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Digital literacy - Information literacy - The new literacies

Lesley McCarthy
Keilor Primary School

Concerns about information literacy skills in students predates the computer age. There has always been an emphasis on teaching students to develop skills required to read, interpret and analyse the written word and the meanings often lying behind. But, the rapid growth of the Internet and the access it provides to vast amounts of information has raised concerns regarding the need for increased attention to digital literacies.

Very different from information available in other forms of media; newspapers, journals, textbooks, documentaries, encyclopedias, all of which have been carefully researched, documented, edited and selected for publication and presentation, the Internet is "unproofed" information. Published by experts and students, scholars and paedophiles, the times when teachers and parents were able to control the information flow is over.

The enchantment of the Internet and other digital materials is demanding attention to the issue of developing digital literacy skills for all. One definition of digital literacy is "the ability to understand and use information in multiple formats from a wide range of sources when it is presented via computers"

This includes the Internet, hypertext links and flash movies, search engines, email and attachments, electronic encyclopedias, newsgroups, chat rooms, discussion groups, SMS, Palm Pilots or Personal Organisers, memory sticks, hard drives, floppy drive, CD-ROM or DVD drive, not to mention television, video game systems, hand held games, MP3 players, video streaming, E-books . The list is endless and continues to grow.

The most obvious thing to say about this is, that all of us but especially the children, inhabit a media and information rich environment undreamed of 20 years ago. Regardless of age, gender or income level most students in Australia and in many other countries have access to a vast expanse of digital information.

Fact 1More new information has been produced within the last three decades, than in the last five millennia, 1,000 books are published daily around the world.[1]
Fact 2A weekday edition of The New York Times contains more information than the average person was likely to come across in a lifetime in seventeenth-century England.[2]
Fact 3The amount of available information doubles every five years ... soon it will be four.[3]
Fact 4The Internet is spreading much more quickly than did printed works. In fact, the Internet is one of the fastest growing communications media in world history. It has taken the World Wide Web just 4 years to achieve an audience of 50 million users, compared to 38 years for radio, 16 years for personal computers, and 13 years for television (Economist, 1998).[4]
Fact 550 million people downloaded Napster in a year and a half. Between the Wednesday of the injunction and the Friday, 4.5 million people downloaded Napster so they could access the technology. [5]

Is it any wonder that the term "information superhighway" has become part of our language?

Information is expanding at an unprecedented rate, and rapid improvements are being made in technology for storing, organising, and accessing the ever increasing growth in information. The combined effect of these factors is an increasingly fragmented information base, a vast amount of which is available only to people with money or affiliation. In the recent past, the outcome of these challenges has been characterised as the "digital divide."

There are many problems faced by individuals in dealing with information anxiety and information illiteracy due to the wealth of information and its ease of communication. Yet educational systems are not addressing what is becoming a major educational issue; how people recognise when information is needed and the ability to locate, evaluate and effectively use the needed information.

10 years after Wurman[6] identified "Information Anxiety" we continue to be importuned about information on the Net, the amount of information, the essential nature and ease of location of information, speed of access, the wired world. I thought we had too much information?

Surely the challenge now is on acquiring and developing the necessary skills to effectively use the information. These skills need to be learned by use and practice, by problem solving skills, thinking skills, communication skills, computer skills, etc.

"Any teacher who has used the Internet in a classroom setting can tell you how troubling it is to see children taking World Wide Web pages at face value, without the evaluative skills to place them in context. "[7]
In order to prepare students for their future, one characterised by digital resources, instant access, constant change, less organisation and control, students must learn to manage, retrieve and analyse information, think rationally and creatively, solve problems and communicate effectively.

By mastering digital literacy and the associated problem solving skills, students will be competent to participate in an information-based society and a technological workplace. It is not information technology which has become the issue but the new literacies. Today, the success of many people is based on their ability to locate, analyse, and use information skilfully and appropriately, much of it sourced from the web.

We have created a complicated city of information with superhighways for very high speed travel, without training drivers... or teaching them how to use road maps.

Research on the restructuring of schools and changes to education in this digital era has suggested the teacher's role change from a lecturer to that of a facilitator and coach. Students should then become active learners when they create their own knowledge after interacting with information from a variety of resources. There is greater emphasis on resource-based learning, requiring that students are effective users of information regardless of format; print based resources such as books and magazines as well as electronic resources such as computer databases and CD and DVD ROMs. Learners will master information literacy skills when teachers and media specialists guide them as they use information within a discipline or through an interdisciplinary project. Teachers are learners in this too and must master technology in order to assist their students.

"We are a generation in transition. Generally reared in a print period, but increasingly required to function electronically. We are required to teach in a way that we have never been taught."[8]
To become effective information users, students must have frequent opportunities to handle all kinds of information. Locating, interpreting, analysing, synthesising, evaluating, and communicating information should become a part of every subject across the curriculum.

A person who is "Information Literate" can: [9]

  1. Recognise when there is a problem and define that problem.
  2. Determine the questions suggested by the problem.
  3. Identify the information necessary to solve the problem and/or answer the questions.
  4. Find the information.
  5. Evaluate the information.
  6. Organise the information.
  7. Synthesise the information into a solution/answer.
Learning environments should therefore allow students unlimited access to multiple resources in the classroom, the library, media centre and beyond the school walls.
"Ultimately, information literate people are those who have learned how to learn. They know how to learn because they know how knowledge is organised, how to find information, and how to use information in such a way that others can learn from them. They are people prepared for lifelong learning, because they can always find the information needed for any task or decision at hand."[10]
Sound familiar? These ideas and thoughts on learning, these calls for restructuring to student based learning, teachers as facilitators has been talked of for many years now. What is really happening?

If we look at some data on children's use of media and especially computers we find:

Table 1: From an analysis into children's media use in the USA in 1999.[11]

Children aged 8-13 spend 8 hours each day exposed to all media sources.
Over 1 hour each day is spent on computer use and video games.
75% of these children used a computer at home or at school daily.
Computers are used for games, chat rooms, web sites, email, school research and music.

Table 2: Students at Primary and Secondary Schools in the Keilor Cluster surveyed in 2002 showed:

Children in the age range 9-12 spend between 6 -7 hours each day exposed to media.
Over one and a half hours each day is spent on computer use and video games.
94% of these children used a computer at home or at school every day.
Children used a computer for games, school research, email, music, IRC and ICQ chat.

Table 3: From the Social Effects of New Technology in Schools (SENTIS) project in Tasmania.[12]

Mean computer use in
minutes in school
Mean computer use in
minutes out of school

Children today are big users of computers - in many forms and for a myriad of uses. Computers to a large extent have overtaken sport and other leisure pursuits. They are regularly used in our schools, supported by state Education Departments, and many homes now have a number of computers and associated peripherals which children are comfortable using. They are mostly self taught and often find their way more by accident than design. Who of us has heard students comment, "we have to show the teachers and our parents what to do, they can't do this."

Children today have grown up with the technology. They have no understanding of what it was like not to play games on a computer but have never heard of Space Invaders or Atari; send emails but did not live when the postman delivered twice a day; easily use a mouse but haven't heard of RSI. They have adopted the technologies to suit themselves. However, as in many other areas of education as in life, they still need guidance, direction, assistance.

In 1963, the following principles of teaching and learning for skill development were published and are as relevant today as almost 40 years ago![13]

These statements could easily have been written last year! Transfer the information basis from the 1960s and print media to today's digital resources. Teachers are excellent communicators but digital literacies need 21st century skills. Are we preparing students to live in a world we grew up in or one we cannot yet imagine?

Utilising all literacies - print, sound, images, graphics and knowing how screen literacy is so much more active. Rather than reading left to right and top down, now the eyes move from place to place - from image to text to heading to flash movie to hyperlink. Are we recognising that today's students are part of the seconds generation?

We've all heard of the movie "Gone in 60 seconds!", well today's students are part of what web developers call the 14 second generation. If the page hasn't loaded in 14 seconds or the eye isn't grabbed in that time they're off, just press Back, Stop or exit. They move on!

Preparing our students for life in 2010 and beyond requires a strong commitment to the digital world. Our students need instruction and guidance in utilising and using digital literacies, support similar to that given for print based research and use but also including;

The strongest need is still for safe, effective and vital information literacy skills. These steps are applicable no matter the source.
"Information skills instruction makes an important contribution to the development of independent learners. Information skills instruction integrated into classroom content does contribute to the development of constructive thinkers, learners who take charge of their learning, ask the appropriate questions, seek information from a range of sources and restructure and repackage this information to create and communicate ideas that reflect their own deep understanding"[14]
Many schools and teachers are attempting to address this concern. Supported by the state Education Departments through infrastructure, hardware and technical support, schools are now well resourced and able to offer a curriculum which incorporates Information skills and Digital Literacies across all Learning Areas.

Despite this however, and not withstanding the Discovery Schools in South Australia, the Navigator Schools in Victoria and the XXX Schools in Queensland to mention some examples, the majority of schools are not addressing the digital literacy drought. And, teacher training organisations, despite the best efforts of some, have not addressed the lack of technological competence in our new teachers. Student teachers completing teaching practicum continue to be amazed at the abilities of students in Primary schools. Web design and publishing and robotics in grades 5/6, email, Internet research, spreadsheets, graphing and programming in grades 3/4, PowerPoint, Publisher, Logo in grade 2, Prep and grade 1 students with good mouse skills, able to open, use and save programs, insert graphics and modify text. With of course, no continuation in secondary schools!

Surely now, in 2002, after years of ICT and IT, it is time to teach to their future, not our past!

Where is the life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
T S Eliot The Rook


Fluck, Andrew (2000). SENTIS - Where do we go from here? ACEC Conference.

Gilster, Paul (1997). Digital Literacy. New York: Wiley and Computer Publishing.

Information Literacy - A Position Paper on Information Problem Solving. (1993) ALA.

Irving, Larry Jnr (2001). Keynote Address - ALA President's Program, The Digital Divide and Information Equity: Challenges and Opportunities for Libraries in the Twenty-first Century.

Kids Media - the new millennium: A comprehensive national analysis of children's media use (1999) Kaiser Family Foundation, New York.

Spender, Dale (2000). A Vision for the New Millennium, APAPDC Conference.

Thirty-third Yearbook of the National Council for the Social Studies, 1966.

Todd, R. (1996). Independent learning and information literacy: an essential partnership for learning. In Nimon, M. Learning resourcefully. Auslib Press, Adelaide.

Warschauer, Mark (1999). Millennialism and Media: Language, Literacy, and Technology in the 21st Century.

Wurman, Richard Saul (1989). Information Anxiety. Doubleday, New York.


  1. Gilster, Paul. Digital Literacy. New York: Wiley and Computer Publishing, 1997.
  2. Wurman, Richard Saul. Information Anxiety. New York: Doubleday. 1989.
  3. Smith, Ann. Information Literacy - Frankenstein. [viewed 21 Feb 2002, verified 2 Sep 2002]
  4. Warschauer, Mark. Millennialism and Media: Language, Literacy, and Technology in the 21st Century, 1999.
  5. Irving, Larry Jnr, Keynote Address ALA President's Program, The Digital Divide and Information Equity: Challenges and Opportunities for Libraries in the Twenty-first Century, 2001
  6. Wurman, op cit
  7. Gilster, op cit.
  8. Spender, Dale, A Vision for the New Millennium, APAPDC Conference, 2000.
  9. Smith, Ann, Information Literacy. [viewed 8 Apr 2002, verified 2 Sep 2002]
  10. Information Literacy - A Position Paper on Information Problem Solving, ALA, 1993
  11. Kids Media - the new millennium. A comprehensive national analysis of children's media use, published in 1999 by the Kaiser Family Foundation.
  12. Fluck, Andrew, SENTIS - Where do we go from here? ACEC Conference, 2000.
  13. Thirty-third Yearbook of the National Council for the Social Studies, 1963.
  14. Todd, R. Independent learning and information literacy: An essential partnership for learning. In Nimon, M., Learning Resourcefully. Adelaide, Auslib Press 1996.
Author: Lesley McCarthy, ICT Manager/Assistant Principal, Keilor Primary School.

Please cite as: McCarthy, L. (2002). Digital literacy - Information literacy - The new literacies. In S. McNamara and E. Stacey (Eds), Untangling the Web: Establishing Learning Links. Proceedings ASET Conference 2002. Melbourne, 7-10 July.

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