Exploring the Underbelly of Digital Literacies

Professor Mark Brown

National Institute for Digital Learning

Dublin City University

Digital Literacy is essential for successfully living, learning and working in today’s increasingly digitalised and rapidly changing world. This brief think piece is written on the assumption that most people would agree with this statement.

However, what we define or understand as digital literacy is far more problematic. As Lankshear and Knobel (2008) observe in their seminal book on the topic, ‘the most immediately obvious facts about accounts of digital literacy are that there are many of them and that there are significantly different kinds of concepts on offer’ (p.2). Therefore, in many respects it helps to talk of digital literacies rather than limit our thinking to a singular all-inclusive definition of the concept. In a similar vein, in both the academic and popular literature the language of digital literacies is often interchanged and/or intentionally expanded through terms like digital skills, digital fluency, digital capabilities, digital competencies, and so on. The different use of terminology and nomenclature makes the search for a commonly agreed definition or understanding of digital literacies even more elusive.

Key takeaways

Set against this messy backdrop of competing definitions, models and frameworks, this blog post prior to OEB MidSummit explores the often unspoken underbelly of digital literacies. There are three core messages woven throughout this critical discussion about what it means to be digitally literate in the 21st Century. Firstly, the definition of literacy in whatever form is inherently political. Secondly, the digital literacies movement is complex and many efforts to propose definitions and develop related models and frameworks are decontextualised from social and situated​ practice. Lastly, most models and frameworks for digital skills, literacies or competencies fail to adequately address some of the powerful macro-level drivers and entangled and contradictory discourses behind the goal of preparing more digitally skilled learners, workers and citizens.

What are digital literacies?

In a brief review and comparison of the literature, the All Aboard (2015) project, funded by the Irish National Forum for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, identified over 100 models and frameworks which to greater or lesser extent purport to encapsulate the various dimensions of digital skills, literacies or competencies. The messy topography of the field is further illustrated in an effort to map digital literacy policy and practice in the Canadian education landscape (Hoechsmann & DeWaard, 2015). Albeit from the Canadian schooling context, the report provides further evidence that no single commonly accepted definition of digital literacy exists in either policy of practice.

Three different components

In 2016, the New Media Consortium (NMC) sought to address this problem in a strategic brief drawing on input from over 450 educators in order to develop a shared vision of digital literacy for higher education (Alexander, Adams Becker & Cummins, 2016). The Horizon report was predicated on the assumption that a lack of agreement on what digital literacy comprises is impeding the development of adequate policies and efforts to implement appropriate programmes. In a brief review of the field, the report confirms the literature is ‘broad and ambiguous, making digital literacy a nebulous area that requires greater clarification and consensus’ (Alexander, Adams Becker & Cummins, 2016, p.1).

To provide more clarity, in broad terms digital literacy is taken to mean both critical and practical understanding of digital technologies in socio-cultural settings, where people are creators as well as observers. The report then breaks down digital literacy into three different models – Universal Literacy, Creative Literacy and Literacy Across Disciplines – in order to identify and expand on the different elements that make up the sum of the area. In brief, universal literacy involves inculcating a critical stance towards the increasingly immersive world of digital technologies; creative literacies encapsulate the producer side of the producer-consumer continuum; and the third way of thinking about digital literacy focuses on curricular infusion across the disciplines.

The three different components of digital literacy involve not just understanding how new digital tools work but also why it is useful and when to use them. This conception is described as encompassing the wider notion of Digital Citizenship – that is, ‘the responsible and appropriate use of technology, underscoring areas including digital communication, digital etiquette, digital health and wellness, and digital rights and responsibilities’ (Alexander, Adams Becker & Cummins, 2016, p.1). Although the report is skewed towards U.S. centric literature, importantly it acknowledges that definitions of digital literacy are not static, and related models and frameworks will continue to evolve.

Digital capability framework

In the UK, one of the most cited efforts to develop a comprehensive framework for digital literacy comes from the work of JISC, who in recent years has funded a number of projects and published several reports on the topic. While the language has shifted over the years from literacy to literacies and more recently to digital capabilities, and the original proposed digital literacy framework has evolved in response to the growing complexity of the field, the underlying definition is:

Digital literacies are those capabilities which fit an individual for living, learning and working in a digital society

(JISC, 2014, P.1)

Anchored in this definition, the originally proposed Seven Elements Model of Digital Literacies included the following dimensions: media literacy, communications and collaboration, career and identity management, ICT literacy, learning skills, digital scholarship, and information literacy. Building on the original work of Sharpe and Beetham (2010), this model has now evolved into a Digital Capability Framework comprising of six elements –  ICT proficiency; information data and media literacies; digital creation, problem solving and innovation; digital communication, collaboration and participation; digital learning and development; and digital identity and wellbeing – with 15 sub-elements recognising a combination of functional skills, critical use, creative production, participation, development, and self-actualising (JISC, 2016; cited in Beetham, 2017).

Albeit they propose quite different frameworks, the common feature of the work of JISC and the NMC is that digital skills, literacies and capabilities encompass both functional and critical dimensions. Moreover, the various elements of digital literacies need to encapsulate a wider emphasis on digital citizenship, including the notions of identity, wellbeing and rights and responsibilities.

Going off the tracks

The aforementioned All Aboard (2015) project borrows and expands upon JISC’s definition to define digital skills, literacies or competencies as ‘the capabilities which fit someone for living, learning and working in a digital society, with the knowledge that a digital society is ever evolving’ (p.18). The project then proposes a Digital Skills Framework based on a Metro Map comprising of six stations: tools and technologies; find and use; communicate and collaborate; create and innovate; and identity and wellbeing. While the stations and imagery of a connected network of train lines attempts to help people make sense of the increasingly complex digital landscape, arguably the framework is limited by the metro metaphor. A deeper understanding of digital literacies requires us to get off the tracks and out of the stations, as the uncomfortable reality is that nearby, further out in our deprived suburbs and neglected rural communities we increasingly live in a society where not everyone has the luxury of travelling by train.

This point is not unique to All Aboard as the observation applies to most popular conceptions of digital literacies. However, this important gap in our current conception of digital literacies is particularly apparent in the above definition originally proposed by JISC (2014) referring to the development of capabilities which ‘fit’ an individual for the digital society.

If digital literacies are core to what it means to be an educated person in the 21st Century, then our thinking needs to go beyond preparing people to fit the type of inequitable and socially unjust societies we have created over the past century. More to the point, critical digital literacies need to challenge us to reshape and reimagine our societies where according to a recent Oxfam (2017) report eight men own the same amount of wealth as the poorest part of the world. Put bluntly, as educators we will fail to serve future generations if our definition of digital literacies does not help to produce a sense of agency both with and without new technologies to disrupt ‘a world where 1% of humanity controls as much wealth as the bottom 99%’ of the population (Oxfam, 2017, p.1).

Socio-political context

What this point illustrates, climbing down from my soapbox, is that what we choose to define as digital literacies is inherently political and cannot be separated from issues of power and control. To quote Bruner (1993), ‘Meaning is radically plural, always open, (…) there is politics in every account’ (p.1). With this point in mind, the socio-political context is crucial to defining and understanding digital literacies, and the much wider concept of digital citizenship. Such a conception of digital citizenship appreciates that our own uncritical consumption of technology as part of the life we have become accustomed to in the developed world is at the root of many of our problems, including the grand challenges of urbanisation, climate change and an increasingly unsustainable planet.

Situated practice

To his credit, Doug Belshaw (2015) recognises this point in his eight essential elements of digital literacies – culture, cognitive, constructive, communicative, confident, creative, critical and civic – as they contain a strong contextual flavour. Indeed, some of the elements explicitly recognise the importance of learning how to use digital technologies for public engagement, global citizenship and the enhancement of democracy – for better lives and more sustainable futures. Notably, Belshaw is wary of efforts to present digital literacies in relatively simplistic frameworks and reports that he has tried to resist requests to do so.

I’ve been asked many times for a diagram of the eight essential elements, something that will fit nicely on a PowerPoint slide. While I can do so – and have done on occasion – I feel that this perpetuates a problem I’ve seen time and time again in my research. People over-specify an answer to a question that differs massively according to the context. This is why you won’t see a definition of ‘digital literacy’ in this book

(Belshaw, 2015, p.58)

As Bhatt (2017) reminds us, context is the starting point of the now well-established tradition of research often referred to as the New Literacy Studies. Any attempts to define [digital] literacies need to be ‘…located as part of social practices and occur within culturally constructed instances or literacy events’ (Bhatt, 2017, p.1). Gillen and Barton (2010) point out that ‘Learning is always connected to specific domains of activity – the settings, participants, discourses and dynamics of participation’ (p.5). For this reason, despite good intentions, there is a risk that many current digital literacies models and frameworks lack contextual validity anchored in situated practice and promote false clarity of what remains a messy construct.

Risk of deskilling

Moreover, efforts to provide relatively simple models and frameworks divorced from institutional and socio-political contexts may inadvertently deskill people from critically reading some of the deeper forces at work in the drive to produce more digitally skilled learners and workers for the inherently socially unjust knowledge economy. The key point is the emergence of the digital literacies movement is not neutral and must be seen as part of wider social practice. In this respect, critical conceptions of digital literacies need to go beyond an individual focus on elements such as identity and wellbeing by helping to unravel some of the entangled arguments and competing discourses often imbued in the language of globalisation, neo-liberalism, and technological determinism. From this perspective, the goal of developing critical digital literacies is inextricably linked to enabling a greater sense of personal and collective agency to help address some of the bigger issues confronting the future of humanity in an uncertain future.

Final remarks

The digital literacies movement is complex. There is no single overarching model or framework for digital literacies which addresses all of the points raised in this discussion. Accordingly, in exploring the underbelly and wider social practice of the concept we need to ask who is shaping the current digital literacies agenda and for what purpose? What is missing in the discourse? Whose interests are being served? Beyond a narrow focus on skills and keystrokes how might we re-envision digital literacies to promote active citizenry in order to reshape our societies to develop new ways of living, learning and working for a better future – for all? These questions remind us that debates offering utopian or dystopian perspectives on the value of different models and frameworks for digital literacies must keep sight of the bigger picture. To this end, OEB MidSummit provides delegates an opportunity to engage further in this debate framed in the words of George Bernard Shaw:

 ‘Beware of false knowledge; it is more dangerous than ignorance.’


Alexander, B., Adams Becker, S., & Cummins, M. (2016). Digital literacy: An NMC Horizon project strategic brief. Volume 3.3, October 2016. Austin, Texas: The New Media Consortium.

All Aboard. (2015). Towards a National digital skills framework for Irish higher education: Review and comparison of existing frameworks and models. Available at http://allaboardhe.org/DSFramework2015.pdf

Beetham, H. (2017; 9th March). Digital capability framework: An update.  Blog post in Jisc Digital Capability Codesign Challenge. Available at https://digitalcapability.jiscinvolve.org/wp/2017/03/09/digital-capabilities-framework-an-update

Belshaw, D. (2015). The essential elements of digital literacies. [Self-published through Gumroad Inc]. Available at


Bhatt, I. (2017). Assignments as controversies: Digital literacy and writing in classroom practice. New York and London: Routledge.

Bruner, J.S. (1993). Introduction: The ethnographic self the personal self. In P. Bensen (Ed.), Anthropology and literature. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Gillen, J., & Barton, D. (2010). Digital literacies: Research briefing for the TLRP-TEL (Teaching and Learning Research Programme – Technology Enhanced Learning). London: ESRC Teaching and Learning Research Programme.

Hoechsmann, M., & DeWaard, H. (2015) Mapping Digital literacy policy and practice in the Canadian education landscape: MediaSmarts. Available at


JISC. (2014). Developing digital literacies. Available at


Lankshear, C., & Knobel, M. (Ed.) (2008). Digital literacies: Concepts, policies and practices. New York: Peter Lang Publishing Inc.

Oxfam. (2017). An economy for the 99%. Oxfam briefing paper. Available at


Sharpe, R., & Beetham, H. (2010). Understanding students’ uses of technology for learning: towards creative appropriation. In R. Sharpe, H. Beetham & S. De Freitas (Eds.), Rethinking learning for a digital age: How learners are shaping their own experiences (pp. 85-99). London and New York: Routledge.

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