This webtext began with a simple question: “What is digital literacy?” Paul Gilster (1997) answers that digital literacy is about ideas, not keystrokes, about using myriad formats and sources to navigate, evaluate, and produce information. Others have extended Gilster's definition, emphasizing the appropriate and informed use of digital tools given the social constraints and goals of a domain (Martin, 2008), and noting that because literacy is a social value, it must exist within a moral framework that defines "success" in society (Bawden, 2008).
The general conclusion is that digital literacy is the ability to effectively communicate in digital environments using digital tools. It is more than knowing how to use tools; it is about interrogating the social context that facilitates a communicative act.
I appreciate that these definitions of digital literacy are purposefully abstract so that they can be applied in multiple contexts, but as a writing instructor, I craved a more concrete, practical understanding of what it means to be “literate” in the world today.1 I also recognize that the pages of Computers and Composition and Computers and Composition Online are filled with applications of theories of digital literacy. In recent volumes, scholars recommend integrating digital literacy activities and assignments such as gaming (Sabatino, 2014; Colby, 2014), digital literacy narratives (Bradbury, 2014), and student-produced videos (Adams, 2014; Briggs, 2014) into composition classrooms. While these specific applications are both interesting and insightful, they are often only generalizable to courses that also focus on games, narratives, or videos.
I take a slightly different approach in this webtext and develop a definition of digital literacy as a learning outcome that has three concrete characteristics: multimodal composition, information, and collaboration. In practice, a syllabus might state that one learning outcome of a course is to “practice digital literacy skills;” to help students achieve this outcome, the instructor would integrate activities that ask students to create multimodal compositions, interrogate the ways information is produced and distributed, and reflect upon the collaborative nature of authority in online communities. Depending on the goals of the course, the activities that align with the characteristics will necessarily vary, and one characteristic of digital literacy might be privileged. In this way, this strategy identifies specific characteristics that can be designed for and measured not only in a variety of college writing courses, but also across a program or series of courses.
To develop this definition of digital literacy as a learning outcome, I first offer a historical overview of literacy instruction, then address the complex relationship between tools and literacy. Next, building upon the definition of literacy developed in the first two sections, I draw on literature from the fields of composition, digital media and learning, and literacy studies to define and describe pedagogical applications of multimodal composition, information, and collaboration. Finally, I conclude the webtext with a discussion of how those three characteristics can guide the design and assessment of college writing classes, and courses across the curriculum.
1 For the purposes of this webtext, I define the "world today" as English-speaking Americans who have reliable access to the internet and to digital devices. I recognize that this description is necessarily not representative of all Americans, nor is it generalizable to other cultures. It is my hope that future research will investigate the ways the diverse subcultures of American society and other nationalities deviate from my characterization of our current social context; such work is critical to literacy research because it illuminates the power structures inherent in definitions of social values like digital literacy. However, in order to define digital literacy, it is necessary to specify a social context, and it seems prudent to begin defining the learning outcome of digital literacy in terms of the "mainstream" American college student. [back to text]