What is digital literacy?

The common saying ‘two heads are better than one’ perfectly sums up the purpose of a conference. Sharing ideas and best practice helps both listeners and audience. On 18 January 2019, I found this to be very true in practice went to the Mercian Staff Development Group event ‘Focus on Digital Literacy’ at the University of Coventry Library. The event helped me gain a better understanding of digital literacy and in this post I want to answer the question ‘What is digital literacy?’ based on what I learned from speakers at the event.

Unfortunately, due to a delayed train I arrived just as the first speaker, Becky Collins (University of Coventry Library), finished taking questions about ‘Creating an online induction game: staff experiences’, so my definition of digital literacy from the day is partially incomplete.[1] The next speaker, Daniel Villa-Onrubia, provided several definitions of digital literacy to think about. He discussed three ways that governments and major organisations have defined digital literacy:

  1. DigComp 2.0 (the EU Digital competence framework for citizens)
  2. JISC Digital Capability Framework (pictured below)
JISC Digitial Capability Framework
  1. Mozilla Web Literacy Framework

Villar-Onrubia cited a number of things that Coventry’s Disruptive Media Learning Lab does to help students and staff develop their skills, including resource to help them explore how data from their online activity is being tracked and used.[2] He also used Wikipedia and edit-a-thons as an example of how participation in the open web could be something of benefit to both students and teachers.[3]

The JISC Digital Capability Tool followed on from the development of the JISC Digital Capability Framework, and next Hannah Hickman talked about ‘University of Worcester’s experience with the digital capabilities tool’. The tool provides an opportunity for users to find out where they are in terms of their digital literacies skills. Hickman cited the need to such an assessment by pointing to data from the Lloyd’s Bank UK Consumer Digital Index, which show a significant number of people with no or limited abilities online. (One ability she cited was verifying sources of information found online).[4] A key point here was that digital literacy is a learned skill, not something innate, something that the UK government Essential Digital Skills Framework seems to emphasise.[5]

How, then, to teach these skills? The final presentation of the day, ‘Meeting the Challenge of Designing and Digital Literacy Programme with Library and Academic Staff’, by Richard Perkins and Catriona Matthews (University of Warwick), focused on their institution’s experience of developing a programme to teach these skills. They generously and humorously shared their successes and failures. Their advice included:

  1. Set out with clear objectives
  2. Structure teaching collaboration: be clear about who does what
  3. Design a course which measures knowledge at the beginning and encourages reflection at the end
  4. Include practical and problem-bases activates, with relevance to the course and employability benefits
  5. New and advanced skills are more exciting than refreshers

In between the final two talks, there was small group discussion of the JISC digital capability framework and how it fits in attendees’ roles and institutions. This brought up a final important point about the definition of digital literacy: that it depends on context, and is shaped by the types of digital content/media someone engages with, and how they do that.

To sum up what I learned about digital literacy: there are a number of different frameworks for defining digital literacy. Digital, online, and web skills are seen as a key component of successfully navigating modern life, work, and education. Governments, higher education institutions, and major companies alike emphasise acquiring and measuring these skills. At the same time, skills in understanding, participating in, and creating digital materials, are learned, not innate, and librarians should keep an open mind about the level of digital literacy skills of those we interact with. Our own skills, and those of everyone around us, are continuously developing.


[1] The day was wonderfully summarised by Kirsty Krift (2019) ‘All Eyes on Digital Literacy’ [blog] 25 January. Available from:  https://merciancollaboration.org.uk/all-eyes-digital-literacy [accessed 19 February 2019]. If you are interested in games in libraries, Nancy Foasberg, librarian at Queen’s College Library, has created a guide:  https://qc-cuny.libguides.com/GamesInLibraries

[2] These included the Facebook Data Valuation Tool: https://fdvt.org/;  Data Selfie: https://dataselfie.it/#/;  Firefox Lightbeam: https://addons.mozilla.org/en-GB/firefox/addon/lightbeam/;  and Trackography.org, https://trackography.org/

[3] The Disruptive Media Learning Lab has gathered examples and reflections on use of the open web in education here: https://owlteh.org/

[4] Lloyds Bank (2018) UK Consumer Digital Index. Lloyds Bank. Available from: https://www.lloydsbank.com/banking-with-us/whats-happening/consumer-digital-index.asp [Accessed 19/02/2019].

[5] Department for Education (2018) Essential Digital Skills Framework. Available from: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/essential-digital-skills-framework [Accessed 19/02/2019].