Literacy impacted political, economic, social, and cultural life from the first moment that humans developed writing. Today, in the second decade of the twenty-first century and with a dizzying array of new technologies appearing with alarming frequency, it remains equally if not more important. But are there new challenges to be added to the old? Does the digital world generate entirely new problems and necessitate new fixes?

Digital Divide

As the Internet emerged as a major communications medium in the mid-1990s, individuals became increasingly concerned about access. The term digital divide emerged as a shorthand for both the economic and geographic barriers to Internet availability. Less wealthy households were unable to afford personal computers, and both rural and inner city communities lacked the infrastructure to support broadband Internet. While rural broadband penetration issues continue to pose a challenge for the U.S., much of the focus on the digital divide has shifted to new areas.

The emergence of social media tools and the widespread availability of smartphones have led researchers, activists, and marketers to consider how different groups use these items. For example, the infographic below captures findings from a Pew Research Center report on demographic differences in social media tool use.

If the traditional idea of a digital divide in the United States and Europe has partially shifted from Internet access to use of Web 2.0 and mobile technologies, the global digital divide remains a significant concern. At his address to the Internet Governance Forum in November 2012, UN Undersecretary General for Economic and Social Affairs Wu Hongbo noted that only 2.3 billion of the world’s 7 billion inhabitants are not connected to the Internet.

French graphic designer and blogger Sébastien Desbenoit captures the importance of this enduring split in an infographic.

In an increasingly globalized economy where education, fact-sharing and commerce occur online, individuals without Internet connectivity are left out.

Information Literacy

The information-literate are able to locate, evaluate, and use relevant information to make decisions. This sense of information literacy is not new. Libraries, book publishers, and newspapers have historically formed a class of information-literate professionals who performed important gatekeeping roles by checking facts, evaluating sources, and determining which information merited publication or inclusion in a catalog. While these roles still exist—and are perhaps more important than ever—the digital age has opened the flood gates of information access.

The explosive growth of the Internet, where anybody can publish anything, has dramatically raised the importance of information literacy. With Internet users able to view millions of webpages on virtually any topic, it is essential that individuals be able to evaluate the credibility of sources, to consider the accuracy of what they discover online, and to recognize unsupported claims and biases. And with many of these same users contributing webpages to the Internet, it is just as essential that they understand how to use information ethically, how to support claims appropriately, and how to present findings effectively.

Information Literacy Challenges

The following video by Project Information Literacy (PIL), a public nonprofit organization working together with the University of Washington’s Information School, captures the information-literacy challenges college students confront in the context of research paper assignments. As you watch the video, pay attention to the generational differences, the role of libraries in twenty-first-century research, and concerns about the sheer quantity of readily available information.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the American Library Association (ALA) has taken a lead in developing the contours of information literacy in a digital age. The ALA has defined information literacy as the ability to “recognize when information is needed and . . . to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information” and has developed six indicators of information literacy.

An information-literate individual is able to:

  • Determine the extent of information needed
  • Locate and utilize the needed data effectively and efficiently
  • Evaluate information and its sources critically
  • Incorporate selected information into one’s knowledge base
  • Use information effectively to accomplish a specific purpose
  • Understand the economic, legal, and social issues surrounding the use of information, and access and utilize information ethically and legally

Take stock of your own level of information literacy by reflecting on a recent situation that required you to find, evaluate, and use information for a specific purpose. Which parts of the process were easiest for you? Which parts were most challenging?

In what ways does PIL’s information literacy video (above) capture some of your own experiences with research?

Reading and Writing

Reading

Reading and writing continue to be concerns in the digital age. Many worry that the increasing use of the Internet, video games, and mobile phones erodes reading habits and weakens writing abilities. For example, in both 2004 and 2007 the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) published reports documenting dramatic declines in time spent reading books and found a rise in the use of electronic devices while reading.

Rather than document a wholesale collapse in literacy, however, reports like the NEA’s capture shifts in reading and writing venues, habits, and styles that we are just beginning to understand. The NEA’s own work on reading illustrates this complexity. In 2008, just one year after issuing its definitive report on the precipitous drop in teen and young adult reading habits, the NEA published “Reading on the Rise,” a report that documents “a significant turning point in recent American cultural history.” Did the country truly turn the corner on reading between 2004 and 2008?

Did you notice the shift in language between these two documents?

Writing

Writing is similarly complex, with the shift from typewriters to word processors affecting drafting and proofreading and the rise of email and text messaging influencing both the formality of written communication, punctuation, and even spelling. Here, too, the evidence is complex. While there is considerable concern that text messaging is contributing to a decline in the quality of writing, academic studies of the relationship between text-message speak and elements of writing find little clear evidence of a negative association.

In June 2013, as part of the Pew Internet and American Life Project, the Pew Research Center published a study of the use of digital writing tools in high schools. Based on a survey of Advanced Placement and National Writing Project teachers, the report captures a good deal of the complexity in literacy today.

  • Ninety-six percent of teachers agree that digital tools “allow students to share their work with a wider and more varied audience”
  • Seventy-nine percent agree that digital tools “encourage greater collaboration among students”
  • Seventy-eight percent agree that digital tools “encourage student creativity and personal expression”
  • Sixty-eight percent claim that students using digital tools are more likely to take shortcuts in their writing
  • Forty-six percent report that students using digital tools are more likely to “write too fast and be careless”
  • While 40 percent of teachers report that students using digital tools are more likely to “use poor spelling and grammar,” 38 percent say they are less likely to do so

The Social Web

An important facet of twenty-first-century literacy is the shift in the ways that individuals interact with Internet content, and with digital media more generally. Where the Internet of the mid-1990s was dense thicket of unorganized, uncatalogued, and mostly unsearchable webpages, what Marshall Poe has called “the problem of Web chaos,” the Internet of today is both less messy and more highly interactive. The emergence of this interactive or social web is captured by the term Web 2.0, a reference to software makers’ use of numbers to differentiate versions.

Key elements of this move to Web 2.0, including RSS and tags, the collaborative writing spaces of wikis and Google Docs, and the development of social networks, have made it possible to quickly share content. Blogs are quite possibly the digital equivalent to the Gutenberg press. RSS is commonly understood to mean “really simple syndication,” making it equivalent to a news subscription service that uses the Internet to deliver content directly to interested readers. Digital literacy today includes an understanding of and ability to use these Web 2.0 tools.

The Machine is Us/ing Us

Michael Wesch, a cultural anthropologist at Kansas State University, captures much of the shift from print text, through Web 1.0, and into the social web in “The Machine is Us/ing Us.” As you watch the video, pay attention to the role of tags and RSS in organizing information. Test your own digital literacy by your understanding of Wesch’s description of the evolution of text and the Web.

The simplification of user interfaces and the tools for digital media production opens new avenues for making and creating. This development, it appears, is opening new avenues for digital communication and creating opportunities for individuals’ relationships with the digital media to move beyond consumption to include production.

Essential Elements of Digital Literacies

Doug Belshaw, in his TEDx talk “The Essential Elements of Digital Literacies,” explores several important facets of digital literacy. Belshaw explains this shift from consumer to maker, locates it within the context of twenty-first-century literacy, and illustrates it with such well-known contemporary examples as the Success Kid meme. He argues that digital literacy is plural and progressive, and he believes the remix is the key to unlocking the development of digital literacies.

After watching Belshaw’s talk, consider your own relationship to Internet content and post a comment. You might use one of the questions or suggestions below to help guide you.

  • Have you ever remixed an image?
  • How might a remix like Success Kid draw on skills considered to be at the core of traditional reading and writing? Do traditional literacies translate to digital literacies?
  • Belshaw claims to have identified “eight essential elements” of digital literacies: cognitive, constructive, communicative, civic, critical, creative, confident, and cultural. Using these elements as a framework, consider your own level of digital literacy.
  • You may have noticed that Belshaw leaves an important “C” off his list: consumption. Why might this omission be important?
  • Remix Belshaw’s presentation, publish it to YouTube or Vimeo, and share the link as a comment.