digital rhetoric Higher Education Teaching

improving digital literacy: the Horizon Report's "solvable" challenge

It’s been a few years since I wrote about the annual Horizon Report, put out by EduCause and the New Media Consortium, but the 2015 report recently came out. There’s a lot of interesting information in there, but I want to speak to one particular issue, digital literacy. Basically, the report identifies three categories–trends, challenges, and technological developments–and focuses on six items in each category. So there are 18 different items in the report, and I’m talking about one of them here.

The report identifies “improving digital literacy” as a significant but solvable challenge, one “that we understand and know how to solve.” I guess I’m glad to hear that. I suppose this might be a semantic matter. What do we mean by “improving”?  And what do we mean by “digital literacy”? In terms of the latter, the Report has an ambitious if vague definition.

Current definitions of literacy only account for the gaining of new knowledge, skills, and attitudes, but do not include the deeper components of intention, reflection, and generativity. The addition of aptitude and creativity to the definition emphasizes that digital literacy is an iterative process that involves students learning about, interacting with, and then demonstrating or sharing their new knowledge.

I do think this recognition that digital literacy is an ongoing process of learning rather than a one-time knowledge dump is an ongoing theme in the report. The report also divides strategies for addressing the challenge into areas of policy making, faculty leadership, and practice. So it points to new policies being established by governments and new learning standards built by professional organizations. It recognizes the importance of ongoing professional development for faculty (though this ties into the Report’s “wicked challenge” of figuring out how to reward teaching), and providing support for students from coursework to online resources.  Undoubtedly there is a lot of energy and effort going into this challenge. Far more than there was a decade ago, which is good news. At UB, our revised general education program is very conscious of the task of supporting students’ digital literacy, and that’s a significant step in the direction of “improving digital literacy.”

I remain concerned about the use of the word “literacy.” I am concerned that it leads people to imagine that whatever digital literacy might be is somehow analogous to print literacy (or just plain old literacy). So let’s call it digital literacy instead. You might ask how much listening/speaking and reading/writing have in common? Something, for sure. I’m sure if we strapped you into an fMRI we’d fine some common areas of the brain lighting up for both activities. And maybe overlaps with digitally mediated tasks as well. I find that observation rather unsatisfying though. Reading books and writing essays as a means for becoming digitally literate is analogous to having a first-year composition course where one sits and talks about writing but never actually writes anything. It’s great to talk about writing and it’s useful to read about digital literacy too (as you are doing now), but at some point you have to do it.

And what is “it”? The report acknowledges that digital literacy is a shifting target (which is why we need Horizon Reports in the first place). We can speak broadly of a few general goals:

  • finding and evaluating “good” digital media and information
  • using digital media/technologies to communicate and collaborate on an informal and real-time basis
  • composing digital media

As we might already argue with our legacy writing instruction challenges, these are not generalizable skills. They are specific to networks, assemblages, communities–however you want to think of that.  In fact, if improving digital literacy is a solvable challenge that would be great news because it might mean we could leave behind the apparently not so solvable challenge of improving print literacy.

Still it’s not so useful to just take the air out of someone’s balloon. Even if improving digital literacy proves to be more intractable, at least these folks are taking a whack at it. And so am I. I know my arguments on this blog (and certainly in my more formal scholarship) can prove to be rather abstract, but I do think our challenge partly lies in our abstractions of rhetorical practice, specifically in our anthropocentric notions of symbolic behavior that imagine that regardless of the technology/ecology in which we are immersed, rhetorical action begins and ends with humans.

So, for example,  faculty development is clearly an issue. But teaching professors how to use WordPress or whatever isn’t the issue. If you could magically turn the faculty into highly expert digerati, you’d still be left with sending them back to their disciplines, their curriculum, and their classrooms. You can’t really teach digital literacy in an environment that is ultimately about listening to lectures, taking notes, reading textbooks, writing essays, and passing exams. If faculty can recognize how their curriculum is shaped around certain technological networks/ecologies and the kinds of cognitive/subjective behaviors that emerge and are territorialized within them, then we have a starting point.

Let me put this differently… To what extent is your course and its objectives founded upon the affordances of reading and writing texts on an essentially individual scale (i.e. individual students silently reading or writing texts)? That’s was the focus of print literacy (though we can certainly contest the notion that such things were every really “individual”). Adding a WordPress site to such a course isn’t going to improve students digital literacy. Sure the faculty do need the skills, but they need to use them to rethink curriculum and pedagogy are a far deeper level. Not so solvable, though I wish it was.


2 replies on “improving digital literacy: the Horizon Report's "solvable" challenge”

I’m reading the Horizon Report now for a reading group next week, so I was glad to see your initial take here. Your questioning of the use of “literacy” brought to mind Wysocki and Johnson-Eilola’s “Blinded by the Letter” chapter in the collection edited by Hawisher and Selfe.

Your final thoughts, in terms of the insufficiency of merely adding a blog (or wiki, or social media account, etc.) strikes a note. I know I’ve fallen victim to an “add [digital tool] and stir” pedagogical mentality. My focus this semester has been on foregrounding, navigating, and leveraging the flux of networks in digital spaces. Rather than trying to establish a single node (either through an all-encompassing CMS or via a blog- or wiki-site), I’ve worked to embrace and foreground and teach the networked nature of the digital. It’s not an exhaustive approach, for sure, but it has challenged me to think beyond “add WordPress and stir” approaches to digital literacy.


To me literacy implies sufficient competence to not be helpless.

It matters chiefly because we as a civilization have chosen to store our knowledge base digitally, and the key to being able to learn and improve yourself in the future relies on your ability to access that knowledge without needing someone to help you.

In theory, if you can access and use our knowledge base, the world is your oyster. If you don’t have that, you’re a serf.

Digital literacy adds a couple of dimensions that print literacy didn’t require. Specifically, maintaining and repairing your digital environment, because that’s a precondition to digital access that isn’t fragile. And digital security, because nobody ever lost their bank account or identity by reading a book. Linking yourself to the entire world is not risk free.


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