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Digital Literacy - Spectrum of Understanding the Terms

Page history last edited by bradyx 12 years, 1 month ago




Just curious- a review of the understanding of terms associated with Digital Literacy at Worcester College of Technology

October 2011

Background overview

As part of the initial base lining phase of the JISC Digital Literacy project ‘Wordle’ at Worcester College of Technology we decided to ask our whole community to interpret the main phrases or key terms associated with digital literacy. Our community offers a broad range of individuals from school age, further education, higher education, adult professional courses and the college members of staff.


These phrases or words were identified during a literature review of the various definitions attached to Digital Literacy. This literature review identified to us that there is more that one perspective of what digital literacy means and the associated skills, tools and umbrella terms meant to people or different stakeholders. We reviewed between 50 - 60 documents in our literature review and the key umbrella terms associated with digital literacy were categorised into different literacies or means of being digitally literate. The categories most often referred to were: information, digital, research, online, media and ICT. Amongst these sub categories was also a variance in the level of interpretation that depending on context, agencies and change agendas.


With such an array of interpretation we decided to conduct a small experiment of our own to see if there are differences in interpretation amongst our own college community, more specifically offer a spectrum of interpretation.  For this we decided to look at this from the divergent perspective of those with different background experiences, life priorities and exposure to the application of digital literacy or learning literacies per se from both technologically driven and traditional backgrounds. We framed our investigation around the most infamous of models that deems there are two categorises of individual that exist today; those who have grown up digitally and those who have not, those labelled the digital natives and those labelled digital immigrants (Prensky, 2001).



Participants Profile

There is a stereo typical view that digital natives and digital immigrants are the polar opposites when it comes to technology. The natives are hot using technology and the immigrants give it the cold shoulder due to technophobia with a resistance to change.


Fig 1.1: The stereotypical view of digital natives and digital immigrants




Our students range from teenagers who have grown up digital both educationally and socially to those returning to education as mature learners whose computer use was a later addition to their more ‘un-digitally’ educated profile. Some of the latter would still regard their digital literacy as a very current learning curve. As such our college community profile can often range within the ‘digital natives’ and ‘digital immigrants’ spectrum. The natives and immigrants apparently possess a completely different set of learning preferences, skills for finding information, researching and communicating and it is claimed that the natives even have their brains wired very differently to the immigrants due to growing up digital (Prensky, 2001a).


With this in mind we asked our students to interpret key words associated with digital literacy to see if these differences were reflected. These participants were randomly selected learners and members of staff who fit into the mythical profile categorisations of digital natives or digital immigrants.

¢  We took a cross-section of 21 so called digital immigrants (adults age 35+ - consisting of mature students, study centre staff and teachers)

¢  We took a cross-section of 26 so called Digital Natives (Aged 16-19 FE students consisting of construction and Early Years L1, Health Social Care L2, Travel & Tourism L3)




Using the tool survey monkey that offers an anonymous method of data collection we asked the following questions:


¢  What words, skills, phrases, tools, resources, activities do you instinctively associate with the term: Literate

¢  What words, skills, phrases, tools, resources, activities do you instinctively associate with the term: Digital

¢  What words, skills, phrases, tools, resources, activities do you instinctively associate with the term: Information

¢  What words, skills, phrases, tools, resources, activities do you instinctively associate with the term: Research

¢  What words, skills, phrases, tools, resources, activities do you instinctively associate with the term: Digital Literacy


The results were then processed into the Word cloud software ‘Wordle’ (REF).


All results from those in the ‘natives’ profile we entered into the Wordle software as one set of data, Then those in the ‘immigrants’ profile were entered as another. The results within survey monkey appeared as a range of words for each answer as illustrated by Fig 1.2.


The Wordle software works by word frequency counts, the more a word is repeated the bigger it appears on the word cloud.

Before entering the Survey Monkey data into the Wordle software a spell check was conducted to ensure that the word count was a more accurate representation of each instance of a word not the variance of spellings as that would affect the overall size of the main key words visually presented.


Fig 1.2: Data capture as it appears in survey monkey 






The Wordle clouds illustrate the comparison data from the two groups and the images represent their different the overall difference in their interpretations of the key words. Each question is represented in turn.


(Definition sources taken from: http://www.thefreedictionary.com/literate)



 Q: What does the word ‘literate’ mean? 




1. a. Able to read and write.

b. Knowledgeable or educated in a particular field or fields.

2. Familiar with literature; literary.

3. Well-written; polished: a literate essay.


1. One who can read and write.

2. A well-informed, educated person.





Natives: The natives have the strong influence of the word “English” this being the standout narrative from their word cloud that indicates they perceive ‘literate’ to be predominately that of language. More interesting is that none of the words offered referred to their abilities or skill sets that would indicate a slightly different interpretation. Basic actions were identified such as “writing” and “Spelling” and “Books”, these were the only physical sources quoted here, with no technological or digital offerings.

Their main interpretation to “English” may also be due to their most recent experiences relating literate to ‘literacy’ as the subject of English as it is referred to in some Schools. Therefore it seems this was translated or interpreted in the more literal sense possibly in reference to their most recent interpretation they have experienced, and certainly not interpreted by a means of skills, abilities or understanding of a set of subject or skills using technologies or tools.


Immigrants: A wide range of words were offered here with few words that stand out significantly. It is striking that the vast majority of the words are action words that indicate their perception that “literate” is something that is acquired, learnt and about ongoing activities. This interpretation is more about being ‘able’ or ‘understand. Due to the amount of words in the cloud there is clearly a wider interpretation of this beyond literacy in the more literal and education sense of ‘English’

Overall I would say a stronger influence in the wider application of the word being literate and being able to understand, more skills based than it is subject based.



 Q: What does the word ‘Digital’ mean? 




1. a. Relating to, or resembling a digit, especially a finger.

b. Operated or done with the fingers: a digital switch.

c. Having digits.

2. Expressed in discrete numerical form, especially for use by a computer or other electronic device: digital information.

3. Electronics

a. Relating to or being a device that can generate, record, process, receive, transmit, or display information that is represented in discrete numerical form.

b. Relating to or being a service that provides information expressed in discrete numerical form: We subscribe to digital cable.

4. Relating to or being a profession or activity that is performed using digital devices: a digital librarian; digital photography.

5. Using or giving a reading in digits: a digital clock.

6. Characterized by widespread use of computers: living in the digital age.




Natives: This seems to be more about naming the devices they possess and this dominates the responses obtained. Also references to ‘time’ appear quite significantly, possibly due to the name we still use ‘digital clock’ or to the time saving digital tools offer. These two areas indicate that “Digital” is perhaps perceived as devices by which they function and communicate with and the time, speed and accessibility of significant importance. From the choices given these devices seem to be predominantly for entertainment and social use and online information and learning are entirely absent.


Immigrants: The word ‘electronic’ is very prominent in the word cloud.  Word not used at all by the natives. As immigrants it seems to be a word that personifies the new digital age to them, and the journey society has had with technology thus far. A much wider range of devices, resources and online activities have been mentioned. It may also be that immigrants have been through the age of ‘electronic’ devices as opposed to natives that now refer to devices as ‘digital’.



 Q: What does the word ‘Information’ mean? 




1. Knowledge derived from study, experience, or instruction.

2. Knowledge of specific events or situations that has been gathered or received by communication; intelligence or news. See Synonyms at knowledge.

3. A collection of facts or data: statistical information.

4. The act of informing or the condition of being informed; communication of knowledge: Safety instructions are provided for the information of our passengers.

5. Computer Science Processed, stored, or transmitted data.

6. A numerical measure of the uncertainty of an experimental outcome.

7. Law A formal accusation of a crime made by a public officer rather than by grand jury indictment.




Natives: “Internet” dominates this cloud by some margin, with “Google” as the next prominent word. Clearly they perceive the internet as place to obtain their information and state the means of how they find the information via the internet and significant. “Books” were also mentioned, but beyond that no other sources were offered. This group it seems are strongly dominated or influenced by the internet as a source of information, quite possibly as this has played a heavy part in their own learning as a source to gain information, this supports the theory that this influence maybe because they have spent their lives ‘growing up digital’. It also is an indication that the internet is their primary source to find information.


Immigrants: A wide spread of words offered, with none standing out prominently unlike the natives cloud. The words show a range of sources of information also with reference to a range of methods by which they may acquire it, something missing from the natives cloud. This does somewhat reflect that they have been influenced by more traditional sources during their learning life or growing up and have d the addition of technology to add to that resource bank, but technology certainly does not have the strongest influence to them when they interpret the word information. This cloud shows they see a wider range of information sources with the same level of importance as avenues to source information.



 Q: What does the word ‘Research’ mean?




1. Scholarly or scientific investigation or inquiry. See Synonyms at inquiry.

2. Close, careful study.

v. re·searched, re·search·ing, re·search·es


To engage in or perform research.


1. To study (something) thoroughly so as to present in a detailed, accurate manner: researching the effects of acid rain.

2. To do research for: research a magazine article.




Natives: Both groups show “information” as a clear reference here. The natives like their ‘Information’ cloud again state “internet” & “Google” as major players in this area. The cloud shows a near total reliance on the internet to carry out research activity.


Immigrants: “Information” and “Finding” are the two prominent words here, and when you compare this cloud to the others this ‘immigrants’ have produced the results offer many words of which few have shown any significant trends or prominent words that can be identified.


Comparisons: This was the most strikingly different representation of the term ‘research’. It is clear that there is a much heavier influence of the role of technology and the internet from the natives group. ‘Information’ being the key associated phrase for both and the ‘Internet’ and ‘Google’ clearly the tools that have prevalence with natives, whereas the immigrants the technology influence is far less obvious and certainly not at the forefront.


The term research for the immigrants also seems to reflect a better understanding of the processes involved and research methods whereas the natives refer to research as information. This is interesting as it could indicate that those in the natives profile may not have yet been exposed to research methods modules, therefore tools predominate. The immigrants are made up of more mature students, study centre staff and teachers, many of which would have been exposed to research methods and processes to under go a research project, conduct practice based research, or seek new knowledge. The natives do not refer to ‘finding’ as dominantly as the immigrants, maybe ‘research’ top them is not seeking out new knowledge but using the tools to check existing knowledge sources based on their own periphery of information sources.




Q: What does ‘Digital Literacy’ mean? 


‘Digital Literacy’ has a whole array of definitions available as explored in our baseline literature search  




Natives: As has been identified in several other clouds, “internet” and “Google” are most prominent. Overall the range of words offered for “digital literacy” is entirely dominated by the internet.


Immigrants: The range of words offered refers to a need to learn skills and a desire to embrace technology. Many other words offered show an understanding of how they perceive society as a whole can benefit from embracing technologies.




Conclusion –considerations for supporting digital literacy skills


This was an interesting exercise to undertake and did reveal some differences between the generations. However these differences are not indicative of any claims that one generation understands digital literacy and the associated terms better. It demonstrates that our college community has a spectrum of understanding of the terms used when discussing the area of digital literacy, learning, information, research and what it means to be literate.


Overview of emerging themes and differences to take into consideration such as the strong influence that has emerged from the 'natives' view of the world and how these terms fit in their perspective. The natives very much focus on the tools of the age, possibly influenced by the fact they have grown up with these in their everyday life and don't know any different. The 'immigrants' show an influence of the more tradition tools and experiences and the process side of interpreting the key terms. They do show awareness of a range of tools both digital and traditional but this is not a strong preference for understanding digital literacy per se. It seems they see many of these terms from the dimension of 'doing', 'understanding' and abiltiy. The natives however show a little niaivity towards the processes that possibly indicates their early exposure to the range of processes that post compulsary education can bring as they mature as lifelong learners.


The native interpretation may change as they progress along their lifelong journey and as they are exposed to more proccesses, deeper understandings and more independent procceses. It is clear that as a whole community that there are a range of starting points for their understandings of the range of tools, proccesses and skills they need for learning and as such the digital literacy support that is needed may be very different at each stage.


The influence of the web could be masking the 'native' non awareness of other tools, but could also indicate a shallow depth of using resources for learning. It could be they turn to the web for everything and bypass the more traditional methods due to convenience, time and the need for immediate answers.


Due to the range of interpretation as a college we need to clarify our educational focus for Digital Literacy and identify the framework of tools, resources and people to support all levels of scholarship to apply digital literacy skills effectively in both breadth and depth. The whole community need to be working towards an agreed understanding of digital literacy and understsand our vision to support Digital Literacy Skills across all levels. This should also indicate the depth and breadth of tools, resources and proccesses needed to be digitally literate - not just in the use of computers keystrokes and awareness of tools and devices but also and most importantly in the cognitive proccesses involved to use them effectively for quality learning experiences.




Prensky, M. (2001) ‘Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants’, On the Horizon, MCB University Press, vol.9, no.5; also available online at http://www.marcprensky.com/writing/Prensky%20-%20Digital%20Natives,%20Digital%20Immigrants%20-%20Part1.pdf



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