How does Digital Literacy challenge and shape the way we learn?



Do digital natives exist?

One of the main debates in recent educational research has been the perceived digital divide between natives and immigrants. The phrases digital natives and digital immigrants were first used by Marc Prensky (2001) to identify the generational conflict between younger students and older teachers.

Prensky famously argued that digital natives are people who have grown up with the exponential developments in information and communication technologies of the past two decades. As such, they are presumed to demonstrate a natural affinity towards mastery of newly emerging media, formats and platforms. Digital immigrants, on the other hand, are those who encountered technology later in life, and as a result have found it more challenging to keep up with the increased use of technology in their professional occupations.

The growth of digital literacy

A key concept upon which the distinction between natives and immigrants is based is that of digital literacy. This can be understood as the level of familiarity, knowledge and proficiency that people demonstrate towards the use of technology in their everyday activities. While devices such as smartphones and iPads have encouraged a significant percentage of the population to become more digitally literate in their social lives, the extent to which he teaching of these literacies should be integrated to learning activities is one of the most pressing concerns of higher education today. If students engage with information and communication technology frequently in their non-learning activities, to what extent can – and should – their enthusiasm and aptitude for technology can be harnessed by teachers to enhance students’ learning?

A cluster of research papers published between 2008-2010 show surprising answers to these questions. The research suggests that digital natives (if they exist) frequently use information and communication technologies during their non-learning activities, but are reluctant to engage with features such as instant messaging and social networking as part of their learning environment. In other words, because digital technologies are associated with the students’ social spheres, they are less effective at enhancing their learning practice. In fact, the opposite is often the case: these technologies are more likely to increase distraction rather than improve learning.

In one study, a group of students found the opportunity to informally discuss the topic with their peers valuable, but others found the same accessibility too distracting from actual work. The study therefore concluded that students drew boundaries between what constitutes personal and curricular spheres of activity (Jones and Lea, 2008, emphasis added). Another study highlighted the pitfalls of multitasking and suggested that students find switching between learning and non-learning activities ‘highly distracting’ (Winter et al., 2010). The authors subsequently argued that the integration of Web 2.0 technologies within the context of higher education should be ‘reconsidered and repurposed’ (ibid.).

A third study examined the perceptions of digital literacy from the perspectives of staff and students in Australian universities. The findings challenged the perceived divide between digital natives and immigrants, and called for a more sophisticated understanding and exploration of which digital tools are suitable for enhancing learning-specific activities (Waycott et al., 2009).

teaching-online-roundLearning in the networked era

Two questions spring to mind. First, is the digital divide between natives and immigrants still a valid categorization today, bearing in mind that the exponential growth in technology use really only began in 2008 with the advent of the smartphone?

  • If so, is it possible to envision a more concentrated version of digital natives (digital ninjas?) – presumably born just after the millennium – for whom digital technology is so instinctive that they are unable to conceive of pre-digital forms of communication? If student profiles are changing as rapidly as technology, then perhaps the survey samples used in research conducted years ago may already be inaccurate.
  • Is the concept of ‘digital residents / digital visitors’ (Connaway et al., 2013) a better way of describing the perceived divide between those for whom the digital paradigm is their home and those for whom it is a place they occasionally visit (often with reluctance and trepidation)?

The second question relates more broadly to digital literacy: will it equal and eventually surpass reading, writing and arithmetic as the default minimum level of literacy?

  • It sounds like science-fiction now, but there are plenty of reasons to assume that our command over technology is becoming as important as our command over language. A general trend is that students want technology to be increasingly integrated to their learning, but they do not want this technology to substitute face to face interactions with instructors. Perhaps the question is therefore not so much about enforcing newer modes of communication over traditional methods, but rather how can we help students learn how to learn effectively in a digital era? And how can universities integrate technology more inclusively to fit students’ needs in such a way that it offers them flexibility around how they can access learning?

We are arguably reaching a point where we need to reconceptualise our entire approach to teaching and learning to account for the digital, networked and open environment in which today’s students are studying (Weller, 2010). Is learning something that should by default be provided over multiple platforms, devices and environments while still maintaining face-to-face experiences? And if so, how do we determine the appropriate blend of online vs face-to-face?

If a essential aspect of a degree is helping students learn how to learn, we need to be asking ourselves such self-reflexive, soul searching questions to help us confidently shape the near-future of higher education in the networked era.

The importance of criticality in higher education

What is crucially missing from this essay is the key role that critical thinking plays in higher education. A degree does more than simply enable students to read and write effectively: it ensures that they learn the ability to think and act critically, to analyse, evaluate, challenge assumptions and take multiple perspectives in solving complex problems. In short, it should be transformative, and the philosopher Michel Foucault highlights that

criticism is absolutely essential for any transformation…a transformation that remains with the same mode of thought, a transformation that is only a way of adjusting the same thought more closely to the reality of things, can merely be a superficial transformation…as soon as one can no longer think things as one formerly thought them, transformation becomes both very urgent, very difficult, and quite possible (1988: 155).

Crucially, Foucault goes on to state that this transformation can only be carried out in a free atmosphere, highlighting the need to provide students with the intellectual space, tools and strategies to think critically. Just as traditional literacy is based on critical thinking, digital literacy should also derive from similar tenets. To be effective, a university education must equip students with the ability to think critically about technology, scrutinise its implications for the evolution of society, and enable them to enter the world of work as critically and digitally literate global citizens.

The generation of students now entering university is the most digital, networked and connected in human history, but their ability to think critically about their world is still very much in its infancy. It is the responsibility of Higher Education to help them develop a critical approach to both learning and technology if they are to acquire the mindset and skillset required to transform the structures that dominate their existence. Then, and only then, will they have the knowledge and skills that will enable them to grow into transformative global citizens.



Connaway, L., White, D., Lanclos, D., and Le Cornu, A. (2013) Visitors and residents: what motivates engagement with the digital environment? Information Research 18(1).

Foucault, M (1988) Technologies of the self. In L. Martin, H. Gutman and P. Hutton (eds) Technologies of the self. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, pp 16–49

Jones, S. and Lea, M. R. (2008) ‘Digital Literacies in the Lives of Undergraduate Students: Exploring Personal and Curriculor Spheres of Practice’, The Electronic Journal of e-Learning 6(3): 207-216. Available at: (Accessed 23 February 2016).

Prensky, M. (2001) ‘Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants Part 1’, On the Horizon 9(5): 1-6.

Waycott, J. et al. (2009) ‘Digital Divides? Student and staff perceptions of information and communication technologies’, Computers & Education 54(4): 1202-1211.

Winter, J., et al. (2010) ‘Effective e-learning? Multi-tasking, distractions and boundary management by graduate students in an online environment’, ALT-J Research in Learning Technology 18(1): 71-83. Available at: (Accessed 23 February 2016).


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