Aisha Walker

Thinking onscreen

Digital literacy or competence: why does it matter?


I imagine that people reading or hearing my argument for ‘digital competence’ rather than ‘digital literacy’, ask why the terms matter. Surely, they say, what is important is that people have the necessary skills to use digital tools regardless of what those skills are called. However, in my view, not only is ‘competence’ a more effective model but using the term ’literacy’ creates confusion between digital skills and modern literacy.   The digital world provides both tools and sites for literacy practice and much of our reading and writing today is digital. For example, student coursework assignments at all levels are typically produced digitally. At the university where I work, all assignments are submitted online through our VLE so it is no longer possible for a student to submit a handwritten essay. An increasing amount of news media is accessed online; for example, the 2014 OFCOM ‘Internet Citizens’ report stated that 51% of UK adults use online news at least once a month whilst the 2013 figure was 47%. Online news is not only text, of course, the news sources included in the OFCOM report may include video and online TV channels. However, every newspaper has an online presence and TV news channels have text-heavy websites (BBC News is a good example). People write messages to personal and professional contacts through email, social media and SMS and, according to OFCOM (2014) “Blogging websites are visited by over half the internet population and survey research finds that almost a quarter say that they comment on blogs” (p8). OFCOM also claims that, in 2014 Wikipedia was used by half of all UK internet users “equating to over 24 million unique users” (p70). Some students still handwrite lecture notes but it is not uncommon to see laptop and tablets used in class (even though, as Mueller and Oppenheimer (2014) show, digital notetaking may not be as effective for learning). Diaries, shopping, greetings cards… all are available in digital forms and many digital games include substantial written text. In summary, this is a huge amount of literacy in digital contexts.

‘Literacy in digital contexts’ could be referred to more simply as ‘digital literacy’ but this is not the same as the wide ranging skill-set (collaboration, identity management and so on) that may be included in portmanteau definitions of ‘digital literacy’, such as the JISC framework. If reading and writing on screen are different from practicing those skills on paper, and there is evidence of difference (e.g. Liu, 2005, Mueller and Oppenheimer 2014) then teaching needs to accommodate screen literacy as well as print literacy. Note: difference does not mean that one mode is necessarily of lesser quality. Nonetheless, if, for example, it is true that reading on screen is not as effective as reading from print (as argued by Carr, 2010, amongst others) then this may be due to a lack of appropriate literacy education rather than inherent properties of print vs digital media. However, if there is no effective construct of ‘digital literacy’ (AKA literacy in digital contexts) then it is difficult to design appropriate teaching and assessment. The current stretching of the term ‘literacy’ to include career management, online safety, programming and so forth means there is a risk that true digital literacy skills – reading and writing multimodal, multiregister, onscreen texts – will be lost in the crowd.


Carr, N. 2010. The shallows: how the internet is changing the way we read, think and remember. London: Atlantic Books.
Liu, Z. (2005). Reading behavior in the digital environment: Changes in reading behavior over the past ten years. Journal of Documentation, 61(6), 700-712
Mueller, A. and Oppenheimer, D.M.  (2014). `The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking’. Psychological Science 25(6):1159-1168.
OFCOM (2014) Internet Citizens 2014: Use of selected citizen-related online content and services 27 November 2014 OFCOM (Independent regulator and competition authority for the UK communications industries) available from accessed 1st April 2015

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