Digital Literacy: Learning to Run Twice as Fast

“Well, in our country,” said Alice, still panting a little, “you’d generally get to somewhere else if you ran very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.”
“A slow sort of country!” said the Queen. “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll

Are we running and just staying in the same place, as the Queen in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland suggests, or are we running twice as fast and getting somewhere?
We’ve been experiencing rapid societal change brought about by new technologies and digital media availability through the Internet for over twenty years. A new generation of ‘digital natives’ (a term coined by Marc Prensky to describe the generation that has grown up with the Internet) exists who have a natural relationship to the new technologies and media.
Digital natives, unlike previous generations (the ‘digital immigrants’), are not just receivers of information but are highly active information and content generators. Even further, they are participants in media presented to them online through the astronomical rise of social media. They expect a right of reply and they learn from the right to reply of others. This is a multi-dimensional learning experience and one in which participants are less and less willing to accept a paternalistic, top-down, approach to the educational process.
Educators and trainers, labouring within traditional and often strictly linear approaches to learning, have been working furiously to keep up with both the pace of technological change and changes in the way learners now approach learning and content creation and dissemination.

But are we actually moving towards a new style of learning suited to the ‘digital native’ or are we just pushing the same approaches through new channels? Professor Martin Westell, director of the Flinder’s Centre for Science Education in the 21st Century thinks our current approach is just not addressing the fundamental shifts that are taking place:

We’re using technology in education in a fairly purposeless way, chucking lots of money at it without necessarily thinking about whether the technology we are using is appropriate for the particular outcomes we want to achieve… We’re not really providing our kids with the skills that will make them productive users of technology in the future… Being a productive user of technology is about the purposeful use of technology, identifying what you want to achieve and then how technology might be used to help.

Loosely, the skills that Westell refers to are those that are now frequently brought in under the banner of digital literacy. Digital literacy has to be at the heart of any new approach to education and training but is a term that still creates some confusion, either suggesting too little or encompassing too much depending on who is providing the definition.

The European Union project on digital literacy, an EU initiative to address digital competency issues in member states ( , provides a key to understanding the central role that digital literacy must play in education and training:

Digital literacy has become an essential life skill which, if absent or underdeveloped, becomes a barrier to social integration and personal development.

Digital literacy involves the ‘confident and critical use of Information Society Technology for work, leisure and communication. It is underpinned by basic skills in ICT: the use of computers to retrieve, assess, store, produce, present and exchange information and to participate in collaborative networks via the Internet’ . Seen as a precondition for the development of digital literacy are basic literacy skills – mathematical, reading, problem solving, spatial and visual. The EU definition concludes that ‘digital literacy constitutes the sum of fundamental skills and technical skills’.
What is becoming clear is that learners in the 21st Century can be digital natives but can also lack fundamental skills that enable them to satisfactorily analyse the information they retrieve.
Literacy includes the ability to read and interpret media (text, sound, images), to reproduce data and images through digital manipulation, to evaluate and apply new knowledge gained from digital environments… the most critical of these is the ability to make educated judgements about what we find online.
There has been a slow introduction into both the education system and training sector of improved methodologies to increase the basic literacy skills of all learners. This has been paralleled by an acceleration amongst learners of their technical skills. The result is that many learners are now extremely competent users of technology but have poor critical and evaluative tools to process the massive amounts of information available to them. This, in turn, leads to a situation where content is created or consumed rapidly by skilled users but where the reliability of that content can be questionable. Digital literacy does not automatically follow from the ability to use the ICT tools competently. Net result: we do all the running we can to stay in the same place.
In a report prepared by the European Union’s Joint Research Centre’s Institute for Prospective Technological Studies four key areas are identified as being central to digital competence:

  1. Privacy and security: A high proportion (79%) of young internet users are not careful in sharing private information (Pew/Internet, 2005), and 40% of older (50+) social network users would give their real contact information online (OCLC, 2007). Knowledge and awareness of internet security issues is important with networks and user-created content (Ala-Mutka, 2008).
  2. Ethical and legal use: 32% of teenagers have been cyberbullied (Lenhart, 2007), which has caused schools to ban access to social media sites (Ala-Mutka, 2008). Research suggests that only 37% of students are aware of IPR rules with online materials (Chou et al, 2007).
  3. A critical attitude in creating content is important for employability: 22% of employers screen potential employees from social computing sites (Careerbuilder, 2008). 21.4% of US companies have detected exposure of sensitive information in blogs or similar tools by employees, leading to disciplinary actions in most companies.
  4. A critical attitude in using content is needed: Online content affects people’s decisions and activities (Ala-Mutka, 2008). 34% of European internet users have decided, on the basis of information from a blog, not to buy a product. Online information has led 7.9% of eUser study respondents not to follow a doctor’s advice, and 19.5% not to go to a doctor. Educational institutes are banning Wikipedia usage, as students have not shown they have the skills to use it critically and responsibly.

The report highlights the need for ‘advanced competence for all jobs and for all learners’. In terms of a lifelong learning scenario the terms of reference do not change. Learners need to become more responsively and critically aware of the information they retrieve and create, as well as being able to articulate a response to issues surrounding ethics, privacy and security on the Internet.

Although there is an increasing awareness of the issues surrounding digital literacy there is still very little innovative work being done. We need to break from traditional ways of viewing and delivering education and training and fully engage the learner within the framework of the new digital and social paradigm.

If we are to keep running twice as fast and get somewhere, more work needs to be done, and with some urgency, to establish creative ways to deliver education and training that strengthens digital literacy skills and competency. Educational and training approaches need to be developed that recognise the fundamental shift that has occurred in the relationship between information provider and receiver, and teacher and student, and that embrace the creative, social and learning opportunities provided by Information Society Technology.


(Digital reprint of article: copyright Tony Hughes. First published by AFG Venture Group in the AFG Venture Group Dispatches.)


[1] Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants — A New Way To Look At Ourselves and Our Kids, Prensky, M. Available as a PDF download  from

[2] Fran Molloy, ‘It’s Only Natural’, FastThinking, Autumn 2010.

[3] What is Digital Literacy?, EU project for Digital Literacy,

[4] What is Digital Literacy?, EU project for Digital Literacy,

[5] What is Digital Literacy?, EU project for Digital Literacy,

[6] ‘Connecting the Dots: Literacy of the 21st Century’, EDUCAUSE,

[7] Digital Competance for Lifelong Learning, JRC. JRC48708,

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