Is a Skill a Literacy?

On Digital Skills and Digital Literacy

Posted by Cerstin Mahlow on June 05, 2021

Digital Transformation and Digital Skills are the buzzwords of the year, the month, the decade. All kinds of institutions collect and curate lists of skills the future me should have to survive today and tomorrow at work, at school, and at large. As I argued elsewhere, most of those digital skills refer to communication—either with other humans or with machines.

Andy Hediger and I have also argued that the adjective digital mainly signifies "contemporary"; thus these skills are basically the ones required by today's technology and processes, but they are not inherently digital. They're sometimes also called 21st century skills which makes this a bit more obvious and avoids the almost empty buzzword digital.

Which leaves us with the question "What is a skill?" and maybe also "What is literacy?"

Originally, literacy refers to the ability to read and write and thus means alphabetical literacy, or to be competent to handle alphabetical symbols and units. To be literate is to know how to read and write. Adding the adjective digital would then modify this competence and digital literacy could signify something like "reading and writing in the digital space" or "reading and writing with digital tools."

And then we discover that "texts" today consist of much more than strings of alphabetical characters. They include images, video, audio, links, interactive elements, etc. The display of texts adjusts to reading devices and reading habits of users. The creation of those texts, formerly known as "writing," involves handling all kinds of tools to produce these multi-modal documents. These texts live on various devices, in the cloud, on the web. To be able to read them therefore also involves the ability to find and access them. And of course reading involves interpreting the text and connecting the information with other contexts and previous knowledge, etc. So maybe yes, contemporary literacy includes all kinds of competencies and skills.

Which leads to the next question "What is media literacy and data literacy and information literacy?" Handling media and data and information both as producer and as consumer would already be included in this wide and new concept of literacy? Why emphasize this by using a pleonasm? Maybe being literate changed meaning towards "being competent in handling something in an informed way" and this something then is media or data or information. This explanation would also fit such terms as health literacy.

Which on the other hand raises the question whether digital maybe isn't an adjective meaning contemporary but rather some kind of noun referring to "the digital" in general and at large? But let's leave this path here and continue with "What is a skill?"

I quite like the definition Richard Sennett uses in The Craftsman:

The generic answer is that skill is a trained practice. In this, skill contrasts to the coup de foudre, the sudden inspiration. The lure of inspiration lies in part in the conviction that raw talent can take the place of training.

He goes on to explain this training:

Going over an action again and again […] enables self-criticism. […] Skill development depends on how repetition is organized. […] As skill expands, the capacity to sustain repetition increases. […] As a person develops skill, the contents of what he or she repeats change. […] When practice is organized as means to a fixed end, then the problems of the closed system reappear; the person in training will meet a fixed target but won't progress further. The open relation between problem solving and problem finding […] builds and expands skills, but this can't be a one-off event. Skill opens up in this way only because the rhythm of solving and opening up occurs again and again.

This view of skills actually fits one aspect of the original literacy. One has to learn and practice reading and writing to an extent that it happens almost intuitively. And you have to practice a lot to become a good reader and maybe even more to become a good writer. Practice includes trying something, failing, and trying it again and again and again. Especially the aspect of "failing" isn't much liked in today's society: people give up easily, it takes too much effort to repeat something without guaranteed success, one just takes a course and the certificate states the newly acquired skill.

When we evaluate the lists of "21st century skills" or "digital skills," not much of those can be trained easily. How does one practice creativity? Skills in this view are rather elementary competencies one can build upon after much practice, just like reading, writing, and arithmetic. And maybe programming. Right, learning how to program is pretty much learning how to read and write in a new language with different rules and meanings. If one masters the fundamental things, one can use them creatively to solve and find problems, as Sennett points out.

Sennett concludes the chapter with this:

Skill is a trained practice; modern technology is abused when it deprives its users precisely of the repetitive, concrete, hands-on training. When the head and the hand are separated, the result is mental impairment […]

Which also rules out most of the "skills" included in those lists of "digital skills." Sennett published his book in 2008, but I'm quite confident to use his conclusion to reject communicative and creative activities to be considered "skills" one has to acquire and practice. Literacy or skills refer to rather basic activities. I also agree with his view that our dependence on tools (which goes along with rather naive uses) has negative effects. To use technology as a tool in an informed way needs intensive study of its foundations and features, which only is possible if one understands the underlying principles by heart. Oh, and here we're back to the last post on digital natives.

So to be literate is the competent use or execution of something that can be and has to be trained. Then literacy and skill would be equivalent in their general meaning. To be literate means the possession of a skill. The creative use of a skill, the problem finding (as Sennett calls it) by applying a skill in an unusual way, by looking for surprising affordances is then not a literacy or a skill on its own, it builds on those.

Elements like critical thinking or creativity should thus not be listed as "21st century skills." To achieve those, people just have to practice basic moves, they have to train what might be called mechanics. To ensure this, one should rather emphasize that we need to persevere, that we need to experience failure (again and again and again!). This involves handling contemporary technology, but it is not dependent on the advent of "the digital." So maybe there is no such thing as Digital Skills or Digital Literacy at all.