Digital literacy can be an insurgency

Many large players are interested in digital literacy: libraries, companies, faculty, journalists, even governments.  This could lead us to see digital literacy as an institutionally friendly force, even a conserving one.  What I’d like to argue is that digital literacy is ultimately destabilizing, even insurgent.

(I have given several talks around the world about this theme, most recently in Iceland.  You can watch it below:


There are two key pieces to this, learners as autonomous sense-makers and learners as creators.

First, digital literacy, like information literacy before (and within) it, gives agency to learners (and anyone, really).  Students get to assess the quality of information, figure out how to find it, strategize about its uses.  They have to, in Howard Rheingold’s world, install and run a BS detector of their own.  They do this instead of relying on gatekeepers to a large degree.

The digitally literate have new powers for questioning authority. They can find and use information beyond the scope authority figures might prefer.  Digitally literate people can criticize leaders, CEOs, parties, officials… and teachers.

When this power is combined with mobile, networked devices, authority isn’t what it once was.  The audience, citizens, subjects, etc. can speak truth to power in a new way: by calling leaders on mistakes through online information.  Think about how people attending a city council meeting can critique their leaders, or fans challenge a star in a public event.  Public spaces become informationally richer and also more fraught.


I think I’ve mentioned a fun story from around 2007, when I heard a Bush administration official say some… questionable things in a talk.  I tweeted the statements along with my questions, and received responses from people at the presentation and also folks around the world.  When it came to Q+A I asked the official about one of these statements.  At first she denied saying it (oh yes), then had to fess up when the Twitter crowd backed me (us) up.  Then I conveyed to her questions from people in Sweden and Israel.  Said official wasn’t ready for this experience, and didn’t emerge unscathed.

Second, digitally literate students make stuff and share it.  This leads to instability for the same reasons that free expression often does – powerful institutions and other people may experience speech or art that appalls them.  For example, a fine student of mine circa 2000 wrote a religion class research paper about homoeroticism and Christ, then published it on the web.  This didn’t go over well with every inhabitant of that Bible belt state.

It’s easy to think of other examples.  Professors can publish sites criticizing their institution.  Activists can use social media to share thoughts and plan actions.  A well-timed and -done YouTube video can arouse passions.

This is where social (or “soft”) skills really come in.  That’s where digital literacy should encourage students to think about the affordances and implications of making and sharing, of critique.


Depending on the kind of reader you are, you may or may not see insurgency as a good thing.  It helps to keep in mind that anybody can be an insurgent, including actors you may love or abhor.   Oppressors can use digital literacy’s tools to oppress, and victimized population use them to protect themselves or revolt.  Teaching or supporting digital literacy programs is a trickier proposition than it might seem.

This is one reason why I’m not sure “digital citizenship” is something people can really agree upon.  Actually using digital tools in a civic way is more diverse and challenging that the relatively calm word “citizenship” often entails.  For instance, as American foreign policy keeps rediscovering, “giving” people democracy can mean they’ll vote for the “wrong” people.

Speaking of American foreign policy, I’m not trying to make the argument that the internet automagically liberates people.  As I said above, people can use digital literacy to enslave and torment others.  Insurgency is a multi-hued thing.

The flip side is definitely there.  As Evgeny Morozov and others have demonstrated, governments and companies can use people’s digital literacy productions to defend and strengthen themselves.  I agree with that, but wanted to point out that the insurgent potential remains.

Back to the classroom: I suspect this is one reason digital literacy has a hard time growing.  It represents the potential to empower students to challenge each other and instructors, as well as become insurgent outside of class, as with my student’s homoerotic paper.  Not all faculty find this a desirable or even tolerable thing.  How many teachers and professors spend time trying to maintain or expand their authority?  Conversely, how many were trained on how to teach an actually interactive class?  How many of are thrilled when students grow into their agency and act upon it?

If digital literacy is ultimately an insurgency, or at least contains insurgent possibilities, we educators need to take that into account in our strategy and practice.

(cartoon from XKCD; insurgents photo by dominique cappronnier)

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6 Responses to Digital literacy can be an insurgency

  1. Chris Lott says:

    As one who is tasked with teaching a course that included “digital citizenship,” I think this is spot on. Again, I also wonder if we aren’t really overloading the term literacy here because, once again, the knowledge of the mechanism and how it works is very different from expressing one’s self using that mechanism…and that can be very far from doing so “well” (using whatever metric of effectiveness one chooses). Is *all* of that “literacy?”

    • Thank you, Chris. And your work matters greatly.

      Agreed about the quaking nature of “literacy”. I remember back in the late 1990s librarians getting worried about the weakness of literacy in “information literacy”. Hence the alternative expression “information fluency”. More recently, I’ve heard “digital sophistication”.

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