Developing Digital Literacy in Formal Education


The rise of social media and other social technology, as well as the increasingly widespread accessibility to the Internet, play a huge role in the ways new generations are learning outside of the classroom (Hobbs, 2010).  As such, many scholars have argued for a refurbishing of curricula in formal education in order to cater to the inescapable need for digital literacy in a technologically-permeated society (Carrington & Marsh, 2008).  Today’s youth are being presented with innovative ways of communicating, expressing self, and exploring other cultures (Bloom & Johnston, 2010).  Understanding the methods of connecting through these tools—along with realizing the impact of these connections—is seen as pertinent by most scholars to becoming digitally literate in an age of new technology (Hobbs, 2010).  This literature review investigates the relationship between digital literacy and the current components of formal education.  More precisely, this paper observes the texts that surround Web 2.0 literacy and the structure of student learning, current pedagogies, and teacher education.


The Rise of Web 2.0

Changes in the structure and functionality of the Internet have been closely scrutinized by scholars for decades.  But never so much has it been with the birth of the Internet’s “second-generation”—coined by businessman Tim O’Reilly (2004) as “Web 2.0” (Merchant, 2009; Greenhow, et al, 2009; Bloom & Johnston, 2010).  In the past, the Internet functioned as the first-generation; a movement now called Web 1.0.  The system existed in a “hierarchical arrangement,” meaning information available on the Internet was controlled by a small group of content providers (Greenhow, et al, 2009).  Rather than producing content, users were limited to being passive consumers—something scholar Greenhow (2009) calls a “read-only culture.”  While there are some who argue the Internet has always allowed for such interactivity (Berners-Lee, 2006, in Merchant, 2009), most scholars distinguish Web 2.0 by its interactive nature.

The phenomenon of Web 2.0 is so vast, that it is hard to find a concise definition. However, in essence, Web 2.0 is most commonly seen as the second generation of the Internet, characterized by its participatory, collaborative, and distributed nature.  This is due to the user’s ability to consume and produce content.  Its significance rests in being “user-centric” as knowledge becomes “decentralized, accessible, and co-constructed” (Greenhow, et al, 2009).  It are these characteristics that have helped Web 2.0 give way to what scholar Henry Jenkins (2009) refers to as “participatory culture”—a place of shared information where no one knows everything, but everyone knows something.  It is a term some scholars hold synonymous with Web 2.0 (Jenkins, et al, 2009; Carrington & Marsh, 2008; Hobbs, 2010)

Likewise to Jenkins’ theory of participatory culture, Guy Merchant (2009) in his journal article, “Web 2.0, new literacies, and the idea of learning through participation,” identifies four main characteristics of Web 2.0: Presence, Modification, User-generated content, and Social participation. “These four characteristics have proved valuable in how scholars research the ways in which Web 2.0 involves its users and promote a sense of community and interaction,” he states (Merchant, 2009).

In addition, Web 2.0 can be also be defined by examining how people interact using the new wave of social networking platforms and digital media it encapsulates (Bloom & Johnston, 2010).  The most popular and widely examined are websites like Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, and Flickr, with an even broader focus on the use of tools like blogs, wiki pages, RSS, and folksonomies.  But regardless of which specific platform is being surveyed, it is widely believed that Web 2.0 has changed the way people behave and interact beyond the skills of reading, writing, and listening.  Scholars attest that Web 2.0 is helping to develop skills such as researching, evaluating, creating, and collaborating information (Fahser-Herro & Steinkuehler, 2009).  However, Merchant (2009) makes it very clear that these facets of Web 2.0 lack in “providing an account of the kinds of activities and practices involved, the new literacies that are mobilized, or the kinds of learning that occur” (para. 4).


Recognizing the Needs of a New Culture

A multitude of scholars suggest that students of today’s technological era are in need of a new set of literacy skills (Fahser-Herro & Steinkeuhler, 2009; Jenkins, et al, 2009; Carrington & Marsh, 2008; Hobbs, 2010; Siemens, 2008; Notley, 2008; Dezuanni, et al, 2010).  In one instance, some believe that social media websites and other similar digital  platforms will become so customary in the lives of students outside the classroom that formal education will have no choice but to expand (Carrington & Marsh, 2008).  At the same time, there are some who propose that students are already experiencing the phenomenon of being “always on” in their personal lives due to the pervasive nature of Web 2.0 (Hartley, et al, 2008).  With both of these theories comes the notion of education being counter-productive unless change is sought.

Consequently the act of being “always on” means forcing students to “power down” when faced with out-of-date pedagogy (Hartley, et al, 2008).  Scholars from the journal of Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teach Education (CITE) address the need for a specific shift in focus to a new, student-centered pedagogy (2008).  Overall, they identify that the current practice of content-centered pedagogy—which places emphasis on the content and the teacher—means students lose passion and become bored with learning.  Reversely, a student-centered pedagogy means showing students what they are capable of, thus encouraging creative energy and enthusiasm (Bull, et al, 2008).

There also exists a compromise between using content-centered pedagogy while also adopting “non-canonical texts” with the purpose of providing students with the skills required for critical interaction (Carrington & Marsh, 2008).  The key importance, in this sense, remains in helping students develop skills to promote proficiency within the rapid expanse of digital communications.  This means helping students to become life-long learners of evolving technology, or a “digital citizen” (Hobbs, 2009).

By Hobbs’ (2010) definition, becoming a digital citizen is necessary to helping oneself “achieve the personal, professional and social benefits of thriving in a digital age […]” by utilizing “skills that are not just optional or desirable […] but are essential elements” for the future (p. 16).  This coincides with a widely-followed theory, coined by Marc Prensky in 2001, that states that modern students encompass a group of “digital natives”—those who were born already immersed critically with technology (McLoughlin & Lee, 2008; Bennett, et al, 2008; Fahser-Herro & Steinkuehler, 2009).  Reversely, educators and scholars (those born before the “net generation”) exist as the population of “digital immigrants”—those to whom critical interaction with Web technology was introduced.

Some scholars, like Bennett (2008), argue that digital natives are not born with such critical skills, and instead must rely on fundamental changes in education in order acquire the skills necessary to becoming a true digital citizen.  With the population of so-called digital natives increasing with each generation, most scholars agree the need for technology-infused education is crucial and inevitable.  What remains is figuring out how this change is to occur.


The Importance of Educators

Bloom & Johnston (2010) stress the importance of educators assuming the responsibility of helping students become “critical, informed, and literate participants” in Web 2.0 culture (p. 122).  Similarly, scholar Renee Hobbs (2010) asserts that it are the educators—not technology—that are the vital resource for achieving digital literacy competencies in the classroom. Although there is a wide agreement that the current generation has the ability to use such digital technologies, Jenkins, et al (2009) accentuates the need for a pedagogical intervention.  He argues:

Educators must work together to ensure that every American young person has access to the skills and experience needed to become a full participant, can articulate their understanding of how media shapes perceptions, and has been socialized into the emerging ethical standards that should shape their practices as media makers and participants in online communities. (pp. 3-4)

Reaching such an inclusive state of understanding in this area, however, will not be easy since learning how to critically interact with Web 2.0 be a complex and time consuming process (Notley, 2008). For this reason, scholar Notley promotes the idea of “support systems” for both young people and adults alike (2008).  Just as the educator acts as a support system for the learner, this idea of a support system for the educator is one that has also been widely explored.

In order for educators—both current and future—to help students become digitally literate, most scholars agree that they first must understand the significance and functionality of new media themselves (Hobbs & Jensen, 2009).  In other words, the educators must also receive an education in the field of digital literacy.  The role, many scholars assert, is to be fulfilled by instructional designers, otherwise identified as teacher educators (Siemens, 2008; Hobbs & Jensen, 2009; Fahser-Herro & Steinkuehler, 2009).  It is argued that the need for teacher educators is great due to increasing complexity and pervasiveness of digital tools (Siemens 2008).

Fahser-Herro & Steinkuehler (2009) agree, suggesting that modern educators require broad professional development training in order to help students master modern literacy skills.  Overall, they argue for the development of teacher training programs geared towards the understanding of new media and how to incorporate it into previously-used content: “the foundation of traditional literacy, research skills, technical skills, and critical analysis taught in the classroom” (Jenkins, et al, 2009; quoted in Fahser-Herro & Steinkuehler, 2009, p. 2).  Put simply, in order to help the student educators, teacher educators require a better grasp of the past in order to understand the direction we are heading (Hobbs & Jensen, 2009).

Ultimately, Bloom & Johnston (2010) leave a warning for educators who fail to integrate the affordances of Web 2.0 with learning in formal education. They emphasize that if educators do not seek proper new literacy training, they will “forfeit numerous chances for students and teachers to engage in co-learning experiences that can enhance their respective media literacies” (p. 122).  However, introducing digital technologies and literacies into formal classrooms is much easier said than done, and opens the door to face many more challenges.


Challenges and Implications

Unfortunately, taking advantage of Web 2.0 tools in school for creative expression is harder than it looks (Bull, et al, 2008).  Hobbs (2010) compliments this thought by identifying that “simply buying computers for schools does not necessarily lead to digital and media literacy education” (p. 26).  Alongside this argument, Dezuanni (2010) makes it very clear that participatory spaces of Web 2.0 are not necessarily pedagogical in nature.  All three texts indicate that developing digital literacy in a formal classroom is a long and complicated process, highly dependent on both educator understanding and student willingness to embrace the subject matter and the skills with it.

The scholars alongside Bull (2008) remind researchers that they must take into account the challenges like addressing specific learning objectives within a limited timeframe, complications in classroom management, and constraints on Internet access in schools (i.e. censorship of social media websites). It is for reasons like these that the omnipresence of social media outside of school has yet to be utilized with equal effectiveness inside (Bull, et al, 2008).

Carrington & Marsh (2008) recommend that in order to begin developing a solution, schools must evolve from the modeled use of static technology use (like computer labs) to more portable technologies, arguing that technologies should better reflect the ways in which today’s youth access and participate using technology and digital literacies outside of school. By working towards the professional development of pre-service teachers, formal education might someday be able to completely integrate digital and print literacies in classrooms (Carrington & Marsh, 2008).  However, at the moment, many scholars recognize that there is little to no sense of instruction to follow.

While more and more scholars are beginning to recognize the significance of incorporating new media in the formal classroom, there is still a lack of research proving its effectiveness (Lyman, 2004; McLoughlin & Lee, 2008; Carrington & Marsh, 2008; Bull, et al, 2008).  Educators are limited in the number of models they have for effective integration of media in their teaching, and at the moment, there is only limited research available to guide the best practice (Bull, et al, 2008).  Even if there was a more significant amount of research on digital literacy in existence, Lyman (2004) predicts that the rapid pace of technological change would make research outdated, as one device is replaced by another.  Until scholars are able to develop classroom models and produce data, much of the examination surrounding this topic will focus on digital literacy in areas of informal learning (Lyman, 2004).




Bennett, S., Maton, K., & Kervin, L. (2008). The ‘digital natives’ debate: A critical review of the evidence. British Journal of Educational Technology,39 (5), 775-786. Retrieved from

Bloom, K., & Johnston, K.M. (2010). Digging into youtube videos: Using media literacy and participatory culture to promote cross-cultural understanding. Journal of Media Literacy Education, 2(2), 113-123. Retrieved from

Bull, G., Thompson, A., Searson, M., Garofalo, J., Park, J., Young, C., & Lee, J. (2008). Connecting informal and formal learning experiences in the age of participatory media. Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teach Education, 8(2), Retrieved from

Carrington, V., & Marsh, J. UK Department for Children, Schools and Families, (2008). Forms of literacy. Retrieved from Beyond Current Horizons website:

Dezuanni, M., Kapitzke, C., & Iyer, R. (2010). Copyright, digital media literacies and preservice teacher education. Digital Culture & Education2(2), 230-245. Retrieved from

Fahser-Herro, D., & Steinkuehler, C. (2009). Web 2.0 literacy and secondary teacher education. Journal of Computing in Teacher Education, 26(2), 55-62. Retrieved from

Greenhow, C., Robelia, B., & Hughes, J. (2009). Learning, teaching, and scholarship in a digital

age. Educational Researcher, 38(4), 246-259. Retrieved from html

Hartley, J. (2009). Repurposing literacy. In The Uses of Digital Literacy (pp. 17-38). London: Transaction Publishers.

Hartley, J. (2009). Uses of youtube: Digital literacy and the growth of knowledge. In The Uses of Digital Literacy (pp. 100-121). London: Transaction Publishers.

Hobbs, R. (2010, November). Digital and media literacy: A plan of action. The Aspen Institute

Communications and Society Program, Washington, D.C.: The Aspen Institute. Retrieved from


Hobbs, R., & Jensen, A. (2009). The past, present, and future of media literacy education. Journal of Media Literacy Education, 1, 1-11. Retrieved from

Jenkins, H., et al. (2009). Confronting the challenges of participatory culture: Media education for the 21st century. Chicago: MacArthur Foundation. Retrieved from{7E45C7E0-A3E0-4B89-AC9C-E807E1B0AE4E}/JENKINS_WHITE_PAPER.PDF

Lyman, P. (2004). Digital-mediated experiences and kids’ informal learning. Informally published manuscript, School of Informational Management and Systems, UC Berkeley. Retrieved from

Merchant, G.H. (2009). Web 2.0, new literacies, and the idea of learning through participation.

English teaching: practice and critique, 8 (3), 8-20. Retrieved from

McLoughlin, C., & Lee, M. J. W. (2008). The three p’s of pedagogy for the networked society:     personalization, participation, and productivity. International Journal of Teaching and         Learning in Higher Education, 20(1), 10-27. Retrieved from

Notley, T. M. (2008). Online network use in schools: Social and educational opportunities. Youth Studies Australia, 27(3), 20-29. Retrieved from

Siemens, G. (2008). Learning and knowing in networks: Changing roles of educators and designers. ITFORUM, Retrieved from

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *