There’s now a fashion – especially in education, I think – for adding the word “literacy” after another word to make a phrase that sounds portentous, serious and possibly slightly threatening. Threatening in the sense that behind the phrase “literacy” lurks the accusation that you are actually illiterate. So “information literacy”, “digital literacy”, “attention literacy” all threaten us with – at the very least – the prospect of having to claim dyslexia if we fail to meet the grade.
I don’t say these concepts are not useful. I would understand being “literate” in something as meaning that you not only have the skills to master that whatever-it-is, but that you can be reflective about and adaptive of those skills: you have moved beyond learning by rote or acting mechanically, and can build on techniques you have learned.
We have started recently trying to map the relationship between three “literacies” in order to understand better what we should be doing to design a skills framework for civil servants entering the digital world. “IT literacy”, “information literacy” and “digital literacy” all clearly overlap and interrelate. You can only – these days – have information or digital skills with at least some IT skills under your belt. And you can only practise effectively as a policy maker or analyst if you understand both how to gain and use information and how to engage with stakeholders and others using the web.
The diagram illustrates the idea. Bear in mind that this is focused on the needs of an organisation – that is, the skills the corporate body needs us to have. A similar, but not identical, diagram could be drawn to describe these literacies at a more general level – the level, perhaps, required to be a “digital citizen”.
Skills and literacies in the digital age
The fundamental skill set is in IT literacy – from basic skills like keyboarding, up through being able to create designed documents, the manipulation of data, to understanding the concepts and benefits of IT in the business.
IT literacy shades into information literacy at the point at which you can select tools effectively to do the job you want to do – that’s the point at which you move from manipulating content to understanding it. It shades into digital literacy at the point at which you start using tools not only to present but to share. And the activity that stands at the centre of all three skill sets is search.
Information literacy runs from knowing at the basic level what you must do with information – keeping it safe, creating records, acknowledging copyright, etc – through being able to analyse your needs for information, to working out how to retrieve and classify information, to exploiting it for business value. Finally, information literacy shades into policy-making as you turn information into evidence through interpretation.
Similarly, digital literacy ascends from basic online skills – internet banking, say – to being able to put information into a content management system. From there, we move to people being able to manage their digital identity (or identities) – to create a persona that reflects how they want or need to appear in the digital world; and finally, using those skills, to be able to build fully-functioning networks and ranges of interventions and conversations in the digital world that allow you to be authoritative, trusted and respected. This is the point at which digital skills support the traditional policy-makers skill of influencing people’s attitudes and opinions.
Digital and information literacy overlap at the point where you have to be able to assess and manage information risk: the risks, especially, of releasing information you shouldn’t or using information which is not reliable. They also overlap with the policy skills sphere where they are about managing your own networks of resources – people and information sources – which you can nurture and grow as you go through your professional career. A key point to notice is that in future we are likely to be recruiting people who have already – indeed because they have already – built some of these networks as part of their educational progress.
This diagram has only started to be tested within our organisation. Our idea is to use it to support a major shift within the organisation towards digital engagement and effective, sustained internet presence (as opposed to a presence that is patchy and not always effective). To do so, we aim to use the diagram to allow us to map out training and development interventions that will equip civil servants fully to do their job in a digital age. I’ll try and follow the story in this blog: but in the meanwhile, any comments or questions on the diagram or the explanation of it above would be very gratefully received.