Leave out the digital literacy. Part One

May 19, 2014 § 9 Comments

Please read the following very carefully. It is the opening Statement of Purpose to new subject in the National Curriculum for England, computing. And it is positively bursting with goodness:

“A high-quality computing education equips pupils to understand and change the world through logical thinking and creativity, including by making links with mathematics, science, and design and technology. The core of computing is computer science, in which pupils are taught the principles of information and computation, and how digital systems work. Computing equips pupils to use information technology to create programs, systems and a range of media. Building on this knowledge and understanding, pupils are equipped to use information technology to create programs, systems and a range of content. Computing also ensures that pupils become digitally literate – able to use, and express themselves and develop their ideas through, information and communication technology – at a level suitable for the future workplace and as active participants in a digital world.”

Change the world! Or at least maybe find a job. Here are the keys to your digital future. Consider yourselves equipped.

Overblown rhetoric aside, this represents, in epistemological terms, what might be viewed as a very significant shift in traditional British thinking about education. In effect, it proposes that the rigour and discipline of computer programming is capable of providing children with all the things that were once thought to be afforded by a classical education: logical thinking, creativity, understanding, self-expression and empowerment. If Athens was once the intellectual cradle of civilisation, I guess it is now located in a cloud somewhere between Stanford and Seoul.

In the detail of thinking that follows this opening statement, these proposals seem quite attractive, and will certainly resonate strongly with a portion of the school population at least. So, it has to be correct to offer all young people the chance to learn how to “to create programs, systems and a range of content” in appropriate and engaging ways. This could be creative, productive and educational fun, if done well (the prospects of actually being able to provide this high quality computing education right across the system are somewhat less certain). For all the hyperbole of the opening sentence, the basic premise of promoting a child friendly version of computer science is both daring and sound.

But please note: computer science is a discipline in its own right. And like any discipline, there are strict limits to its concerns; the inner logic of the thing. I cannot see why the inner logic of computer science is expected to encompass the notion of digital literacy – a claim that is offered as a final irresistible flourish in the statement of purpose, presumably to reassure us that whilst the baby that was ICT has indeed been thrown out, its bath-water remains:

“Computing also ensures that pupils become digitally literate – able to use, and express themselves and develop their ideas through, information and communication technology – at a level suitable for the future workplace and as active participants in a digital world.”

Computer science concerns the application of symbolic languages to the manufacture of mediated communications and representations. It is, quite evidently, a morally neutral activity which is concerned with making things work well. Digital literacy, on the other hand, is essentially a moral construct that concerns itself with guiding people to use digital media in socially desirable ways, so that they may contribute to the knowledge economy, and not disrupt the moral economy. There is a meeting point for the two, I acknowledge: you can’t be an effective knowledge worker if the code breaks down; but then neither can you send abusive messages on Twitter if the code breaks down. Just because digital literacy comes from the same wellspring as computing, it does not mean that they can be made to serve each other educationally.

This is a fundamental fallacy of false relations – like thinking that if you eat a lot of fish you will learn to swim.

Coming soon – part 2. What kind of digital literacy do we want, if any?


Chris Davies



§ 9 Responses to Leave out the digital literacy. Part One

  • Mike Downes says:

    I was alerted to this post as it contains the words ”digital literacy”. I’m not really sure what I’ve stumbled upon? I’m new to this blog, so am I to take what you say literally? If so, then from the title and the ending, it seems you have no time (or need) for digital literacy?

    As for me, a primary teacher for twenty years (now turned online), I believe digital literacy to be vital. In fact, through my recent studies in #yearofcode #hourofcode and the new curriculum, it would be so useful if any teacher or parent came to the table with adequate computing skills.

    I cannot see any reference to digital natives, immigrants or visitors? For me, the young minds are the ones who are growing up digital and it’s the analogue adults that are holding them back.

    I think your analogies are incorrect too. To use one of my own, a few years ago the Brits were looking for another wimbledon champion. Youngsters were encouraged to play tennis at a very early age. If a child stepped onto the court without any level of fitness or nutrition, they would be at a severe disadvantage.

    That’s how I see digital literacy, a basecamp awareness to the world around us. So, if a young person gets online at YouTube and watches some Java videos, there’s a pretty good chance they will be on the way to thinking about an Android app.


  • Chris Davies says:


    In this post, I was mainly trying to say that computer science is a very different animal from digital literacy, and I think it is a mistake to try to mix them up.

    I think digital literacy is quite a muddled concept, and in my next post I will try to talk about that a bit more. I certainly am not saying that young people should not learn about the digital world, and I did not say they should not learn coding. I agree with the idea of this new subject, and said that its introduction was daring and sound.

    I don’t find the terms digital native etc. at all helpful – young people are quite varied in how they learn about the digital world, hence the need for something such as digital literacy I guess. Not sure why you think I should have mentioned them really.

    Anyway, thanks for the comments – happy to argue these points through. They are complex.

  • Interesting ideas that require further debate. Looking forward to the next post.

    To be honest what I find most interesting is that without some level of digital literacy this post wouldn’t have been possible; I wouldn’t have come across it on Twitter; I wouldn’t know how to log in to leave this comment, etc.

  • Chris Davies says:

    In advance of the next blog, I will just say that of course I am not suggesting that people should not learn the skills involved in using online communications. My argument is with the specific notion of digital literacy – it seems to me that it has come to be accepted as having a clear and stable meaning, and I don’t think it does. I have three issues in particular with it: 1. I think we need to disaggregate the various skills and knowledge covered by the term, and give clearer names to them; 2. I think it is far from clear who owns and legitimises this knowledge; 3. I am not a big fan of using the word “literacy” as broadly as it is now used – digital, emotional, political, scientific all are now literacies.

    • I definitely agree with you that a critique of how the terms ‘literacy’ and ‘literacies’ are used in different contexts is needed. Thanks for replying and for publishing the comment. I’ll be following your blog! Cheers.

    • Mike Downes says:

      Chris & Ernesto,

      Here’s why I keep coming back to the ideas in this post, and perhaps you can help me (and others) with something. I’m working with some folks from one of the home counties. It’s home to 1.7m people, two universities, over 70 secondary schools and seems to be lacking with qualified tech savvy programmers and digital creatives.

      This post could have easily been written by a local academic (to me), who I may end up meeting across a table and discussing some solutions. I’m all for finding some fast realtime solutions. I care little about labels, meanings and over arguing minor points.

      On a local visit to one school, I saw there were 700 tablets given to students and teachers. The general feedback from the teachers – they had no idea how to achieve the most basic task. Six months had gone by.

      If I did define digital literacy (stealing a line from wiki) as ”the ability to effectively and critically navigate, evaluate and create information using a range of digital technologies” then if the teacher’s at the school above would be off to a flying start. But it seems many were stuck in analogue.

      From thinking through a few solutions, it may seem industry wants computer scientists to come from having great skills at secondary school. However, the amount of schools offering a GCSE you can count on one hand.

      My own solution lies in getting everyone to a high state of digital knowledge, so when they get asked what subjects they want take further, it natural that CS is one of them.

      You maybe interested to see what Google’s Dan Russell posted about command/control+f where 90.5% of the people surveyed had no idea what it did (and a further 50% of teachers too).

  • Chris Davies says:

    So, have I got this right Mike – you’re saying that my post is just the typical time-wasting of an academic fussing about terminology when I should somehow be servicing your desire to get every pupil to study computer programming? Well you have every right to pursue your goals, and I have every right to pursue mine. For me the issue is about contesting the state-sanctioned moral control encoded in the notion of digital literacy (as distinct from, say, computer science, or programming, or technology skills – notions with which I have no problem at all). It is not a massively big deal, but it matters to me and so that is what I am going to carrying on worrying at. Hopefully, soon, I will have a bit of time to finish writing my second post on this topic. Maybe you will then point out again how this does not help you in your mission. But then, your mission is not my mission, so no problem really.

  • Mike Downes says:

    Chris, No that’s not what I’m saying at all (from your first three lines). I am asking some open questions about a current issue. I understand your reply and thought you were looking to argue some points. Maybe not. Thanks for your time.

  • Marion Dunmore says:

    Dear Chris,
    I have been working on this nugget for thirty years as a school librarian working with the full range of the curriculum from nursery to secondary learning in both US and UK state and private schools. No matter the nomenclature, information skills are real, developmental, definable, and integral to IT, e-saftey (your moral element), thinking and content. Currently I am four years into developing collaborative, integrated learning with teachers in a maths and science high school and launching the same with our new primary school where the school’s library is just becoming operational. The terms keep re-developing but Bloom’s taxonomy, Eisenberg’s & Berkowitz’s Big Six research skills, Ofsted lingo, and the schools’ development plan all interweave to get the point across as my audience changes. I work with those who will work with me and let institutional change creep ever so incrementally. Reaching the mind of teachers who never used a library, who don’t analyse the IT requirements of their own assignments, and who are under pressures that leave little energy for learning new skills is a challenge. I read the new curriculum descriptions with dismay that digital literacy, information skills, are not named at all, not recognised, perceived, fathomed. But I am an idiot and will continue to nurture a common language and vertical curriculum for the development of this vital metacognitive awareness in my own patch in northwest London. You are right to pursue it and I look forward to your next posting.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

What’s this?

You are currently reading Leave out the digital literacy. Part One at Oxford Ed Tech.


%d bloggers like this: