From digital literacy to digital capabilities

It sometimes seems that one has barely got to grips with one term before another comes along to refine or replace it. This has been the case with the terms ‘digital literacy’ and ‘digital capabilities.’ The former has (surprisingly!) been around for several decades (Belshaw, 2012), while the latter has come into ascendancy only in the past year or so. Initially their relationship was unclear: it seemed to me that ‘digital literacy’ applied to students while ‘digital capabilities’ applied to staff. This partial understanding was reflected in the recommendations of the DIGE 2 project, which advocate on the one hand ‘a major programme … for the development of students’ digital literacy’ and, on the other hand ‘benchmarking the digital capabilities of … staff’. So, which term (or concept) should we be using? With the project report finished and a little time on my hands I set out about investigating…

Both ‘digital literacy’ and digital capabilities’ are defined as ‘capabilities which support living, learning and working in a digital society’ (Jisc, 2014; UCISA, 2014 respectively). That is, both go beyond functional IT skills to encompass a range of practices.

A number of different digital literacy frameworks have been developed over time, with the Jisc ‘seven elements of digital literacy‘ and ‘Digital Literacy Development pyramid’ providing an over-arching, common set of terms (see Beetham, 2015 for more about these). This developmental aspect – in which the individual progresses from a basic access to technology through functional use, incorporation of technology into everyday practice to expressing his or her identity through a digital medium – is integral to the Jisc model: ‘Literacy is about development so understanding digital literacy in this way is important; we acquire language and become increasingly proficient over time and eventually reach a level of fluency’ (Jisc, 2014).

The digital capabilities framework, also developed under the aegis of Jisc, is in one sense a refinement of its predecessor, comprising six elements rather than the previous seven. In brief, they are:

  1. ICT proficiency
  2. Information, data and media literacy (critical use)
  3. Creation, scholarship and innovation (creative use)
  4. Communication, collaboration and participation
  5. Learning and self-development
  6. Identity and well-being

The elements have been represented graphically as a Venn diagram, with ICT proficiency at the centre, indicating its underpinning role (i.e. without it, the other elements are impossible), and identity and well-being embracing all the elements.

The six elements of digital capabilities

The six elements of digital capabilities

Although the digital capabilities framework is derived from a model that focuses on the individual student it is, as Helen Beetham observes in a comment to her blog post, ‘a broadening out of that agenda to explicitly include staff’. More specifically, these digital capabilities can be defined in relation to different academic and professional roles – teaching staff, researchers, institutional leaders and support staff – in addition to students, and can be embedded in professional development plans. the digital capabilities framework thus appears to offer amore holistic approach for institutions that wish to develop digital capabilities across the board.

The framework isn’t perfect: for example, I’d argue that all of the elements have been present in the ‘steam-age’ world, but digital technologies amplify the role of some of them (e.g. digital well-being and identity management) and provide new tools to support others. Where the developmental model is applied I’d question the assumption that the ability to design and code apps constitutes a higher level to be attained: rather, it’s a lateral expansion determined by personal disposition and interests. However, the framework is flexible and a number of universities are already working with the new framework, adapting it to suit their circumstances.

Finally, scaling the capabilities model right up to the institutional level allows us to think in terms of (and plan towards) a ‘digitally capable institution.’ I end this piece with four perspectives from Oxford academics on how such an institution might be characterised (from the DIGE 2 project report):

  • a mixed economy of digital and ‘physical’ resources to support learning and research;
  • an institution whose members have the skills both to use the hardware and software provided and to manage them in their daily lives (‘to be a professional in a digital world’);
  • ‘an institution which is in a position to use digital technology whenever it is deemed to be pedagogically appropriate’, which employs specialist staff to discover and disseminate pedagogic innovation and which provides a forum in which academics can explore the uses of technology;
  • an institution which is capable of adapting and evolving in its use of digital technologies and is not dependent on particular systems.

Beetham (2015). Revisiting digital capability for 2015.
Belshaw, D. (2012). #neverendingthesis.’digital_literacy’
Jisc (2014). Developing digital literacies.
UCISA (2014). 2014 Digital Capabilities Survey Report.

Readers with an Oxford single sign-on can download a copy of the DIGE 2 research report from WebLearn.

You can keep up to date with developments in Jisc’s digital capability work at the Jisc digital capability codesign challenge blog.

Image credit: copyright Jisc

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2 Responses to “From digital literacy to digital capabilities”

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