Skip to main content

Digital literacies

Sector Snapshot Getting Started Next Steps Talk and Share

What are digital literacies?

Digital literacies are the capabilities required to thrive i.e. be an effective and responsible participant in a digital society.

Where did digital literacies come from?

The term ‘digital literacy’ was coined in 1997 by Paul Gilster who defined it as “the ability to both understand and use digitised information” (Gilster 1997 2). The concept which had been discussed widely throughout the 1990s was built upon the discourses of visual literacy (using non-textual symbols and images to make sense of knowledge); technological literacy (the ability to use a particular technology or technologies); computer literacy (which had developed in the 1980s as a response to the launch of personal computers and which described the computer as a means to achieving a specified outcome); and information literacy (finding evaluating using and sharing information) (Belshaw 2012).

At the beginning of the 21st century with the proliferation of participative digital technologies the dialogue about digital culture also gathered momentum.

The conversations that emerged were often binary. Commentators identified a “net generation” who had “grown up digital” and for whom digital technologies were an instinctual part of daily life (Tapscott 1997). Others distinguished between digital “natives” and incoming “migrants” (Prensky 2004). Developing digital literacies was implicitly characterised as the burden of those born at least a generation before the advent of the Internet. Defined as a unified and fixed set of skills there was still significant disagreement as to what constituted digital capabilities. Were they functional skills that centred on how to use digital tools and technologies? Were they cognitive skills such as critical thinking and was there a socio-cultural element? (Martin 2008; Tornero 2004)

In recent years attempts to describe a single digital literacy have been challenged and thinking has shifted towards the concept as a plurality of literacies (Ng 2012). These literacies include elements of cognitive and practical skills an understanding of the social context in which they are being applied and the empowerment that new tools and techniques provide to think differently about the world (Belisle 2006). The importance of creativity – of making connections across boundaries in using a diversity of new approaches and experimenting with tools – is also emphasised as key literacy under the digital literacies umbrella (Belshaw 2012). A number of higher education projects in the UK explored aspects of digital literacy and this led to a revised infokit guide (JISC 2014).

How do digital literacies work? 

The term digital literacies has been defined in deliberately loose and ambiguous ways in an attempt to encourage context-dependent interpretations that are socially negotiated. 

Jisc's digital literacy infographic

The ‘Digital Students are Different’ posters (produced by Jisc) highlight the diversity of needs within the digital landscape.

The complexity of the digital landscape and the ambiguity with which digital literacies have been articulated has confused many higher education institutions (HEIs) and delayed the development of their own policies and programmes in this area (NMC 2015). Models have been developed that provide a framework for thinking about digital literacies but which stop short of prescription.

Jisc’s model was developed for the higher education (HE) sector and identifies seven elements of digital literacies. These are: digital scholarship information literacy media literacy communications and collaboration career and identity management ICT literacy learning skills. The model which was conceived at “the intersection between digital knowhow and academic practice” (Jisc 2012 2) aims to situate ICT literacy among a host of equally important literacies and provides the basis for conversations about developing and implementing digital literacies strategies at both strategic and practitioner levels (Jisc 2012).

Sector Snapshot

Where are digital literacies currently being used and how?

The use of digital technologies has typically been incorporated into academic practices incrementally as opportunities arose. Many have reported at HEA events and publications

Approaches to digital literacies come from a variety of angles. Some are concentrating on aspects of digital scholarship and academic integrity (University of Cornell SA). Others focus on particular aspects of digital literacies (e.g. digital curation and evaluation frameworks for m-learning) as part of a wider programme to build digital capability into research programmes (University of Queensland Australia). Collaborative methodologies are also being used to explore the idea of digital literacies as context-dependent and socially negotiated (University of Liverpool).

In the UK the Digital Literacies programme conceived to encourage “the development of coherent inclusive and holistic institutional strategies for developing digital literacies for all staff and students in UK further and higher education” has provided the UK with a framework to think about digital literacies (Jisc 2012). The outputs of the project include: the aggregation of case studies which demonstrate a variety of context-specific approaches to implementing digital literacies; best practice guidance; and a handbook for leaders developing institution-wide change and for practitioners integrating digital literacies into their curriculum. In Ireland the ‘All Aboard’ project aims to draft a national ‘digital skills framework’ for Irish higher education in a similar vein to the work of Jisc (All Aboard 2015). The EC Digital Strategy for Europe has a number of initiatives in many countries to address the deficit in ‘e-skills’ in education and industry under Action 66 – Member States to implement digital literacy policies.

Recent research suggests that a key driver for the development of staff digital capabilities is student expectations and requirements as detailed in the Student Experience Survey (UCISA 2014). The development of innovative pedagogical practices was ranked as the third most important factor (UCISA 2014). See:

What are the potential benefits of digital literacies?

Students who develop digital literacies as an integral part of their learning are more effective in their study and more employable on graduation – over 90% of new graduate jobs require digital capabilities (Jisc 2012). Digitally fluent staff can blend many implement innovative pedagogical practice such as flipped learning digital curation and m-learning techniques and use open educational resources (OEDs) to their maximum benefit. These practitioners enhance the institutional value of digital strategies such as Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) and act as change agents in influencing and driving these strategies forwards.

Getting Started

How do I get started with digital literacies?

The ‘Seven Elements of Digital Literacies’ model is a practical place to start and can be found in the infokit guide produced by Jisc This is based on a wide range of UK HE digital literacy projects addressing various HE activities with a number of different stakeholders.



Also useful is the work of Doug Belshaw who has identified eight elements of digital literacies: cognitive constructive communication civic critical creative confident and cultural. He emphasises the idea of creative remix as fundamental to this model (video).

The HEA sponsored a number of Digital Literacy projects specifically for students to create interactive online resources in their disciplines with the requirement for staff to teach a common open-source authoring system. This would also require a common development in digital literacies to achieve this in a discipline context. Many of these embedded the practice into the curriculum and shared their experiences together through a mini-conference or found additional benefits e.g. Employability (Hack 2014).  

What should I expect if I try this approach?

A recent survey suggests that barriers to the development of staff digital capabilities include institutional and departmental culture lack of money lack of strategy and lack of commitment (UCISA 2014). Concerns over ‘digital wellbeing’ (the saturation of the teaching and learning environment with digital technologies) have also been expressed (Jisc 2015). It is often the case that where strategic BYOD policies have been implemented there is a concomitant lack of a digital literacies and capability framework for staff and students. The assumption that students are ‘digital natives’ and naturally digitally fluent has created a void where scaffolding to maximise the pedagogical benefits of these digital technologies is often absent and the reluctance of staff to implement them would in any case be patchy. The Vistors and Residents model (White and LeCornu 2011) has superseded this illustrating how digital behaviour differs in a wide range of contexts and its independence of age.  

Next Steps

Where can I learn more about digital literacies?

The new HEA knowledge hub includes various articles case studies and resources on  digital literacy that can help you get started.

This article from The Guardian Online suggests “20 ways for thinking about digital literacy in Higher Education’ and provides an insight into the practicalities of embedding digital literacies into practice.

Jiscs The Developing Digital Literacies guide also includes generic case studies based on the Digital Literacies programme (2011-13)

This paper on ‘Developing the Digital Practitioner’ explores how Jisc’s Digital Literacies Framework can be applied to lecturer’s digital practice.

Listen to and join the digital literacies conversation by following these hashtags and twitter handles:





Follow a blog from a HEI on their digital literacy projects e.g.

the University of Liverpool Digital Literacies Working Group:

An example of a core services project to address digital literacy throughout the organisation

University of Cardiff

Example student partnership projects to develop digital literacy through resource creation in a range of disciplines

What other topics might I find interesting?

What HEA resources should I take a look at?

The following link provides access to the work of the HEA Funded Digital Literacies in the Disciplines (DLinD) project (2013-2014) which promoted online learning through the development of online interactive resources by students working with academic staff.


Talk and Share

@LivDigiL  #digitalcapability  #digiped  #diglit

The materials published on this page were originally created by the Higher Education Academy.