Traditionally, the word “literacy” is used to refer to the ability to read and write. Today, it is often used to refer to reading and writing at a level adequate for communication. The opposite (or antonym) to literacy is illiteracy, the inability to read or write.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) defines literacy as the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate, compute and use printed and written materials associated with varying contexts. Literacy involves a continuum of learning to enable an individual to achieve his or her goals, to develop his or her knowledge and potential, and to participate fully in the wider society”.
The United Nations estimated the world illiterate population to be 24% . That is, those who cannot read and write a simple sentence in any language. The rate varies from country to country. Generally, factors such as the level of urbanization, industralization, growth in trade and commerce, and other factors affect a country’s literacy rate.
With the advent of the information revolution, the meaning of literacy has changed and has assumed new meanings. We’ve seen a change in the concept from “literacy” to concepts such as information literacy, multimedia literacy, and digital literacy, a term generally used to refer to an individual’s ability to function effectively in a digital environment. It has been defined by the American Library Association’s digital-literacy task force as the ability to use information and communication technologies to find, evaluate, create, and communicate information, requiring both cognitive and technical. It is viewed as one of the most valued skillsets for living and working in today’s world.
Rubble and Bailey define it as “The capability to use digital technology and knowing when and how to use it.”
Gilster and his colleague regard it as a special kind of mindset that enables users to perform intuitively in digital environments, and to easily and effectively access the wide range of knowledge embedded in these environments.
Digital literacy is at play when people are able to engage with multi-media to read and interpret text, sounds and images and can manipulate and evaluate data to construct their own meaning. Digital literacy also includes a student having knowledge about how to use technology to
Eshet-Alkalai views the term as a multidimensional construct comprising five types of literacy skills: (a) photo-visual literacy; (b) reproduction literacy; (c) information literacy; (d) branching literacy; and (e) socio-emotional literacy.
Content creation and writing in digital formats such as email, blogs, and Tweets, as well as creating other forms of media, such as videos and podcasts is regarded as a form of digital literacy.
Some experts have suggested the use of the term “digital literacies,” to convey the many facets of what reading and writing in the modern era entails.According to Jill Castek of Portland State University, the term implies multiple opportunities to leverage digital texts, tools, and multimodal representations for design, creation, play, and problem solving,
The concept is becoming increasing synonymous with Internet knowledge. Thus, the ability to use computers and other digital technologies is critical to fostering digital literacy. We know the use of the Internet has changed the lives of people the world over. Thus, being computer literate is crucial in becoming a part of the information society.
Today, people refer to the current generation as the E-Generation. This generation are more likely to have digital skills and feel more comfortable using digital resources than the generation of people who grew up with books and used to visiting the traditional library.
Due to its importance in today’s world, a number of leading professional organizations such as the International Reading Association and the Partnership for 21st Century Skills have called for increased integration of digital literacy into the school curriculum, including the ability to find and evaluate information on the Internet. This call is based on the conviction that those who are able to efficiently access useful and reliable information and communicate that information effectively will be the most successful in an increasingly global economy that requires high levels of digital literacy.
Others note that digital literacy and other similar related “literacies” concepts such as “information literacy”, “mediacy” and “informacy”, are concepts relating to knowledge, skills, and attitudes, at various levels, in dealing with information in varied formats and diverse situations.
While the concept has been widen embraced, there are some obstacles that need to be overcome to facilitate its effective application.
Change is always a threat to established order. And, there are studies that point to resistance to change by some educational institutions. This applies especially to those who’ve been in the system before the advent of information technology. Those who fall in this category have been using old tools (chalk, blackboard, etc.) for their entire teaching career. The need to demonstrate the usefulness and superiority of new digital tools in any capacity building training is crucial to change the mindset of those who fall in this category.
Another challenge has been the lack of adequate information technology support. The gadgets keep changing and the need for adequate and continuing support is crucial to maintain and promote their use. In the absence of such support, limited success will be achieved.
High cost of technology has been cited as another obstacle for the use of digital technologies. Generally, digital resources are expensive. Without adequate budget to maintain then, systems will break down and defeat the very purpose for which they were acquired.
This is the knowledge explosion age. Sometimes, finding the right content in the virtual environment becomes a challenge. This is where the staff of the library will be needed to guide instructors about the right resources and databases to consult.
Lack of adequate training for instructors has been cited as another obstacle to the use of digital resources. Most instructors are subject experts, not IT experts. Thus, the need to put in place a regular faculty development plan is crucial.
All the stated obstacles could be overcome if proper planning and a robust unit is put in place to identify all potential obstacles to enable authorities put in place proactive measures to overcome the obstacles.
Osei K. Darkwa, Ph.D.
Visiting Professor, University of Illinois at Chicago