If your reading this, you are most likely considered literate in the English language in the form of written literacy; you can read and probably write in the English language (If you are using a translator, or text to speech software, hat’s off to you, because that is awesome!). Furthermore, this is the characteristically used definition of the word “literacy”; the ability to read and write in your chosen language. It is in fact, the primary definition of the word in the dictionaries that I took a look at. This definition also applies in other languages too, but I’m writing in English, so I going to try and keep it simple and only talk about it in that context. Literacy also has a secondary definition, which often reads: knowledge or competence in a specific topic or content area.
This is where things get confusing in teaching; how do you differentiate about what definition of literacy your using, when you say literacy? Unlike some other words there is no case sensitive versions that differentiate between the two definitions (example Aboriginal vs aboriginal); using the term literacy often requires a lot of context. In an educational context we like to talk about literacy as literacy and other literacies, with the term other literacies refereeing to areas like computer literacy, media literacy, visual literacy and so on. Confused yet? Hopefully not.
In this context, I am going to be talking about information/computer technology literacy, which I will just call ICT literacy for the sake of ease of typing. I have been thing about ICT literacy a lot recently, as at my school we have been looking at classic literacy across the whole school recently, as a PD focus. English is also one of my teaching methods, though I am not teaching it at the moment, so my brain has been in “expert” mode during these sessions and this has really got the metaphorical wheels turning. ICT literacy and literacy are very connected; they are not the same thing, but have an interesting relationship.
I have begun to examine the necessity of basic literacy skills to even access a computer. I realized that computers are built around the assumption of a user having a basic level of literacy; the ability to read (at a really basic level) is an essential skill for computer use. Computer interfaces are built around text and the ability to respond to that text. Think about the first thing you have to do after the thing is turned on; enter a password. We think of computer interfaces as being completely graphical, but they in fact are not. Text (and words) are integrated into the graphics to such an extent that we no longer realize they are actively present and being interacted with. Think about your desktop for a second. Every icon has a name. We use the visual cues provided by the icons to be efficient, but we typically read the name when we focus on one. And this is just on a surface level; think about what you do on a computer. Email, social media and browsing the web, are all text based interactions; we communicate with written language when using most computer technology. ICT literacy is built upon a foundation of literacy.
At this stage, I will concede that people can rote learn to use a computer, if illiterate, but find it very difficult to do anything beyond simple tasks. There are also alternative interfaces to assist the blind, but this is not the same as being illiterate, as to use them you need a different form of literacy that is far more complex and nuanced. But with this said, it does not take away from what has been presented so far.
This leads me on to a more complex question; what then is ICT literacy?
Within my education paradigm, many define it as the ability to use a computer and associated programs effectively. I think this definition is quite limited. For me, ICT literacy is more complex than that. I tend to expand the definition. For me ICT literacy is “the ability to use computer technology in an effective manner in order to communicate and express oneself. It is the ability to learn new software and adapt to the ever changing face of computer technology. It is about thinking critically and imaginatively about information. It is about meaningful communications using technology. ICT literacy is an extension of literacy into the multimodal world of information technology”.
I’m the first to admit it, but I am still not happy with this definition. It still seems too small, for such a big concept, but I will keep working on it. Some same ICT Literacy is one the “most important 21st century skills”. I tend to agree, but have begun to think of it as more of an extension of classic literacy than a entire field of its own.