Digital literacy concerns how individuals navigate and employ digital tools to consume and produce information.
Writing spaces and technologies are constantly evolving. For example, over the years, writers have moved from writing on stone or bark or papyrus or paper or computer screens. For example, today, someone might shoot off a quick work email from their Apple Watch while on a run, or write a midterm paper in the notes app on their smartphone. These digital technologies allow us to communicate whenever and wherever and eliminate our need to be tied to a specific place to write. However, as writer and cultural critic Nicholas Carr indicated in his seminal article, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?,” the technologies we use to communicate also fundamentally change the ways that we process information and think about the world. Each time communication technology has progressed, it has required that people adapt their thinking and writing processes to interface with these new technologies, from the pencil, to the printing press, to the computer.
As a result, to be successful as a writer and communicator, you require some level of digital literacy, which can be defined as the ability to not only use digital technologies, but also employ them to problem solve and create. As technologies have evolved, changing our roles as users and producers of information, thought leaders in technology have proposed a wider view of the skills required to be digitally literate. For example, Hague and Payton proposed eight components of digital literacy:
Payton and Hague move beyond the basic competencies to focus on using digital tools to problem solve, including finding information, collaborating with diverse audiences, and creating effective digital products. In addition, they argue that digital literacy involves effective practices for safety and communication, such as identifying fake news and avoiding practices that expose digital users to risk. Finally, the model introduces whether and how cultural and social influences affect digital technologies, and how digital technology and practices in fact shape cultural and social beliefs.
Therefore, an operational definition of digital literacy must include not only the basic abilities required to interface with technology, but also the ability to use these abilities to solve problems and communicate with a wide variety of audiences. Moreover, a digitally literate person must make ethical, safe, and rhetorical decisions while using digital technologies, as well as understanding and reflecting on the societal and cultural implications of increased involvement with technology. These skills have become the contemporary cornerstone of information literacy, and have fundamentally changed the way that we think, research, write, and receive feedback. As time goes on, it is likely that even this wider definition of digital literacy will expand, and these skills will become increasingly desired and even necessary in contemporary workplaces. It’s important, therefore, to remain open in your mindset towards the value learning digital competencies.
However, you might also be wondering…
Why is Digital Literacy Important to Me?
As a college student, you probably know that some level of digital proficiency is important. School environments have become increasingly supplemented with online work, including word processing software, online homework and lectures, and digital assignments. If you have to complete research, you likely do so completely online. Right now, you’re here, reading an online, free access textbook, potentially completely replacing your course textbooks.This increased reliance on technologies has made education more democratic and available to people everywhere and has vastly improved learning environments, but this movement online also means those without digital skills will be increasingly left out.
These skills will also be important in your workplaces, as you’ll be required to communicate, collaborate, and create content using digital tools. It’s important for you to cultivate some digital skills because in most work environments, employers expect that you will not only be digitally literate, but digitally fluent–able to navigate increasingly online worlds of work seamlessly without exposing the company to risk and to use digital literacies to solve problems that you might face in the workforce. They may expect that you are able to not only perform simple tasks like using a word processing software or sending an email, but also figure out how to use advanced email functions, track workflow or scheduling with online programs, create deliverables that can be used in the workplace, and a variety of other tasks. The expectations are especially high because in the United States, the traditional college demographic, ages 18-24, have been dubbed “digital natives”–people who cannot remember or have not experienced a world without technology.
In addition, the increased use of technology has led to additional concerns for people at work. For example, did you know that, according to a 2018 survey by Career Builder, 70% of employers look at social media to screen potential candidates, and eliminate people for multitudinous reasons, like drinking too much, lying about qualifications posting discriminatory content, or even just posting too much (qtd. in Hayes)? In the workforce, basic lack of understanding of basic digital proficiencies, like avoiding phishing scams or using appropriate passwords for protection, often leaves workforces and individuals vulnerable. It is clear that no matter how familiar we are with technology, or perhaps because of our comfort, we must seek out and build competencies to be successful in today’s workforce.
At this point, you might be thinking–OK, boomers. I can use my mouse, and probably use more technology before breakfast than most employers have in their whole lives. This section clearly isn’t for me. If you’ve been handling an iPad and programming your grandparents’ or parents’ remote controls your whole life, you may have a sense that you can handle any digital task that comes your way. Students interact regularly with digital technology, and can for the most part demonstrate the basic functions the NCES indicates above. Yet, students often report that they can’t find or identify reliable, credible sources to support their research papers, struggle with creating effective digital products, like PowerPoint presentations or data visualizations, or misunderstand how technology, like Google Drive or Microsoft Online, can help them collaborate and create more effective products.
Digital Literacy and the Writing Process
Moreover, complete acceptance of technology into our lives also leads a lot of students to be unaware of the processes of using technology as tools to solve problems or create digital products, which is another expectation that employers reported in the NCES survey. Increasingly, professors are assigning digital projects or including digital components of courses so students can learn these competencies in a low-stakes environment. However, students may either feel completely left out of processes that go into creating digital products–e.g., how to create a video, website, or infographic–or they might completely underestimate how much work and effort goes into creating these products. If you’re hoping to complete a successful project, it can be helpful to think of digital projects in terms of the familiar, by going back to steps of composing and creative processes used in traditional writing: