Towards defining digital literacy

According to UNESCOLiteracy involves a continuum of learning in enabling individuals to achieve their goals, to develop their knowledge and potential, and to participate fully in their community and wider society” (UNESCO, 2004). This general definition of literacy does not emphasize a specific set of skills and gives us a good starting point in finding an appropriate definition for digital literacy.

Specific digital skills, competencies, knowledge and abilities can be listed, but because of the dynamic nature of the digital age, it demands even more of successful participants. Computing, information and communication technologies provided us with tools to radically change our world. As we changed the world, as Haste predicted, the tools changed the our social, cultural, economic and civic behaviour and habits (Haste, 2009). As we change the world with technology, the world will change us and we need “a continuum of learning” to keep up with changes in this information society. “Learning to learn” skills are as important as being able to effectively use a cell phone (UNESCO, 2004). Change is ubiquitous in the information society, content does not stay relevant and finding context is more important in developing knowledge and potential. Learning must be authentic, personalised and active. Learners cannot only rely on institutional education and must take responsibility for their own life-long and life-wide development to achieve their goals.

Full participation in community and society further demands “critically engaging with technology”, as Hague and Paton writes in Futurelab’s definition of digital literacy: “It means being able to communicate and represent knowledge in different contexts and to different audiences” (Hague, 2010). This involves traditional information skills, such as finding, and retrieving information, but skills demanding creating, integrating and communicating are even more important in this collaborative connected world. While students take more responsibility in becoming digitally literate, educators have an important role to play in helping them become critical evaluators of information and responsible and ethical contributors to community and society.


Apparently I need definitions. At first I could not understand why it is proving so difficult to construct an accurate definition for digital literacy, but I now believe it is because it is often approached from the point of being an extension or special case of definitions for traditional literacy, information or ICT literacy. I think it needs to accommodate the dynamic and ever-changing nature of the information world and the changing competences needed to be successful – adaptation and conceptualising learning is essential.

UNESCO Education Sector. The plurality of literacy and its implications for policies. (2004). Retrieved from UNESCO website:

Hague, C., & Payton, S. (2010). Digital literacy across the curriculum. FutureLab. Retrieved from

Haste, H. (2009, June 25). Technology and youth: Problem solver vs tool [Video file]. Retrieved from

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *