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Towards ICT Literacies

Posted by acsislab on May 25, 2007

The ACSIS Team – Ted Naylor and Charlene Croft, with E. Dianne Looker 

While issues of access to technology and connectivity infrastructure remain essential, it is also paramount that on top of connectivity we recognize that inclusive access does not end at being ‘connected’. Rather, inclusion and participation in the knowledge society is tied to social processes that are dynamic and complex and which vary across different socio-economic contexts.  

To this end, we introduce and discuss the notion of ICT literacy. This concept provides an analytical approach that makes visible that there are important differences in use, skill levels and objectives in using ICTs throughout the social order, particularly across the key socio-economic sectors of governance, business, education and community. ICT literacy therefore provides the analytical link to understanding how to navigate and use the information highway in ways that cuts experiences of users in different ways; people form literacies with meaning that are socially and culturally mediated. An equitable knowledge society is indeed a connected one, yet is also one based on acknowledging that a plurality of ICT literacies exist; there are not ‘dumb’ users of technology and ‘smart’ users of technology when considering how individuals employ ICTs in ways that matter to their lives, circumstances and needs.  

From a policy and practice perspective, we believe this approach helpfully moves us away from the prevailing tendency to understand ICT literacy as a singular, hierarchy ranked, uniform set of competencies with computers or technologies that can be measured, standardized and taught.  

The Knowledge Economy 

It is now generally acknowledged that Canada, similar to other advanced social democracies, is becoming a knowledge based economy. This shift is premised on the accentuation of “knowledge” as the most important factor of production, surpassing land, labour, and capital based on the diffusion of information communication technologies (ICTs) throughout the social order (Parayil 2005).  

From a federal policy and programme perspective, Canada has aggressively positioned itself as a leading proponent of the knowledge economy, making massive investments in infrastructure and programs based on the understanding that “Canada needs a highly skilled and educated workforce to remain competitive and sustain its prosperity in an increasingly global and knowledge-based economy” (Berger et al. 2007).

The Knowledge Society

While there has been a great deal of focus on creating an advantageous climate for growing the knowledge economy, considerably less focus has been put into considering how we might ensure the development of an equitable knowledge society. In broad terms, a knowledge society centre’s around the social capabilities to identify, process, transform, disseminate and use information to build and apply knowledge for human development (UNESCO).  

However, while issues of access to technology and connectivity infrastructure remain essential, it is also paramount that on top of connectivity we recognize that inclusive access does not end at being ‘connected’. Rather, inclusion and participation in the knowledge society is tied to social processes that are dynamic and complex and which vary across different socio-economic contexts.  

Indeed, scholars of the ‘digital divide’ now point out that this divide cannot be reduced to just technological access, “solved” through “simple technological fixes” (Parayil 2005) because connectivity and access to infrastructures are not a sufficient basis to develop a knowledge society based on equitable inclusion and participation (UNESCO).  

In both cases, the concept of the knowledge society and economy hinges on access to computing infrastructures – while government policy and programme has begun to successfully conquer the ‘digital divide’ in terms of access to technology and connectivity infrastructure it has not yet sufficiently addressed the digital divide in terms of ensuring adequate levels of literacy with ICTs.  

ICT literacy addresses the post-connectivity question of, what now? For those with access to the ubiquitous information highway, ICT literacy provides the analytical link to understanding how to navigate and use the information highway in ways that cuts experiences of users in different ways. This approach makes visible that there are important differences in use, skill levels and objectives in using ICTs throughout the social order and that these differences should not, and do not, necessarily follow along a hierarchal ordering of ‘lower’ and ‘higher’ skills within the social realm – there are not ‘dumb’ users of technology and ‘smart’ users of technology when considering how individuals employ ICTs in ways that matter to their lives, circumstances and needs.  

ICT literacy  

While there are many definitions of ICT literacy within the scholarly literature (see Bawden 2001 for a review), ICT literacy is generally taken as an “umbrella term” that attempts to describe a new set of literacies which have emerged as a result of a broader shift to an “information society” and the accompanying technologies embedded in that shift. As Warschauer (in press: 16) concludes, “Today, the social, economic, and technological transformations are again aligned to bring about major changes in literacy practices.”  

Currently, the prevailing tendency in understanding ICT literacy is to understand it as a singular, standardized set of competencies with computers or technologies. In the tradition of traditional literacy, we then find those agents and organizations wishing “to define ‘it’, to teach it, measure it, assess it, and remediate it – in a word, to universalize and standardize it (Lankshear and Knobel 2005).” If you don’t have ‘it’, then you better get ‘it’ because you will need ‘it’ in the future, goes the rationale. Within the education sector, for example, this approach is ensconced within traditional curriculum programs that understand ICT literacy as a teachable and unified set of skills to be learned. However, evidence from our study, among others, suggests that ICT literacy should be more accurately understood across a broad range of competencies and skills, and that individuals use ICTs in ways that matter to them, and not necessarily along a fixed continuum of ‘advancing’ skills.  

Our understanding of ICT literacy therefore differs from the normative understandings of ICT literacy by recognizing that there are social and cultural elements which draw our attention to understanding literacy in different ways which vary in different social contexts (Simpson 2005).  Freire (2000) describes literacy as “an active phenomenon, deeply linked to personal and cultural identity. Its power lies not in a received ability to read and write, but rather in an individual’s capacity to put those skills to work in shaping the course of his or her own life.” In this context, ICT literacy conceptualizes a whole host of social practices of how people engage in making meaning “mediated by texts that are produced, received, distributed, exchanged, etc., via digital codification” (Lankshear and Knobel 2005: 9). People form literacies with meaning that are socially and culturally mediated, which is not the result from some universally learned skill or technique.  

With this in mind, we would suggest four major socio-economic sectors where ICT literacy matters; it matters in the sense that while literacies with ICTs will inevitably vary among individuals, these sectors continue to form the basis of the knowledge society. Therefore a consideration of literacy with ICTs among these sectors is paramount to ensure equitable inclusion in the knowledge society.   

  • Governance

It is important to consider ICT literacy in relation to its significance around equitable participation within the public domain. The existence of asymmetries in democratic and governing practices in Canada is now well established. In this context, ICTs are increasingly playing an important role in inclusion around policy formulation and decision-making processes (Dale and Naylor 2006). Civic engagement processes are increasingly found on-line, and the communication possibilities created by ICTs allow the public to express itself more immediately and effectively than previously possible, helping citizens reinvigorate public talk and dialogue in entirely new ways, and with entirely new results (Dale and Naylor 2006).  

Aside from ICTs contribution to civic engagement, ICTs are also now crucial to evolving notions of alternative service delivery mechanisms within government. In efforts to become more efficient and effective, many government services are now found online (http://www.gov.ns.ca/snsmr). The rationale is that the public can be better served by making these services available online, circumventing the traditional bureaucratic ‘silos and stovepipes’ found across departments, and offering more immediate and better services to citizens.  

  • Business

Simply connecting business to the Internet isn’t sufficient for ensuring effective use of the advantages offered by ICTs. In a study of rural New Zealand small businesses, the authors recommend that human capability play the key role in their E-Commerce strategy as a priority for the Government in the drive for economic transformation. To this end, among a host of recommendations, the authors direct the government to facilitate skill training for small business by ensuring the education sector focuses on ICT literacy, and that the government helps the private sector “build broader ICT literacy and capability in the community including rural areas” (Al-Qirim and Corbett 2003). In this way, ICT literacy becomes positioned as the key competitive edge for businesses once they have gained connectivity – the better literacy skills with ICTs on behalf of businesses and owners, the more competitive they become within a global marketplace where ICT literacy is presumed to be the entry fee to compete.  

  • Education

Canada requires a highly skilled and educated workforce to ensure it is competitive and to sustain its long-term prosperity in a knowledge-based economy (Berger et al. 2007).

At the same time, it is widely believed that students who have difficulty converting written information to knowledge are at a critical disadvantage in today’s world (Sim 2006). ICT literacy is therefore a desirable and necessary form of human capital, particularly in relation to an increasing emphasis on an individual’s success within the context of a knowledge economy.  

Within the field of economics, there is also a growing theoretical consensus that the driving force behind economic growth is technological advancement; an assertion which has clearly found its way into educational policy formulation, and curriculum reform and practice for many governments, including Canada. As Milton (2005: 10) contends, “The early drivers of levels of investment in ICT in education have not changed.  ICT skills are a key factor in both individuals’ success in the labour market and in national economic growth.” So while connectivity and access remain important obstacles within education, obstacles to creating literacy with ICTs within the education sector is the key to ensuring all groups have access to tapping the potential created by connectivity within Nova Scotia, particularly those groups that have been historically marginalized (Naylor and Frank, forthcoming).  

  •   Community

Rural connectivity and literacy with that connectivity represents an important development in the historical use of ICTs to foster and enhance civic participation within the public domain (Dale and Naylor 2006). In this context, the use of the ICTs to expand dialogue, literacy and discourse are taken as new features of a potentially democratic process within the public sphere since to a large extent they seek to involve different groups employing different techniques to achieve different objectives.  

Rural communities worldwide are now facing formidable challenges: significant demographic urban growth, with associated problems of economic and population losses in many rural and resource-dependent communities, with associated job loss and community decline; and meeting the basic necessities for clean air, clean water, energy, transportation, land use, housing, jobs, health, waste disposal, etc. Such problems are dynamically interconnected and cannot be dealt with in isolation; they require new approaches, frameworks, partnerships and tools to address them in an integrative fashion (Dale and Onyx, in press). Key to facing these challenges is the capacity of communities to coordinate and lead discussions around these issues, potentially contributing to a rapid development of social capital.  

The emergent tools of Web 2.0, for example, suggest the importance of a set of communication tools that rural communities might adopt as strategies that cut across the rural socio-economic experience. It also highlights the critical need to address a plurality of literacies that need to be considered in relation to connectivity.  

Internet Web 2.0 applications are “those that make the most of the intrinsic advantages of that platform: delivering software as a continually-updated services that gets better the more people use it, creating network effects through an ‘architecture of participation’ (O’Reilly 2005). In this way, Web 2.0 first assumes access to web based infrastructure but from there departs from the current understanding of the internet as a single entry point to access more information or as static communications link. Rather Web 2.0 is centered on a model of knowledge generation and production by communities.  

As rural communities continue to face the challenges noted above, they require the tools to mobilize not only their civic voices and participation but their commerce and economies; and without the literacy to embrace and adapt the evolving architecture of the knowledge society and economy they risk becoming marginalized as technology ‘have-not’s’.


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