Textual Literacy vs. Digital Literacy

There is more chatter about digital literacy lately. Government, business and education are making a more concerted effort to portray digital literacy as an urgency, which it is. But there also seems to be a disturbing trend developing. Namely, a tendency to position digital literacy as an Information Age analog to textual literacy, which it is not.

Textual literacy and digital literacy are not parent and child or even brother and sister. At best they are cousins. In some ways the two don’t correlate at all.

Thinking of textual literacy and digital literacy as two sides of the same coin might be a convenient heuristic, a shortcut to understanding, but it also runs the risk of limiting our approahes to doing something about it. [See Literacy 2.0 9/15/10]

Consider the distinct differences between learning to be a textual literate and becoming a digital literate. When it comes to traditional literacy we have thousands of years of experience to draw on and thousands of generations of literates to learn from. There is a general consensus on what textual literacy is, what needs to be taught and what needs to be learned.

Digital literacy is just the opposite. It is new, unprecedented and microgenerational. Other than in the area of basic computer and Internet skills it is difficult to find agreement on exactly what digital literacy is or what needs to be learned simply because it is so heavily contextual and changing so rapidly. If textual were evolving as fast digital we would need a new grammar book each week.

If you are textually literate, you know it, and if you aren’t you know why not–you know what you don’t know.

If you are digitally literate, you are only partially so, no matter how adept you are, and it is impossible to know exactly what you are missing–you don’t know what you don’t know.

  • Textual literacy is a well-trodden path.
  • Digital literacy is a journey into the unknown.
  • Textual literacy is a life skill.
  • Digital literacy is a lifestyle.
  • Textual literacy is something you learn to do.
  • Digital literacy is something you learn to be.

The dissimilarity between the two is comparable to the difference between the traditional physics of Isaac Newton and the new physics of quantum mechanics. They are linked in some fundamental way, to be sure, but traditional literacy is more like the knowable and predictable laws that govern a falling apple, while digital literacy is more like the uncertainty, probability and randomness that govern the actions of subatomic particles.

Another major difference: Traditional literacy has been traditionally taught in designated learning environments, including homes, schools and libraries. The digital literacy classroom, by contrast, is all around us and largely undefined. It is anywhere devices and radio waves can travel.

Unlike Literacy 1.0, which is taught largely by the book, Literacy 2.0 is learned mostly on the fly.

Does that mean we need to discard the term digital literacy if we hope to make progress in achieving it? Well, yes and no.

Ideally, we should never have adopted digital literacy (or literacy 2.0 for that matter) to refer to all the skills, attitudes and behaviors that the Digital Age requires. But at the same time, the term provides a frame of reference for addressing our needs with regards to working, learning and communicating in an electronically enabled world.

If we hold on to the term–and it seems as if it is going to stick–we face the challenge of using it as a touchstone without allowing it to become an anchor.

 Original Photo: DonkeyHotey

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