Digital literacies vs digital languages

The first topic on #ONL191 covers online participation and digital literacies.  One of the pieces of suggested reading presents a model by White and Le Cornu, developed in 2011, to categorise users as Visitors or Residents of the digital world.  I liked this description, and think that it has a lot of applicability.  The two roles are also presented without judgement.  A post by one of my colleagues on the course, Sara Ihlman, provides some more background to this description and where it developed from.

One of the drivers for White and Le Cornu to propose this new description was the broader switch from comparing digital skills to language learning (Prensky’s native/immigrant approach), to instead talking about digital literacy, and indeed literacies in the plural.  I find that I don’t have a good grasp on this distinction, and so that is what I will discuss now.

On its own, literacy usually has two meanings, the first being the ability to read and write, and the second referring to competence or knowledge in a particular area.  Language is a communcation system, and it is common to refer to computer programming languages, for example.

One of the first times I came across the term ‘computer literacy’ (which I assumed to be a precursor of the phrase ‘digital literacy’) was in the acronym CLAIT (Computer Literacy and Information Technology).  This was the name for a series of courses in the UK covering basic computing skills such as how to use word processors and spreadsheets.  The computer literacy covered in the initial courses was simply the ability to use these tools in standard ways, for example, writing a letter in a word processor.  The approach promoted the tool over understanding, as you don’t have to know how to program a spreadsheet to be able to use it.  At some point, this approach hits limits, as understanding the kind of things that computers can do can increase dramatically the types of things you can envisage doing with spreadsheets (including building flight simulators!).

A first flight simulator in Excel, by George Lungu (

A first flight simulator in Excel, by George Lungu (

In White and Le Cornu’s paper, they provide a short summary of how digital literacy has been defined and used, which I quote here (without the references included in the original):

  • Mastering ideas, not keystrokes

  • Conceptual definitions as distinct from standardized operational definitions

  • Individuals’ ability to participate in a multimodal culture

This sounds like the primacy of understanding over implementation.  Or perhaps I could rephrase this as the lowering in importance (indeed relevance, in this description) of technical competence, and an increase in the importance of competence in media studies.  These definitions are a long way from the literacy of CLAIT, and its modern replacements. The ability to use digital tools is assumed and is not considered a part of the definition.

In fact, I might go so far as to say that this is a description of a more general media literacy, but now more obviously including the ‘writing’, or active, aspect that had once been limited to journalists in mass media.  In that context, I can see that this is indeed a literacy, rather than a language, with the digital implicitly meaning ‘digital media’.


5 thoughts on “Digital literacies vs digital languages

  1. Interesting discussion concerning the rather complex concept of digital literacy. I agree with you that there is an active aspect to the term. And thank you for referring to my post!

    1. Hi Elizabeth,
      Interesting post, thanks for sharing! I remember those CLAIT courses – had to do one as part of a teacher training programme – and at that point I believed I had to understand what I did (never did) and how it worked (seldom) which really put me off, at the time. This all worked in an opposite way to what it’s like now: since software works rather intuitively, anyone is capable of producing stuff on the web – but not all are fit to do so in terms of civil behaviour etc. So the active bit needs an add-on and an ability to wait and think before pressing the send button…
      Btw will ponder the idea of playing cricket in the jungle🙃

      1. Right – the figuring out ‘how to behave’ bit is a lot more difficult because of the contrast between apparently chatting in person and the permanency of the record.

        The ‘cricket in the jungle’ was a nice metaphor for the apparent problems with our model for electricity, coined by an expert – the first post on this blog has the quote in it.

  2. The descriptions of digital literacy today aim more on the ability to act in a world where a lot of processes and content has been moved to the cloud, torn from the material world, yet real. So complexity is rising.
    Nice metaphor: cricket in a jungle. Seems impossible…

  3. Awsome article and straight to the point. I don’t know if this is truly the best place to ask but do you folks have any thoughts on where to employ some professional writers? Thanks in advance 🙂

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