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Literacy for a digital age: Transliteracy or what?

Digital literacy educator Diana Graber is crowdsourcing a media literacy curriculum for 8th-graders at Journey School in southern California. It’s Year 3 of the school’s CyberCivics program that Diana’s building, she writes in the CyberWise blog. Reading her resource-rich post got me thinking about all I’ve learned about digital literacy, media literacy, and social literacy since I first heard them mentioned in the same breath at the Safer Internet Forum in Luxembourg in 2009. So maybe Diana won’t mind if this member of the crowd weighs in….

Blended literacy needed for a digital age

Though the terms used at the Luxembourg conference were “technology skills, media skills, and life skills,” the speakers were clearly talking about three literacies, and the third was used interchangeably with “social literacy.” This formed the kernel of my thinking on the subject of literacy as one of five components of citizenship in a digital age (the way being informed and literate has been central to citizenship for centuries – see below and Slide 2 here). Zooming in on the literacy part of citizenship…

As I listened to my European colleagues, it made complete sense to me that – in a media environment that’s both digital and social, where media are incoming (consumable), outgoing (producible, spreadable), and often collective or expressive of community (shareable, remixable) – literacy has to include technical, social, and information-handling skills. It’s truly a 3-legged stool, not very useful without all three legs. That it’s a blend wasn’t only being seen in Europe, however. Media professor Henry Jenkins and the New Media Literacies Project he started at MIT (now they’re both at the University of Southern California) put forth 12 literacies or “social skills and cultural competencies” needed in participatory media and culture back in 2006, including some involving interaction or collaboration (more on this in a minute).

In Canada, my friend and colleague Jane Tallim at told me, educators teach “multi-literacies” or “digital literacies,” “positioning ‘digital literacy’ not as a concrete set of skills, but as a framework that draws from and expands on numerous literacies and competencies that traditionally fall under media literacy – technology literacy, information literacy, visual literacy, communication literacy and social literacies – to reflect both the social and digital dimensions of networked technologies.” All of these seem to fit somewhere into the three categories of digital, media, and social, though, don’t you think?

But is this blend ‘transliteracy’?

When I ran this idea of a blended literacy by a brilliant librarian friend of mine, he said I was talking about “transliteracy”: “the ability to read, write and interact across a range of platforms, tools and media.” That definition‘s from Prof. Sue Thomas at De Montfort University in the UK. But I suggest that digital/media/social literacy even goes beyond embracing all media, platforms, and technologies – to covering both incoming and outgoing, or behavioral, media (consumable, producible, and shareable media). I certainly agree with proponents who say that “transliteracy is concerned with what it means to be literate in the 21st century” and with the interaction among “text literacy and visual literacy and digital literacy,” as Tom Ipry at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas wrote in “Introducing Transliteracy,” but there doesn’t seem to be enough emphasis on the literacy required by the interaction of users themselves in media as an environment itself – in other words, within the social media environments (including text-messaging conversations on phones) in which people of all ages now spend a great deal of their lives. That’s what makes social literacy so essential now.

The New Media Literacies project covers several skills needed for participating in collaboration and community but it doesn’t go as far as embracing the self-management and self- and social-awareness skills of SEL that constitute social literacy. When people – hopefully students in school, which is often their first sustained experience of community and where citizenship is introduced at an early age – learn to detect and manage emotions wherever they are, online or offline (blending this understanding with digital and media literacy in online environments), we will go far in learning how to function effectively in all forms of community: homes, classrooms, chatrooms, online games, virtual worlds, etc. [As a welcome bonus, SEL represents the lion’s share of bullying and cyberbullying prevention, so not only does it increase academic success, it protects and increases social efficacy as well, I have learned from psychologists this past year.]

Embedded in citizenship

We hear so much about digital citizenship and literacy as two separate things, but that’s only if citizenship is seen as a behavioral practice. I think that demeans citizenship. I propose that this blended literacy of a digital age is part of digital citizenship, one of the five elements I’ve seen and heard references to in research and forums in a number of countries:

  • Participation or civic engagement
  • Norms of behavior (often referred to as “good citizenship”)
  • Rights & responsibilities*
  • A sense of belonging or membership
  • The literacies – digital, media, social

Can we really be effective citizens, online and offline, without all five elements? In fact, I think it won’t be long before we drop the “digital” part of “digital citizenship” because we’ll see “digital” as just one of many “places” where citizens engage with their world (youth already see it that way – see this). I hope it won’t be long before we’re teaching, modeling and practicing citizenship together in digital environments within classrooms, as much as extended families are doing now in Facebook all the time. Just as, consciously or not, parents are modeling online participation for their kids in digital settings, so teachers and students can do so for each other in digital settings such as class blogs, wikis, cellphone activities, and virtual environments at school (in classroom settings, I suggest that the progression for using digital media goes from student engagement to civic engagement to civic efficacy – online and offline). Just as it’s a whole lot easier to teach and practice cooking in a kitchen, it’s a whole lot easier to teach and practice digital citizenship in digital environments. As that happens more and more in schools, digital citizenship will increasingly take off (and won’t be such a hot topic in online-safety forums anymore because blended into all aspects of school life).

So to summarize, here are what I propose to be the three parts of today’s tri-literacy:

  1. Media literacy is the piece that has been developed by generations of scholars and educators. As a third of this tri-literacy, it doesn’t change much from what it was in the mass-media era and is now needed even more as we face a growing tsunami of 24/7 media that can be either professionally or user-produced. It’s basically information literacy – critical thinking applied to what’s incoming, downloadable or consumable, regardless of media type or whether it appears in a book, on a phone, or on a computer screen. It employs some new skills – such as fluency in Web search, critical judgment of what searches turn up, and recognizing social engineering online – but the cognitive filter it develops still tests for accuracy and credibility while protecting from the likes of phishers, social engineers, and identity thieves as well as specious content, hate speech, and negative influencing.
  2. Digital literacy goes beyond technical skills to include not only fluency in the use of digital media (e.g, skills such as blogging, which builds on various forms of writing, and sound and video producing and editing) but also in computer, network, reputation, identity, and intellectual-property security. It works closely with media literacy and social literacy in its understanding of the social engineering that makes phishing and malicious hacking the threats that they have become.
  3. Social literacy is greatly needed in social media, we all know. If we all grew up with social-emotional learning, we’d have greater academic success and social skills and a lot less bullying in schools and workplaces. And if we applied those emotion management and empathy skills to online spaces as much as offline ones, we’d probably witness a lot less cyberbullying and other forms of online aggression (not to mention “traditional” bullying). We’d also probably have much less of a problem with disinhibition, the lack of visual cues that display our reactions to one another that can make us forget that those are fellow human beings with feelings behind the text messages, comments, avatars, etc. through which we communicate in digital spaces.

The goal of developing this rich blended literacy in each citizen (of communities online and offline) is full, effective engagement in participatory media, culture, and society. Greater safety (emotional and physical as well as safety of digital, physical, financial, and intellectual property) is a welcome byproduct, as is success in academics, social experiences, professional work.

Related links

  • The fast track to new literacies is youth digital media production. When youth move from media consumers to media producers they develop 21st Century Learning Skills and Digital Literacies,” wrote Barry Joseph. They also develop social literacy. Global Kids youth design games, produce movies (with the multiple skills involved), moderate online discussions, blog, etc.. After 12 years as director of Global Kids’ Online Leadership Program, Barry recently announced that he is moving on to serve as director of digital learning at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
  • “What is social-emotional learning?” from the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning in Chicago
  • Harvard’s Howard Gardner and USC’s Henry Jenkins on “How We Got Here” (pdf) – referring to their collaboration and that of their projects – GoodPlay’s digital ethics project and the New Media Literacies project (NML), respectively – which produced the free curriculum “Our Space: Being a Responsible Citizen of the Digital World,” described by NML as “designed to encourage high school students to reflect on the ethical dimensions of their participation in new media environments.” [Common Sense Media’s curriculum is adapted from this collaborative project, but this is the original work.]
  • About a year ago, like Diana Graber with media literacy, I suggested that we crowd-source digital citizenship – because of its participatory nature. I do think that, all over the world, especially where people are connected to the global Internet and developing an unprecedented global consciousness, the definition of “citizenship” is evolving at a faster pace than before. Not in the sense of either world citizens or Internet citizens, but citizens of communities that are both online and offline, geographic and interest-based.
  • “Anti-social media companies will be obsolete” (12/11)
  • “So what good is social media?” (10/11)
  • “Survival of the most cooperative?” (5/11)

* Proposed rights & responsibilities of citizenship in a digital age (please comment, add, or edit):

Rights – access & participation, free speech, privacy, physical & psychological safety, safety of digital, physical and intellectual property
Responsibilities – respect for self & others; protecting one’s own and others’ rights & property; respectful interaction & collaboration; demonstrating the blended literacy of a networked world: digital, media, social

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3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Hi Anne,

    Thanks so much for the mention of our crowdsourding blog and our program at Journey School.

    I really enjoyed your comprehensive overview of literacy and your proposal for a “tri-literacy” approach.

    Ironically, at Journey School we already have a tri-literacy program in place. We call it the 3 “L”’s. The first “L” is Digital Literacy, or my program, which encompasses Digital Citizenship, Information Literacy, and Media Literacy.

    Our second “L” is Social Literacy. Like you, we recognize this as the essential pillar of Literacy, without it the rest simply falls apart. Journey has actually been recognized and awarded for this program (

    Finally, our third “L” is Eco-literacy, because we believe that a human being’s relationship with the living world is as essential as our relationships are with one another.

    What’s worth noting here is that this is a public charter school that utilizes Waldorf teaching principles. Waldorf schools traditionally eschew any electronic media use in the classroom until middle school (or beyond), and also ask families to limit electronic media use to weekends only in the younger grades. What I’ve observed is that this approach (although increasingly difficult in today’s media-saturated environment) is extremely effective because it lets children learn and practice Jenkins’ social and cultural competencies while they are young. They can then bring these well-honed skills to the digital world when they start developing the cognitive capacity for the ethical thinking skills that world requires (as Gardner and his team at the Good Play Project and others have found).

    A year ago I wrote in an article for the Journal of Media Literacy Education ( that Waldorf schools, even with their low-tech approach, may be uniquely well-positioned to redefine literacy education. It doesn’t hurt being a charter school either, as it allows for a unique flexibility of curriculum that’s more difficult to achieve at a traditional public school (a topic for another blog!).

    Thanks again for your overview of this important topic. We look forward to continuing the conversation here, and on our site at

    September 21, 2012
    • Anne #

      Thanks for your comment. I don’t see any irony at all in The Journey School having a tri-literacy program in place. It think that’s great and commend you and the school for getting on with SUCH an important part of education now.

      I’m not being prescriptive in the post, just offering a broad perspective drawn from good thinking on the part of educators and advocates in many countries. I do feel it’s limiting, though, to subsume digital citizenship under literacy or even under the blended literacy digital media call for. Citizenship is too big a concept for that, one whose definition is being worked out individually and collectively, globally, as we all learn how to use the new tools of citizenship in this networked world. As I said in the post, even now, as educators put various curricula about it in place, we aren’t really talking about just digital citizenship (I think you suggested this in your paper about the Waldorf philosophy). As I wrote in this post, I think it won’t be long before we drop the “digital” part in conversations about what citizenship is going forward. “Digital” is just another set of “places” and tools where and with which citizens engage with their world. Digital, media, and social literacy enable effective engagement in any environment, including digital ones, as do norms of behavior, access, exercising our rights and responsibilities, and a sense of belonging in the communities they join, online, offline, on phones, wherever. I hope that’s clearer. Tx again.

      October 23, 2012

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