Reviewing Approaches and Perspectives on “Digital Literacy”

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    Reviewing Approaches andPerspectives on DigitalLiteracyJulian Sefton-Green a , Helen Nixon a & Ola Erstad ba Hawke Research Institute, University of SouthAustralia , Australiab Institute of Educational Research, University ofOslo Norway ,Published online: 23 Mar 2009.

    To cite this article: Julian Sefton-Green , Helen Nixon & Ola Erstad (2009) ReviewingApproaches and Perspectives on Digital Literacy, Pedagogies: An InternationalJournal, 4:2, 107-125, DOI: 10.1080/15544800902741556

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  • Pedagogies: An International Journal, 4: 107125, 2009Copyright 2009 Taylor & FrancisISSN 1554-480X print / 1554-4818 onlineDOI: 10.1080/15544800902741556http://www.informaworld.com

    HPED1554-480X1554-4818Pedagogies: An International Journal, Vol. 4, No. 2, Jan 2009: pp. 00Pedagogies: An International Journal

    ARTICLES

    Reviewing Approaches and Perspectives on Digital Literacy

    Perspectives on Digital LiteracySefton-Green, Nixon, Erstad

    Julian Sefton-Green and Helen NixonHawke Research Institute, University of South Australia, Australia

    Ola ErstadInstitute of Educational Research, University of Oslo Norway

    This paper explores the purchase and usefulness of the notion of digital literacy.Comparing and contrasting theoretical formulations of digital literacy from thetop-down and bottom-up, it reviews how the concept has been used acrossthree research fields in Europe and Australia. An introductory section situatesthe ways in which digital literacy offers itself as a mean of empowerment in thetradition of the new literacy studies but at the same time exposes contradic-tions in terms of access and power. The first domain explored is media dis-course, and this section of the paper examines ideas which have beencirculating in Australia since the early 1990s about the need for children tobecome digitally literate. The second section examines how the concept of digi-tal literacy has developed over the last decade in the domain of school policy,curriculum documents and practices in Norway; and the third section reviewstransnational research to explore how the term digital literacy is used in thedomain of childrens and youth's out-of-school cultural digital practices. Weargue that the term digital literacy incorporates more notions of exclusion and

    Correspondence should be sent to Dr Julian Sefton-Green, Centre for Studies in Literacy, Policyand Learning Cultures, Hawke Research Institute, University of South Australia, St Bernards Road,Magill 5072, South Australia. E-mail: julian@julianseftongreen.net

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  • 108 SEFTON-GREEN, NIXON, ERSTAD

    division than is commonly supposed, and that it exposes the contradictorypolitics of literacy education in new and provocative ways.

    INTRODUCTION

    The term digital literacy has become so popular and widespread over the last10 years that it is almost taken for granted. The term is, of course, synonymouswith the popularity of various digital technologies and their centrality in virtuallyall aspects of life: leisure, work and home. With varying degrees of complexity,the phrase digital literacy is now used to describe our engagements with digitaltechnologies as they mediate many (if not most) of our social interactions (see,e.g., Kress, 2003; Lankshear & Knobel, 2003). Yet, as it is frequently acknow-ledged, the literacies associated with participation in digital practices andcultures are complex (Lankshear & Knobel, 2006). It is clearly far too superficialsimply to equate digital literacy with using digital technologies, because thenotion of literacy evokes a multiplicity of competencies, skills and knowledges(Cope & Kalantzis, 2000). Although there are some examples of the use of theterm with respect to the simple operation of digital technologies, many uses ofthe term digital literacy also include the more complex deep or 3-D (Durrant& Green, 2000) implications of the phrase.

    A number of national government policies now place the acquisition of digitalliteracy high in their objectives, motivated by both civic and economic aspira-tions (see e.g., Commonwealth of Australia, 2006; European Union, 2004;Ministry of Education and Research, 2000, 2004a; Selwyn & Brown, 2000). Thecivic aspirations with respect to a digitally literate population relate to beliefs ininclusion and access; a view that all sections of the population need to be able toparticipate in technologically mediated forms of public life. And the economicmotives with respect to the production of a digitally literate population stem froman interest in reconfiguring schools and higher education institutions for theknowledge economy of new times (Peters, 2001). Digital literacyor someform of technological literacy with respect to digital technologiesis ofteninvoked in top-down government policy as a cornerstone for each of theseambitions and, to meet such objectives, a range of curriculum initiatives havebeen devised and implemented across the world.

    However, digital literacy has also been described as a phenomenon from thebottom-up, as it were, (see Buckingham, 2003). At the same time as govern-ment policy seeks to describe and inculcate digital literacy as a property of theacademy, and as a prerequisite for what it means to be an educated citizen,sociological and ethnographic studies of young peoples media participation haveinvestigated other aspects of digital literacy. Such studies document the highlydeveloped complex emotional and intellectual engagement with forms of

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  • PERSPECTIVES ON DIGITAL LITERACY 109

    commercial digital culturefrom computer games to chat roomsthat takesplace outside of formal education (e.g., Buckingham & Willett, 2006; Gee,2003). Here, the argument is that digital literacy develops in social context, andin concert with other media literacies (as well as with alphabetic print literacy).Obviously, this approach to digital literacy is not in a position to define stan-dards of literacy achievement, and the conceptualization of literacy as used inthese contexts is quite different from its use in education programmes and informs of standardized normative literacy assessment currently being put in placein England, the United States of America and Australia.

    One of the key problems with defining digital literacy lies in its closeness toand/or distance from the norms of print literacy. According to conventionalanalysis, the history of alphabetic print literacy in the English-speaking worldis characterized by its relationship with the emerging middle-class during theprocess of colonialization and industrialization, especially in the ways thataccess to literacy playedand continues to playa key part in regulating entryinto the labour market (Bernstein, 2000; Bourdieu, 1986; Luke, 1989; Moss,2001). The classic studies of the growth of print culture and literacy emphasizejust how important the growth of mass schooling was to the whole project (e.g.,Graff, 1987; Olson, 2003). From this perspective, we can immediately see howdigital literacy would thus seem to run counter to such patterns, in that schools,and the academy more generally, do not control access to digital literacy.Despite the centrality of digital literacy to reading, writing and manipulatinginformation in contemporary society, it would be difficult to claim thatschooled-literacy (in the sense of utilizing the standard codes, conventions andsymbolic languages of communication), is in any way an a priori gateway tothe use, exploitation, creative manipulation of, or communication with, digitaltechnologies.

    Responses to these issues at the policy level are conditioned by the prevailingdefinitions of (usually print) literacy within each national context. Equally, theways in which entry into digital literacy suggest a different disciplinary regimeoften at odds with schooled-literacyand the fact that differential access to thetechnologies has such a big influence on the development of digital literacytogether creates a series of policy challenges for what schools could or should doto support and develop digital literacy. Traditionally, schools control and accreditlearning, and again, it is not clear what role they should occupy in the digitalarena. A final policy challenge relates to the knowledge held by the teachingworkforce, in contradistinction to those held by young people (Green & Bigum,1993). Not only has research in this field continually stressed this tension as char-acteristic of a literacy gulf, it also has important implications for how teachers inschoolsin contrast with many of their studentshave a fragile (and unconfi-dent) evidence base on which to construct and develop digital literacy curricula(Hennessy, Ruthven, & Brindley, 2005).

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  • 110 SEFTON-GREEN, NIXON, ERSTAD

    This paper takes a long term and meta level view of studies of national andinternational programmes and literatures that explore and investigate the notionof digital literacy. The starting point for the paper is the theoretical, empirical andpolitical tensions that have arisen from the coexistence of competing notions ofdigital literacy. The authors have separately and jointly been involved in a rangeof digital literacy research and development projects over the last decade. Wehave been vexed by the commonalities and differences between conceptualiza-tions of digital literacy that appear in top down policy, popular media and cur-riculum contexts, and those that appear in ethnographic research, which adopts abottom-up approach. There is clearly a relationship between what might becalled the formal and informal conceptualizations of digital literacy, but it isour contention that there is a difficult relationship between these two domains,and that discussions from both perspectives have as yet been unable to synthesizethe different meanings accorded to digital literacy in ways that progress debate.

    After 10 to 15 years of popular use of digital technologies, educators now haveaccess to a wide range of theoretical and empirical studies that are beginning totease out the limits and possibilities of the concept of digital literacy and itsimplications for learning and education. Here, we review a range of internationalstudies and explore how the concept of digital literacy is utilized and deployedacross a range of discursive fields. We argue that the concept is fundamentallyuseful but needs to be analyzed far more at the intersection of formal and infor-mal learning domains where top down and bottom up approaches meet.

    The body of the paper is divided into three sections, which have emerged outof a review of the different manifestations of digital literacy across a wide rangeof research, policies and practices in developed countries. The first section dis-cusses how the concept of digital literacy has been discursively constructed incultural policy and media discourse in Australia (Atkinson & Nixon, 2005;Nixon, 1998, 1999, 2005). It illustrates a transnational phenomenon in whichdigital rhetorics (Lankshear et al., 1997) have served to construct selective val-ued representations of what digital literacy is and how young people mightdevelop it and why.

    Section two examines the impact of digital literacy policy and curriculuminterventions in the field of formal education. Here, the case of Norway is placedin the foreground for two reasons: the term digital literacy (or competence inNorwegian) has been enshrined there in educational policy (Ministry of Educa-tion and Research, 2000, 2004a), and research into initiatives in digital technolo-gies and education has been richly resourced there for over a decade.

    The final section of the paper explores international research that describesout-of-school, self-taught or commercially mediated kinds of digital literacy andattempts to characterize models of learning that underpin these kinds of mediausage, discussing how such models may or may not complement or challengeteaching and learning as it is conventionally practiced in schools.

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  • PERSPECTIVES ON DIGITAL LITERACY 111

    DIGITAL RHETORICS IN POLICY AND MEDIA DISCOURSE

    In this section of the paper, we examine the expansion of rhetorics about theneed for children to become digitally literate as this has played out in popularmedia discourse, and against a backdrop of government policy discourse aboutthe need for nations to be networked into the global information superhigh-way. We draw on the long-term research conducted by Nixon in Australia(Atkinson & Nixon, 2005; Nixon 1998, 1999, 2005). Although we do not claimthat what happened there is necessarily representative, other studies do lendweight to the suggestion that similar developments have been occurring acrossEnglish-speaking countries (see, e.g., UK studies reported in Buckingham &Scanlon, 2003; Buckingham, Scanlon, & Sefton-Green, 2001; Facer, Furlong,Furlong, & Sutherland, 2003) as government and commercial interests togethercontinue to encourage homes, workplaces and educational institutions tobecome digital.

    In Australia, from 1994 onwards, the home market was a target for produc-ers of PC hardware and software as well as providers of education and trainingon how to use them. This in turn was accompanied by both commercially spon-sored and government issued exhortations to parents and teachers to purchasePCs for the homes and schools in order to get ahead and to keep up withthe information and communication requirements of contemporary society.Government cultural and educational policy argued the need for the nation tobecome creative, clever, networked and computer literate. These digital rheto-rics, in which the use of digital technologies became associated in the publicarena with the changing forms of functional literacy supposedly required tomake ones way in the world, signalled a major shift in general understandingsabout what constituted the kinds of competencies and literacy practices peoplerequired in order to participate fully in life in the late 20th century (Nixon,1999, 2005).

    A case study of the media discourse instantiated in home computing andedutainment magazines available to Australian parents at that time demon-strates how the messages about new kinds of computer-related positional advan-tages in relation to educational and life-chance trajectories for children wereconstructed (Nixon, 1998, 1999). Similar developments have since been docu-mented in the UK (Buckingham & Scanlon, 2003; Buckingham, Scanlon, &Sefton-Green, 2001). Popular magazinesand later websiteswere createdexplicitly to mediate technological innovations to new and inexperienced per-sonal computer users who were also parents. A characteristic feature of thesemagazines was the depiction of the home computer-using family and thesuccessful computer-using child. A characteristic feature of the target audiencewas the desire to keep up with what is new and to learn more about the enter-tainment as well as educational possibilities of new technologies. Advertising

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  • 112 SEFTON-GREEN, NIXON, ERSTAD

    and journalistic content together emphasized the following points about comput-ers, children and education:

    The school and the home are co-contributors to childrens education, andchildrens access to a PC in both places is considered desirable.

    Childrens access to, and knowledge about, the PC are integrally connectedto positional advantages with respect to social and educational success andassociated future life chances.

    The PC is an essential item which children need access to for all curriculumareas in school, and an increasingly desirable item to have access to at home,especially since schools were thought to be lagging behind in this regard.

    From our point of view, what is interesting about this process is howcomputer-related digital literacy gradually became interwoven with discourses ofsuccessful educational trajectories and competitive preparation for employment.The workplace, it was argued, now required forms of digital literacy and, there-fore, it was the responsibility of parents and educational institutions to equipstudents with these skills:

    Ten years ago you could safely count on packing your kids off to school to learn thethree Rs and theyd get a decent job. These days theres this fourth skillcomputereducation [. . .] competent computer skills are critical to the future employment oftodays students. (Computer Living, February 1995, p. 6)

    Feature: Wanted! The PC skills you need to get a job. Millions of dollars arespent each year, but are your kids gaining the computer techniques that employerswant? (Computer Living, February 1996, p. 4)

    Magazines were attempting to persuade parents of very young children of theimportance of adding digital literacy learning to traditional forms of early devel-opmental learning, often by promoting educational toys that either imitated orintegrated digital technologies. Discursive structures of journalism and advertis-ing in the magazines aligned computer skills and digital competencies witheducational developmental progression, the 3Rs and the new basics of edu-cation (Nixon, 1998, 1999). In turn, the sources of pedagogic authority in relationto these new skills were more often constructed as being parents, private educa-tional providers and commercially produced products rather than teachers and theformal educational provision offered by public schooling. As a result, the homewas depicted as a site of both informal, leisure-based education and the site ofdigital literacy development that promised to provide long-term formal educa-tional benefits to middle class families that could afford to keep up.

    A decade later, millions of families worldwide are connected to the Internet viabroadband access (e.g., Commonwealth of Australia, 2005; Livingstone & Bovill,2001; and see also Pew Internet and American Life Project, http://www.pewinternet.org/data.asp). In addition, significant proportions of web users are

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    http://www.pewinternet.org/data.asphttp://www.pewinternet.org/data.asp

  • PERSPECTIVES ON DIGITAL LITERACY 113

    school-aged children and youth who have become both digitally literate as practicedusers of a range of media, and also a significant target for various forms of web-basedand cross-media marketing and promotion. The case of the commercial web portalninemsnthe most popular web portal among young Australians in 2004/2005isinteresting in this regard. Developed as a 50/50 joint venture between the new mediaarm of the Australian-based Publishing and Broadcasting Ltd.the company headedby media baron Kerry Packerand the international software giant Microsoft, theninemsn web portal connects Australians to MSN messenger and Hotmail, which areamong the most commonly used communication software programs worldwide.

    A study of the discursive construction of the cultural spaces, texts, products, con-sumers and audiences associated with the ninemsn portal shows the importance to itscommercial success of the creation of personas as part of the marketing strategy(Atkinson & Nixon, 2005). The numbers, charts and graphs resulting from marketresearch into ninemsns audience segment of school-aged users were transformedby advertising companies into two fictionalized personas: tween Georgia (813years), and teenager Taj (1417 years). As representatives of the target audience, thesepersonas serve a dual but related purpose: to act as representatives of consumers toattract advertisers and their revenue, and to assist with the design of content and inter-faces through which users engage with the portal and develop their digital literacies.

    What is interesting to us is that personas convey to both advertisers and con-sumers particular ideas about what being digital might involve for 817 yearolds. In particular, personas shape understandings of what means to be digitalwhen operating within the web portal. For example, persona Georgia chats at7.30 a.m. with a couple of girlfriends from school on MSN Messenger about aschool project that is due today and at 4.00 p.m. is back on MSN Messenger tochat with her friends and hang out on Dolly (she is also a Dolly magazinereader). Her older male counterpart Taj pays a quick visit to ninemsn Gamesbefore heading to school; at 3.00 p.m. he plays tracks downloaded fromninemsn music on Windows Media Player while checking out the latest footballstats and tips from The Footy Show; and at 5.00 p.m. he searches for the solutionto a computer problem and communicates this to his friend via MSN chat (Whyninemsn?, 2006). Engagement with this web portal thus makes available bothactual and imagined forms of digital literacy practice that are readily available tobe taken up in daily life. However, as we go on to discuss, such forms of digitalliteracy practice might bear little or no resemblance to those described in educa-tional policy or enacted in school-based curriculum and pedagogical practice.

    DIGITAL LITERACY IN SCHOOL: THE CASE OF NORWAY

    Education has been envisaged by policymakers as playing a central role in theprocesses of economic and cultural changes associated with a globalized cultural

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  • 114 SEFTON-GREEN, NIXON, ERSTAD

    economy. For example, in a study of seven case-study countries, Selwyn andBrown (2000) found that a common response to economic globalization was thecreation of national information infrastructures, among which educationalnetworking initiatives were often an integral or pioneering element (p. 661). Incountries as diverse as New Zealand, Hong Kong, Scotland, Finland and Nor-way, concepts such as the information society and the knowledge societyhave been used by policymakers to argue the need to implement new technolo-gies into educational practice, and digital literacy has been nominated as a keyarea of competence in school curriculum statements. However, attempts to shapethe school curriculum in this way have been highly problematic, partly becausethey do not take into consideration how new technologies are used by youngpeople, nor how schools work as social practices (Bereiter, 2002).

    This section of the paper focuses on curriculum, partly because this is where edu-cational policy and practice are thought to come together, and partly because digitaltechnologies have become more and more central to curriculum developments world-wide. We focus on the particular case of Norway for two reasons. Firstly, nationalcurriculum reform in Norway has enshrined digital literacy as a central educationalcompetence and has defined the ability to use digital tools as a basic skill, alongsidereading, writing and numeracy. Secondly, the national government has, over a longperiod, devoted significant funds to research and development in this area and, asleader of Network for IT Research and Competence in Education (ITU)a nationalresearch network for IT in education established by the Ministry of Education in1997author Erstad has been uniquely placed to study these interventions.

    During the end of the 1980s and the first half of the 1990s, curricula andpolicy strategies in Norway treated media and technology as two separatedomains. The main focus of media education was on teaching students about themedia, while the main focus of technology educationknown as ElektroniskData Behandling (EDB) or Electronic Data Management/Information Technol-ogy (EDB/IT)was on learning to use the tools of computer hardware and soft-ware. Although the national curriculum of 1987 mentioned media and EDB asa cross-curriculum area, in practice, there remained a split between these twodomains. In part due to differences in teachers backgrounds, where media edu-cation teachers mostly came from humanities backgrounds, and technologyteachers came from the natural sciences, this split has been manifested in differ-ent conceptualizations of digital literacy in curriculum and educational practiceacross the learning areas. In other countries, similar divides have characterizedthe different uses of computers in humanities subjects such as English or mediaeducation as compared with more technical subjects such as IT/Computing andComputer-Aided-Design (CAD).

    The top-down policy focus in Nordic schooling has mostly argued the needto use technology as a tool to enhance learning across school subjects. In themid-1990s, several Nordic countries started large national programmes focusing

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  • PERSPECTIVES ON DIGITAL LITERACY 115

    on the implementation and use of digital technologies in schools (Erstad, 1999;Jedeskog, 2005). In Norway, this was introduced as a four-year Action Plan from1996 to 1999, with an explicit focus on implementing the rollout of informationtechnologies in schools and improving the access to hardware, software and theInternet (Ministry of Education and Research, 1996). Towards the end of thatperiod, there was some criticism of the emphasis on IT rollouts as opposed todevelopment of pedagogical understandings in order to guide and frame the intro-duction of these technologies. This led to a new Action Plan from 2000 to 2003(Ministry of Education and Research, 2000), which was more focused on stimulat-ing the educational use of information and communication technologies. Theselarge-scale national programmes, involving hundreds of schools, tried to empha-size that the use of technology in education also involves institutional, structuraland cultural changes. It was no longer acceptable to define digital literacy simplyas an individual competence: the term also implied the need for accompanyingschool change, and attention to the social contexts of technology use.

    The next step was a Program for Digital Literacy 20042008 (Ministry of Edu-cation and Research, 2004a), which shifted the policy focus towards the implica-tions of digital technologies for learning and development and explicitly namedthe central concept as digital literacy (or digital competence in Norwegian) incontradistinction to earlier uses of the terms educational technology or mediatechnology. This programme was developed in parallel with a White Paper, pre-sented to the Parliament by the Minister of Education, on the subject of a largenational curriculum reform for Norwegian schools called Culture for Learning(Ministry of Education and Research, 2004b). The rationale for this reform, whichrefers to macro-level issues about the knowledge society and the need for Nor-way to keep up with international developments, has parallels with rhetoricalmoves in the policies of other nations (e.g., Nixon, 2005; Selwyn & Brown, 2000).A second feature of this reform is its attempt to make digital technologies integralto learning activities in all subjects and at all levels in Norwegian schools.

    This White paper defines digital literacy/competence as:

    . . . the sum of simple ICT skills, like being able to read, write and calculate, andmore advanced skills that make possible creative and critical use of digital tools andmedia. ICT skills consist of being able to use software, to search, locate, transformand control information from different digital sources, while the critical and cre-ative use of ICT refers to the ability to evaluate, to make critical use of sources, tointerpret and analyse digital genres and media forms. In total, digital literacy can beseen as a very complex competence. (Ministry of Education and Research, 2004b,p. 48, Erstads translation)

    This top-down policy conception of digital literacy indicates an understand-ing of the learner quite different from that embodied in the skills perspectivementioned above. Furthermore, digital literacy is no longer merely an aspiration

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  • 116 SEFTON-GREEN, NIXON, ERSTAD

    or a slogan, but actually needs to be addressed in curriculum documents for allschool subjects. However, the fact that these latter documents are not alwaysclear when defining their terms, opens up a struggle about how digital literacyshould be defined. Aspects of this struggle can be identified by examining thedigital literacy documents produced by subject-specific curriculum groups, andschool-based educational practices surrounding the use of digital technologies,since the new curriculum has been in place.

    One important issue that affects whether policy vision can match enactedpractice is the level of access that schools have to digital technologies. Accordingto the national monitoring of the educational use of ICT in schools, carried outbiannually by the ITU Monitor at the University of Oslo, there are on average 2.5students per computer at upper secondary level and 6.5 students per computer atboth lower secondary and primary levels. These figures might initially sound prom-ising. However, the differences between schools are large, from schools that have a1:1 ratio to those where 33 students share a computer. In addition, although broad-band access to schools has been steadily improving, 65% of teachers think thataccess to the Internet is too slow (Erstad, Klvstad, Kristiansen, & Sby, 2005).

    Another difficulty in Norway has been the differential experiences of teachersin using digital technologies, especially for the purposes of changed pedagogicalpractice. For example, teachers tend to mainly use computers and the Internet forpreparing their teaching rather than during and for their teaching in the class-room. When students were asked how much they used computers in school activ-ities during an average week, 54% reported using them for about one hour or lessand 17% said never at all (Erstad et al., 2005). Similarly, even though our analy-sis of programme plans shows that school-based programmes intend to use digi-tal technologies to create more student-centred learning environments, practicestudies have found evidence of many difficulties in actually doing this in schoolsettings. For example, teachers attitudes and convictions towards their own prac-tice are hard to change. One teacher reported during an interview at the beginningof one of the projects we documented: My students learned much more beforethese new technologies were introduced. I had long experience with teaching andknow what works. New teaching methods create chaos (Erstad, 2005).

    Students are highly aware of thisand often complain when interviewedabout using ICT in schools. When asked to what extent schools are workingtowards creating student-centred learning environments, some students noted:

    Student 1: And many teachers are not so good at using PCs, so the teachingdoes not relate to that.

    Student 2: They continue with the traditional methods even though. . .Interviewer: What do you mean with traditional methods?

    Student 2: Using the blackboard and. . .Interviewer: Can you describe typical traditional teaching?

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  • PERSPECTIVES ON DIGITAL LITERACY 117

    Student 2: When the teacher enters he says: Close all the computers and getyour note-books. [He] writes everything on the blackboard. Wewrite assignments with pen and pencil.

    Student 1: Our teacher in religion is about 70 years old. She does not knowmuch about using the PC. (Erstad, 2005)

    Examples such as this highlight key issues in the discursive struggle arounddigital literacy in curriculum policy and development in Norway. On one hand,we note the importance of the differences in access between schools and levels,which makes it difficult for some to use digital tools and work towards digitalliteracy. On the other hand, we note different conceptions of digital literacyamong teachers and students, and the discursive struggle this creates for teachersin designing learning activities using digital tools. This also illustrates the institu-tional barriers that are frequently raised when bringing digital literacy from thepolicy level down to the school level, and when trying to use a mandated concep-tion of digital literacy to change educational practice.

    DIGITAL LITERACY PRACTICES INSIDE AND OUTSIDE SCHOOLS

    One specific challenge in dealing with digital literacy as an educational policyissue is the connection or disconnection between using digital media in schoolsand using such media in the home and/or with peers as part of leisure activities.Childrens practices in media cultures outside school are the subject of a range ofresearch studies in which these are theorized either in opposition to school-basedpractices or as part of a continuum in which digital literacy practices criss-crossboth domains (Luke, 2003; Sefton-Green, 2004).

    A key issue is that students and teachers relate to technology in different ways inthese two domains. Norwegian research (replicating findings from other countries)asked students and teachers how they used computers in and outside the school. Thisresearch showed that teachers have a more limited use of information and communi-cation technologies than their students (Erstad et al., 2005). First of all, there is a bigdifference in frequency of use, with students often using digital technologies for dif-ferent purposes (such as writing, surfing the Internet, sending e-mails, chatting,downloading music, playing games and making web-pagesdaily or two to fivetimes a week). However, almost 90% of teachers use the technologies primarily forwriting, sending e-mail, searching for information or general surfing on the Internetaccording to specific interests. Crucially, the area of overlap between both groups issmall: teachers reported almost never using technologies to download music, chat orplay games; rather, they used them mainly as an extension of technologies theyalready knew (such as the typewriter or calculator) for writing letters and for search-ing information. In contrast, young people use new technologies to seek out new

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  • 118 SEFTON-GREEN, NIXON, ERSTAD

    possibilities of use, to communicate and to create. Teachers often have negativeopinions of such ICT usage but they speak less from personal experience than fromgeneral expectation. At the same time, as is summarized in the following table, wesee that many teachers have a positive attitude towards computers and the potentialimpact they might have on students learning (Erstad et al., 2005).

    This research exemplifies a broader trend in global research about young peo-ple and new technologies (e.g., Buckingham & Willett, 2006). Here, we find aninterest among young people in seeking out new and different practices, both inrespect of new media technologies (especially mobile phones) and new commu-nication practices (especially web-based, such as chat rooms, social networkingspaces and computer games).

    In virtually all of these areas, school is an absent presence, with the thrust ofresearch demonstrating newfound agency and control (even for quite young chil-dren) as the changing media playgrounds appear to offer different opportunitiesfor expression and communication (Livingstone & Bober, 2005; Marsh, 2005;Marsh et al., 2005). A key interest is how young people learn to operate in thesedomains with a variety of literacy learning models at work. For example, theShared Spaces project, led by Sefton-Green in the UK (www.wac.co.uk/shared-spaces), explored how novices in chat rooms were initiated into norms of behav-iour and interaction by older peers. Not only do peers offer direct instruction onlanguage use (emoticons and slang etc.) but they also gave regulatory advice on

    TABLE 1Differences in home and school computer use by Norwegian teachers

    and students (Erstad, 2005)

    ICT Use at Home ICT Use at School

    A majority of students have better access to computers at home than at school.

    Computers are mostly used to search the Internet and for text-based services by both students and teachers at school.

    Students use computers on many more and more advanced tasks at home than at school.

    There are small gender differences in how computers are used among students and teachers.

    Students spend more time at home with computers than at school.

    Students use computers mostly in connection with project work at school.

    Boys spend more time than girls with computers at home.

    Teachers mostly use computers to prepare their teaching.

    Teachers use the computer for the same purposes at home as at school.

    Computers are not integrated much in subject domains at any level in school.

    Male teachers spend more time using computers at home than female teachers.

    Male and female teachers spend as much time with computers when preparing school work.

    More than 50% of students report that they use computers less than one hour per week in integrated subject activities at school.

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    www.wac.co.uk/shared-spaceswww.wac.co.uk/shared-spaces

  • PERSPECTIVES ON DIGITAL LITERACY 119

    normative behaviours and values in the online world. Experience rather than ageis the key issue here, and in a parallel study of a young designer using a fan musicsite to develop his design repertoire, the more conservative models of master/apprentice roles were enabled through web based communities (OHear &Sefton-Green, 2004). In that study, the young artist was initiated not only into thelearning culture of designers (including a language and behaviour supportive ofcritique) but also into processes of direct instruction, experimentation and resub-mission of work, as he was mentored (virtually) to develop his practice. Here,digital literacy is not just an issue of technical competence with the variousimage manipulation programmes, or even the development of aesthetic values,but a deeper learning about learning behaviours.

    This distinction between content and form is particularly central to thewhole question of learning in and around computer games and computer-gamecultures. Because the content of computer games is so problematicin thetradition of all challenges posed by popular culture (Sefton-Green, 2006)oneresearch focus has been to explore how the game texts and the wider game cul-tures provide meta-learning environments, allowing players to learn aboutlearning (especially supported by the explicitly rule-based nature of gaming).Indeed, the work of Gee (2003) and his colleagues suggests that it is this plea-sure of learning that underpins the pleasures of gaming. In another study car-ried out by Sefton-Green (2004), ethnographic observation of a young childsinitiation into Pokemon showed how this learning-to-learn characteristic isintegrally related to the ways in which power and authority are constructed forthe player by the structures and procedures of the games and game culture.Work in this tradition is now developing concepts of gaming literacy (e.g.,Burn, 2007).

    However, much research into the practices of digital literacy from theseculturalist perspectives has been vexed by the dilemmas of what precisely arethe values and knowledge inculcated by these experiences. Here, we return to acentral conundrum at the heart of all discussions about literacy: its purposes andeffects. Whilst the introduction of the printing press yoked the acquisition of lit-erate behaviour with the spread of Protestantism and the moral project of the self(Luke, 1989), the challenge for theorists of digital literacy is to understand therole played by the commercial media culture in this enterprise. In other words,whilst the studies described abovealong with othershave found it quite easyto demonstrate how the acquisition of digital literacy allows the young player/user access to the regimes of consumption and participation in media culture, isthis any more than learning to behave and act as a consumer in this mediatizedworld (Couldry, 2002; Hjarvard, 2004)? It is less easy to explore how digital lit-eracy might facilitate participation as a citizen and empower forms of civic anddemocratic behaviour in ways that scholars of print literacy and civic societyhave shown, but this needs further investigation.

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  • 120 SEFTON-GREEN, NIXON, ERSTAD

    One approach to this challenge has been to explore how digital literacy prac-tices enable not just the simple performance of marketized behaviour or evennotions of competence such as those described in section two above, but thetransferability of underlying skills and knowledge from one domain to another.Here, the argument is that digital literacy (like some models of print literacy)might facilitate particular cognitive and social behaviours, and perhaps evenchange the ways in which children think and process information (e.g., Bearne,2003; Carrington, 2004; Marsh 2005). In particular, the current interest in multi-modality, itself a consequence of the turn to semiosis in new literacy studies(Kress & van Leeuwen, 2001; Kress, 2003), has drawn attention to how digitalliteracy operates across forms, media platforms, genres and modalities in intense,intertextual and self-referential fashion (e.g., Carrington, 2005; Mackey, 2002).

    The identification of these digital literacy practices is still in its infancy andstudies of cross-over practices are undeveloped. For example, studies of the useof just-in-time-knowledge offered through social networking and peer support(see Tobin, 1998), or indeed the use of search engines, or cut and paste facilities,tend to be reported sensationally as paradigm changes to conventional literacypractices. As the practices of digital literacy become more widespread, we pre-dict that there will be more studies of these hybrid knowledge-management prac-tices, and more attenuated understanding of how digital literacy practices eitherwill offer the possibility of conceptualizing new literacies or of reframing whatwe mean by literacy.

    This then returns us to the study of the missing links between digital literacyinside and outside of schools, because these kinds of research foci underscorehow present curriculum reform has some basic problems with regard to how dig-ital literacy is conceived. Typically, the curriculum is related to school activitiesand does not view learning or literacy as broader cultural activities, nor indeeddoes it reflect how everyday experiences and concepts could be further devel-oped and challenged in school-based settings. This also illustrates a need tochallenge our traditional conceptions of formal versus informal ways of learningin both school and home domains.

    CONCLUSION

    The purpose of this paper is to bring together accounts of digital literacy fromthree perspectives: the discursive formation and rhetorical validation of the con-cept in cultural policy and media discourse; its development in educational policyat a national level and its implementation in curriculum reform; and researchinvestigating youth media practices. By drawing on research from across thedeveloped world, we have tried to triangulate the meaning and use of thisemerging concept. We have tried to stress how its meaning develops points of

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  • PERSPECTIVES ON DIGITAL LITERACY 121

    contestation and struggle. It is obvious how the broader neo-liberal interests inopening up technology markets and the knowledge economy have battled bothwith older notions of literacy, and with how such notions have been institutional-ized in public debate, curriculum and teaching practices. Indeed, one use of ouranalysis is to underscore how older models of literacy also worked with contem-porary interests in industrializing societies.

    At this stage we want to focus on the more negative, under-researched andsilent implications of this project. Often described as the digital divide, wewant to conclude by drawing attention to how, across all three dimensions, digi-tal literacy also carries within it a notion of digital illiteracy (Warschauer, 2003).

    Despite the rhetorical move to place digital literacy at the forefront of nationalpolicies to enhance economic competitiveness, it is clear from studying digitalliteracy practices in Norway, a typical example of a developed country, thatyoung people gain most of their experiences and knowledge in relating to digitaltechnologies outside the formal institutions of knowledge building. Thus, assuggested by our opening account, invoking the historical tensions within theproject of mass literacy, digital competence among young people today upsetsassumptions about learning in schools, because it seriously confronts thoseearlier conceptions of literacy and learning as being the primary symbolic powersof schooling.

    However, we are also suggesting that for all of this challenge, as digital liter-acy becomes curricularized and as it becomes dominant or even normative inpopular discourse, we can see a process of recuperation at work. With one clearexception, digital literacy has moved through its moment of positing alternativenarratives and other communication modalities to return to core processes of reg-ulated access and exclusion. The evidence from our surveys and researchdescribed above points to the ways in which digital literacy is becoming equatedwith the norms of middle-class childhood, and how participation in digital cul-ture is accessed via the market place of the media industries. Here, the processesof inclusion and exclusion at work in terms of digital literacy are coexistent withother broader social processes of class and gender formation. Schools, as thetraditional means of redressing illiteracy, do not seem to be affecting this divisionin respect of supporting other avenues to achieve digital literacy.

    However, the one area in which digital literacy practices do seem to bechanging older power relationshipsand in which school is clearly not satis-factorily recuperating digital literacyis in the area of pedagogy. Here wemean that modes of taught literacy and the teaching of digital literacy areclearly in, if not open conflict, then sustained negotiation. The ways in whichyoung people learn and use new technologies in informal situations clearlydraw on modes of teaching and learning that are very different from teacher-student roles conventionally found in schools. It would seem as if these non-formal or out-of-school pedagogic relationships may be transferring to other

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  • 122 SEFTON-GREEN, NIXON, ERSTAD

    kinds of learning relationships in school or into other teacher/learner transac-tions, then this is where digital literacies may be having their greatest transfor-mative effect.

    In the short term, a focus on changing the role of schools in our society inorder to make them better adjusted to the challenges of the knowledge societyneeds to take this into account. In several countries, this impulse is mainly evi-dent in the attention to strengthening basic skills in core subjects and advocatingthe need for digital literacy as a new kind of basic skill. How this develops inpractical learning activities in schools is still an open question, and how it buildson students own experiences of framing learning and acting in the knowledgelandscapes of digital culture is continually problematic.

    A key but under-researched implication of this shift then is the new marginal-izing mechanisms that develop as an unintended outcome of digital literacy pro-grammes in schools. We need to ask who will gain and who will lose fromprioritizing digital literary as an aim of schooling. And who is to define whatcounts as digital literacy? The digital divide tends to be discussed as an unfortu-nate side effect of the knowledge society but we want to end by suggesting thatthis is a superficial analysis. Reframing the digital divide as a logical conse-quence of the project of digital literacy would stem from the fact that literacyneeds to define itself against forms of illiteracy; that it is not just a neutralempowering process, but entry into a specific set of social opportunities. In otherwords, for digital literacy to exist, it needs to define itself against the digitallyilliterate, or those excluded from participation in digital culture. This clearlyneeds further research and theorization, but unless we accommodate the negativeand exclusionary ways in which digital literacy functions in practiceand espe-cially what happens in its school manifestationit may not be a useful or accu-rate formulation of what it means to communicate, act and enjoy the textualpractices of digital culture. We need to explore the dark side of the digital dividerather than simply celebrate the whizzy wonders of digital culture.

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