In search of a term: Defining digital literacies in the 21st century

Submitted by: Luci Pangrazio
Abstract: Keywords: digital literacies; digital competence; alfabetizacion digital; bildung; digital literacy pedagogy; school literacies

Many scholars across the world have studied the knowledge, skills and attitudes needed to access and use digital media. This field of study has become known as ‘digital literacy’ or ‘digital literacies’. Yet as digital texts have proliferated and evolved, there has been much conjecture over what it means to be ‘digitally literate’. Since its first use in the mid 1990s, the term ‘digital literacy’ has been contested and challenged. This paper analyses how the term digital literacy has been conceptualised and applied by scholars across the world.

To do this, we analyse the most referenced publications on digital literacy in three different contexts: the English-speaking context; the Spanish-speaking context; and the Scandinavian context. Searches were made in Google Scholar using the term ‘digital literacy’. The term digital competence was also used when searching for articles in the Spanish and Scandinavian contexts, since the term is widely used interchangeably with digital literacy. A critical discourse analysis (Fairclough,1995) of these articles was conducted, followed up by a thematic analysis across articles in all three contexts. The findings are presented in three categories within each context: digital literacy as concept; digital literacy as educational initiative; and issues and tensions.

Our findings begin with Gilster’s landmark text ‘Digital Literacy’ (1998), tracing how the term has been translated and applied across the world. Across all three contexts digital literacy refers to something broader than digital competence, digital skills or digital proficiency (Bawden, 2001; Area Moreira, 2008). We identify the key challenges and tensions emerging from the field and the implications this has had on digital literacy education. For example, two issues that emerged across all three contexts were the ‘vagueness’ of the term digital literacy (Buckingham, 2010; Säljö, 2012), as well as confusion over how it related to other relevant disciplines, such as media literacy, information literacy and computer literacy (Bawden, 2001; Erstad, 2010). The paper concludes with suggestions for a future agenda for digital literacy research.


Area Moreira, M. (2008). La innovación pedagógica con TIC y el desarrollo de las competencias informacionales y digitales. Revista de Investigación en la Escuela, (64), pp. 5-17.

Bawden, D. (2001). Information and digital literacies: A review of concepts. Journal of Documentation, 57(2), 218-259.

Buckingham, D. (2010). Defining digital literacy. In B. Bachmair (Ed.), Medienbildung in neuen Kulturräumen (pp. 59-71). Switzerland: Springer VS.

Erstad, O. (2010). Educating the digital generation. Nordic Journal of Digital Literacy, 5:1, pp. 56-72.

Fairclough, N. (1995). Critical discourse analysis: the critical study of language. London, Routledge

Gilster, P. (1998). Digital Literacy. New York: Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Säljö, R. (2012). Literacy, Digital Literacy and Epistemic Practices: The Co-Evolotion of Hybrid Minds and External Memory Systems. Nordic Journal of Digital Literacy 7/1, p. 5-19.