dependent, it’s difficult to generalise.

Nevertheless, what I observe in myself and others is an assumption that I/we/they have somehow ‘made it’ in terms of digital literacies. It’s an ongoing process of development, not something whereby you can sit back and rest on your laurels. I’m constantly surprised by digital practices and the effects that technologies have on society.

As with the stock market, past performance isn’t a reliable guide to future success, so just because something looks ‘stupid’, ‘unimportant’, or otherwise outside my/your/our frame of reference doesn’t mean that it’s not worth investigating.

I’d also comment on how important play is to the development of digital literacies. Learning something because you have to, or because someone has set you a target, is different from doing so of your own accord.

Self-directed learning is messy and, from the point of view of an instructor, ‘inefficient’. However, to my mind, it’s the most effective type of learning there is.

In general, there should be more remixing and experimentation in life, and less deference and conformity.

Can you learn the building blocks of digital literacy without access to the web?

It’s almost unthinkable to have a digital device that isn’t networked and connected to other devices. As such, I would say that this is a necessary part of digital literacies.

Connecting to other people using devices is just the way the world works these days, and to claim to be digitally up-to-date without these digital knowledge/skills/behaviours, would seem out of touch.

Where would you start?

As with almost any arena of development, improving takes deliberate practice – something I’ve written about elsewhere.

You have to immerse yourself in the thing you want to get better at, whether that’s improving your piano playing, sinking 3-pointers in basketball, or learning how to tweet effectively.

What would be the biggest misuse of time?

Learning things that used to be important but which are now anachronisms. Some teachers/mentors/instructors seem to think that those learning digital literacies require a long, boring history lesson on how things used to be.

While this may be of some value, there’s enough to learn about the ways things are now – the power structures, the different forms of discourse, important nuances. And I say this as a former History teacher.

What are your favourite instructional books or resources on digital literacies?

If people were to teach themselves what would you suggest they use?

I’d recommend the following for a general audience:

  • Net Smart: how to thrive online (Howard Rheingold)
  • There’s plenty of books for those looking to develop digital literacies in an academic context. I’d look out for anything by Colin Lankshear and/or Michele Knobel. I’ve written a book called The Essential Elements of Digital Literacies which people seem to have found useful.
  • Reading about digital literacies is a bit like dancing about architecture, however. There’s no substitute for keeping up-to-date by following people who are making sense of the latest developments. For that, the following is an short, incomplete, and partial list:

I’ve linked to the Twitter accounts of the above individuals, as I find that particular medium extremely good for encouraging the kind of global, immersive, networked digital literacies that I think are important. However, I may be wrong and out of touch, as Snapchat confuses me.

Finally, because of the context-dependency of digital literacies, it’s important to note that discourse in this arena differs depending on which geographical area you’re talking about.

In my experience, and I touched up on this in my thesis, what ‘counts’ as digital literacies depends on whether you’re situated in Manchester, Mumbai, or Melbourne.

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Jo Coldwell-Neilson

Jo Coldwell-Neilson Jo Coldwell-Neilson
Associate Professor, School of Information Technology, Deakin University, Australia.

What are the biggest myths you see about becoming digitally literate?

MYTH: Digital users are digitally literate (I think this one is accepted pretty widely now).

MYTH: Digital literacy is “being able to use technology” (a wide-held belief by IT academics and probably others too).

MYTH:  This one is usually held by library staff – that information literacy is digital literacy (rather than DL encompassing IL).

REALITY: Digital literacy has to be learned “in context” including (but not limited to) discipline, work environment, and specific needs.

Can you learn the building blocks of digital literacy without access to the web?

Yes, I believe you can learn some of the building blocks of DL – but much would be “in theory”.

Building an understanding of the actions, responsibilities, and consequences of digital interactions is a huge part of digital literacy in this day and age.

Where would you start?

It depends on context.

If I’m teaching my grandmother how to stay connected with her grandkids overseas I would start with specific tools (since the need already exists).

If I am teaching a higher education student then I would focus on what they already know and what they need to know to negotiate educational technologies.

More generally, I might focus on creativity to start, familiarisation with different tools, building and understanding that skills are transferable, building good identity and wellness habits when using ICT.

All of this can start off-line and build into online skills, capabilities and understandings.

What are your favourite instructional books or resources on digital literacies?

My favourite resources … other people, Dr. Google …

If people were to teach themselves what would you suggest they use?

As for teaching themselves, I’m not sure that is possible without having a well-structured framework to guide their learning.

The biggest hurdle to being digitally literate is not being able to recognise when you don’t know something. I think this is the biggest shortcoming of current digital users. (Tweet this)

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Helen Beetham

Helen Beetham
Digital literacy, digital wellbeing, higher education, poetry, hill running, ideas mainly from the left of field. Devon, UK.

What are the biggest myths you see about becoming digitally literate?

MYTH: There is a discrete thing called ‘digital literacy’. Digital literacy can be clearly defined and assessed and is the same for everyone.

REALITY: ‘Literacy’ in a literate culture is both a foundational set of practices (forming letters, using a pen, reading a bound book) and a lifelong, lifewide process of accumulation, assimilation, personalisation and repertoire-building. How we are literate is an important aspect of our personal identity.

In a digital culture, similarly, ‘digital literacy’ starts with the foundational skills that give everyone access to digital technology and networks, but must build on these to mean something much more specialised, personal, qualified, and nuanced.

MYTH: People who don’t buy myth no. 1 often then fall into the trap of myth no. 2 – there is no useful way we can distinguish uniquely digital practices and attributes, so we might as well simply talk about human development, or capability, or deep learning, or critical thinking etc.

REALITY: In fact I think this myth will eventually become true, but for the time being it is still – just – possible to use the tools of existing academic and professional culture to understand how digital knowledge practices are different, and with what effects.

If you had four weeks to teach a beginner (adult professional) how to become digitally literate what would your teaching look like? What if you had 8 weeks?

Regardless of the timescale my teaching would involve situated practice, that is meaningful, authentic activities in the context of the adult professional’s existing lifeworld (both work and personal). Negotiating tasks and giving feedback/support on them in the context of the learner’s genuine needs and what digital tools and spaces can genuinely offer.

It would also involve a critical element i.e. requiring not only the exercise of judgement over the digital tools, resources etc offered for use, but exploring and questioning the ways in which digital means are themselves designed, produced, sold, consumed, marketed and demand attention.

What are your favourite instructional books or resources on digital literacies? If people were to teach themselves what would you suggest they use?

I prefer to use examples from practice e.g. followthethings.com (from a human geography course), phonar nation photography course, the ‘BYOD4L’ MOOC and associated resources, all of which require engagement with aspects of digital culture while questioning that culture’s assumptions.

Subject-specialist resources and activities are always preferable to generic ones anyway. Teaching digitally requires ingenuity and responsiveness rather than rigid instructional pathways. (Tweet this)

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Dr Iain Maclaren

Dr Iain Maclaren
Project Lead, All Aboard Digital Skills in Higher Education
Scot in Ireland astrophysicist/educator/bluffer

What are the biggest myths you see about becoming digitally literate?

MYTH: That the focus seems often to be on ‘competence’ and an identified set of specific skills, rather than recognising the importance of ‘confidence’. (Tweet this)

REALITY: I spent many years working as a volunteer adult literacy and numeracy tutor and that experience was pivotal in shaping my views of education – whatever the domain. So much of what was required then was not actually about learning to read so much as learning to overcome the blockages to reading.

Fear of failure, risk-aversion, low self-confidence – all create barriers, and a large percentage of my role as tutor was actually more about breaking through these, about helping people realise that with encouragement and with a little courage we can learn anything.

I suspect the same is true about digital literacy and we hear similar comments from people such as ‘that’s for the young folk’, ‘I was never any good at that stuff’, etc. So I suppose what I’m saying is that it’s like learning anything else – it needs experimentation, practice, and a bit of enjoyment and encouragement.

If you had four weeks to teach a beginner (adult professional) how to become digitally literate what would your teaching look like? What if you had 8 weeks?

I’d try to make it seem informal, seem like fun, and recognise incremental achievements. In part that’s what we hope is the attraction/value of the All Aboard Metro Map, thinking about visiting different places, getting ‘travelcards’, exploring further, etc. I’d also focus on technologies that let people express themselves, rather than say, jump into working through standard packages etc.

For the longer period, I’d think about producing some artefact or resource that uses a range of skills and tools, so there’s a real sense of achievement at the end and an ability to work across media.

What are your favourite instructional books or resources on digital literacies? If people were to teach themselves what would you suggest they use?

Well, although it’s a project that is still developing only its first batch of materials, I’d like to think that All Aboard is useful to anyone – regardless of whether or not they are in higher education.

We hope that as time progresses we will be able to cover as many of the ‘stations’ on each line as possible, either through our own materials or by re-use or linkages to other resources.

I’d also encourage learners to explore youtube, after all that’s what many of us turn to if we need to fix a leaking tap, repair a bicycle, or whatever!!

Or, to take some of the short MOOCs on Futurelearn.com – a number of which are about digital skills development.

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Dr Michael Stephens

Dr Michael Stephens
LIS educator, writer, speaker, dreamer. With understanding comes empathy.

What are the biggest mistakes novices make when becoming digitally literate?

MYTH: Technology is some future we have the option of ignoring.

REALITY: It is the present. It’s the world in which we live. There will always be people who need to be directed to housing resources, but those are not the majority of our users. Pew’s 2015 “Libraries at the Crossroads” study found that a majority of individuals believe that library services should include learning opportunities related to computers, smartphones, 3-D printers, and apps as well as the more general “help people upgrade their skills.”

MYTH: Digital literacy is a separate thing.

REALITY: We spend a lot of time talking about various forms of literacy. Various approaches have risen up and faded—transliteracy, metaliteracy, etc.—but the idea remains: How can people navigate a continually plugged in, all-access world? I think of these skills as life literacies or simply how we make sense of the world.

We should drop the “digital” and call them life literacies. I would argue that we should start in early education with life literacies (basic computing, citizenship in virtual spaces, comprehension of what it means to “copy and paste,” etc) and keep expanding those skill sets through to higher education and beyond.

I would argue that life literacies should also be framed with an emphasis on social interaction, sharing, and empathy – with or without technology tools. (Tweet this)

This provides the foundation for good citizenship – digital and otherwise! Encouraging curiosity and sense of play is important as well in everything we do.

What mistakes are common at a pro level?

I will assume this means a long term user of various technological tools as part of their everyday information use.

One issue would be failure to recognize that mistakes are part of the learning process. I would also add failure to encourage others appropriately who may not be as far along with their skills – which feels like a softer skill than what we are discussing here.

Failure to see the big picture here is probably the most serious mistake. A pro may move easily between tools and platforms, sharing, completing tasks, etc but have a lack of understanding of how the pieces all fit together.

In my research with students using a multi-user blogging platform, I found that most students respond positively to an environment that is customizable and allows an expression of individuality. Students also reported feeling satisfied and encouraged by learning WordPress itself. The experience of reflective blogging also offered a chance to learn hands on. This sort of activity provides multi-faceted benefits: WP skills, skills participating within a social community, and transferable skills to other platforms.

Can you learn the building blocks of digital literacy without access to the web? Where would you start? What would be the biggest misuse of time?

Technology use for almost everyone is an expectation of life: jobs, learning, etc. If a locale does not have a readily accessible connection, it might be better to work on that issue instead of devising some type of digital technology simulator.

This biggest misuse of time occurs when we think tech is an add on or an “extra” and not a mandate for learning and growth.

What are your favourite instructional books or resources on digital literacies? If people were to teach themselves what would you suggest they use?

I follow the Horizon Report in its various incarnations closely, Pew studies, and other research-based sources.

For those who want to self-learn, I would suggest starting with a friend or family member as a guide. It would be nice to have a 23 Things for “Life Literacies!”

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