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Jl. of Educational Multimedia and Hypermedia (2004) 13(1),93-106
Digital Literacy: A Conceptual Framework for Survival
Skills in the Digital Era
Tel Hai Academic College, The Open Ubiversity of Israel
Digital literacy involves more than the mere ability to use
software or operate a digital device; it includes a large vari-
ety of complex cognitive, motor, sociological, and emotional
skills, which users need in order to function effectively in
digital environments. The tasks required in this context in-
clude, for example, “reading” instructions from graphical
displays in user interfaces; using digital reproduction to cre-
ate new, meaningful materials from existing ones; construct-
ing knowledge from a nonlinear, hypertextual navigation;
evaluating the quality and validity of information; and have a
mature and realistic understanding of the “rules” that prevail
in the cyberspace. This newly emerging concept of digital
literacy may be used as a measure of the quality of learners’
work in digital environments, and provide scholars and de-
velopers with a more effective means of communication in
designing better user-oriented environments. This article pro-
poses a holistic, refined conceptual framework for digital lit-
eracy, which includes photo-visual literacy; reproduction lit-
eracy; branching literacy; information literacy; and socio-
In light of the rapid and continual development of digital technology,
individuals are required to use a growing variety of technical, cognitive, and
sociological skills in order to perform tasks and solve problems in digital en-
vironments. These skills are referred to in the literature as “digital literacy”
(Gilster, 1997; Inoue, Naito, & Koshizuka, 1997; Lenham, 1995; Pool,
1997). Like any fashionable term, “digital literacy” has enjoyed a broad
range of uses in the literature, from reference to technical aspects (e.g.,
Bruce & Peyton, 1999; Davies, Szabo, & Montgomerie, 2002; Swan,
Bangert-Drowns, Moore-Cox, & Dugan, 2002), to cognitive, psychological,
or sociological meanings (e.g., Gilster, 1997; Papert, 1996; Tapscott, 1998).
The indistinct use of the term causes ambiguity, and leads to misunderstand-
ings, misconceptions, and poor communication among researchers and de-
velopers involved in the processes of designing and developing learning dig-
ital environments (Norton & Wiburg , 1998).
Development of a more clear-cut conceptual framework may improve
the understanding of the skills encompassed by the term “digital literacy,”
and provide designers of digital environments with more precise guidelines
for effective planning of learner-oriented digital work environments (Ham-
burger, 2002). The present article proposes a new conceptual framework for
the concept of digital literacy, incorporating five types of literacy: (a) photo-
visual literacy; (b) reproduction literacy; (c) information literacy; (d)
branching literacy; and (e) socio-emotional literacy. Review of the literature
and observation of users at work, as well as many years of experience in
planning digital environments for children and adults, in both industry and
academia, indicates that these types of digital literacy encompass most of the
cognitive skills applied when using digital environments. Accordingly, this
conceptual framework may enhance the understanding of how users perform
with tasks that require the utilization of different types of digital skills.
The application of the proposed framework among users of digital envi-
ronments was examined in preliminary empirical research (Eshet, 2002; Es-
het-Alkalai & Amichai-Hamburger, 2002). Three groups of participants (10
high-school students, 10 university students, and 10 adults over age 30)
were given assignments designed to test their ability to solve problems and
perform tasks, each of which required a different type of digital literacy. The
results of the research indicated that the conceptual framework contributes
considerably to our understanding of how learners work in digital environ-
PHOTO-VISUAL LITERACY: THE ART OF READING VISUAL
Writing is a means of communication that uses symbols; in the course
of history, it developed from an alphabet of pictures, which used symbols
with associative visual meanings to represent words, consonants, or letters,
and therefore required a relatively low level of cognitive mediation, to the
Digital Literacy: A Conceptual Framework 95
modern alphabet, which is composed of “meaningless” abstract symbols
(letters), and therefore requires a higher level of cognitive mediation. In con-
trast, the history of visual communication in digital environments reflects the
opposite trend, as demonstrated, for example, in computer user interfaces.
These developed from text-based, command-guided syntactical interfaces to
intuitive graphic user interfaces that implement principles of “using vision to
think” (Mullet & Sano, 1995; Shneiderman, 1998; Tuft, 1990) and create an
effective photo-visual communication that “speaks the user’s language”
(Nielsen, 1993). Usability research (e.g., Margono & Shneiderman, 1987)
has indicated that it is easier for most users, beginners and experts alike, to
learn from graphic interfaces, because they employ natural visual communi-
cation with the user.
In many ways, the graphic user interfaces represent a revival of the ex-
tinct form of literacy that was prevalent in the era of the ancient picture al-
phabet: photo-visual reading (Snyder, 1999). The present article suggests
that in working with graphic user interfaces, users employ a unique form of
digital literacy—photo-visual literacy—that helps them to “read” intuitively
and freely, and to understand the instructions and messages represented vi-
sually. People with photo-visual literacy have good visual memory and
strong intuitive-associative thinking, which help them decode and under-
stand visual messages easily and fluently.
The nature of the photo-visual “reading” process, the performance of
learners with tasks that involve photo-visual literacy, as well as their attitude
towards photo-visual reading are subjects that have attracted numerous stud-
ies. Springer (1987) and Aspillaga (1996) showed that photo-visual work in
graphic user interfaces greatly reduced the time required to operate a digital
environment, thereby demonstrating the importance of taking such literacy
into account in user interface design. Mason (2002) suggested a model for
hypertext writing and reading, using different methods for visual presenta-
tion of digital data, and McLoughlin and Hutchinson (2002) described the
advantages of a visual digital environment for successful foreign language
In light of the recognition of the value of photo-visual communication
in learning, together with the development of digital work environments in
the past few decades, software companies invested special effort in planning
sophisticated interactive multimedia environments that take advantage of the
possibility to represent synchronized text, sound, and motion. This led to
identification of a special type of photo-visual learning, referred to in this ar-
ticle as synchronic learning, because it is based on synchronized stimulation
of the learner by means of multimedia. Effective synchronic learning re-
quires a special type of photo-visual literacy, referred to here as synchronic
literacy. The nature of synchronic literacy is clearly demonstrated in the “liv-
ing books” genre, as Just Grandma and Me (http:www.thereviewzone.com/
grandmame.html). In this genre of educational computer programs for chil-
dren, an interactive story is narrated in a digital game environment. The text
is displayed on the monitor while the story is heard, with each word high-
lighted as it is read. This makes it possible for the learner to match the pro-
nunciation of each word with its visual appearance.
In the present study, a pilot test was made, to examine the reading abili-
ty of three first-grade children from Chile and Israel, for whom English was
a foreign language, and who had never studied it in any formal way. All
three were “addicted” to living books, and would play Grandma and Me and
other computer games of this type for hours (four to five hours a day). The
children obtained very high scores (between 53% and 79% success) when
asked to identify words that had appeared in the digital books when present-
ed to them as isolated words, without context. In comparison, their scores
were very low when asked to identify isolated letters presented to them with-
out the context of a word (Table 1). As was found in an in-depth interview
with those children, they have learned English by synchronic matching of
words they heard with the corresponding “pictures” appearing on the moni-
tor, without any basic understanding of the letters that compose the word, or
the basic syntax of the word structure. This case demonstrates how learners
apply synchronic literacy in the process of learning to read, by simulta-
neously adding and synchronizing digital, vocal, and visual stimuli with
written text. The findings shed light on the way in which the auditory-verbal
and the pictorial-visual channels (Mayer, 2001) join together to create pho-
to-visual comprehension of words, by perceiving them as pictures, rather than
as a combination of letters. Beavis (1999) and Snyder (1999) have also studied
aspects of synchronic literacy in language learning in digital environments.
Synchronic Literacy and Reading: The Ability of Young Children to Learn
English from Synchronic Stories (Living Books as Grandma and Me).
Results Indicate that Children Perceived Words that Were Presented on the
Screen as “Pictures” Rather than a Combination of Letters.
Child’s name % of success to identify % of success to
separate words identify separate
David 53 5
Jose 64 3
Sharon 79 9
Digital Literacy: A Conceptual Framework 97
The use of synchronic literacy with digital texts is not limited to young
children only, but can also be found in the field of adults training. This is
demonstrated in the wide range of computer programs for learning typing
skills. In these programs, the learners work in a synchronic digital environ-
ment: They are asked to type a text that is projected on the monitor. While
typing, they see their actions illuminated on a simulated keyboard, and an
automated audio feedback notifies them of mistakes (see example at: http://
www.21stsoftware.com/SS_Typing.htm). In a research on digital literacy
conducted in a mixed-age group, Eshet (2002) found that photo-visual litera-
cy of the adults, as represented by their ability to decode graphic user inter-
faces, was much lower than that of the younger participants.
REPRODUCTION LITERACY: THE ART OF CREATIVE RECYCLING OF
The invention of the printing press by Gutenberg (1455) marked a great
leap in human ability to copy, reproduce, and distribute information on a
large scale. Until then, all written or graphic knowledge was stored in a way
that could not be reproduced, in libraries and collections. Some traditions
and knowledge were not even in written form, but were passed orally from
parents to children.
The next great leap in the humans’ ability to reproduce knowledge oc-
curred in the twentieth century, with the emergence of computerized digital
reproduction (Benjamin, 1994). These new and unlimited possibilities for
reproducing and distributing digital information have opened new horizons
for scholars and artists, but they have also required the development of a
new set of criteria for originality, creativity, and talent in art or academic
work. This arouses profound questions, such as, for instance, to what extent
can a person copy or revise an existing work of art or text before it is con-
sidered plagiarism rather than an original creation? What are the boundaries
of creativity in art? When does a creation become a technical act of repro-
duction? At a more radical level, it is possible to put these questions them-
selves to the test—are they even important, or has the time perhaps come for
“the author to die” (paraphrasing the well-known post-modern demand), and
for us to put aside the issue of originality and authenticity in our intellectual
Perhaps the most famous example of reproduction in art dates back to
the 1960s and the pop artist Andy Warhol, whose work was largely based on
reproduction of single elements (such a cans of Coca Cola). Recently, an at-
tempt was made to challenge the boundaries of reproduction in digital-age
art by a group of Italian students, who have invented and presented the fic-
tional Internet artist, Darko Maver (http://www.kapelica.org/maver/
main.htm, 1998), whose works were composed of a reproduction of horror
visuals (mainly cadavers), downloaded from the Internet. The students’
“trick” was so successful that the nonexistent artist Maver was even awarded
prestigious prizes for his pioneer work in Internet art.
Should this art be considered legitimate, original, and creative? This
question and others like it are relevant not only to the discussion of the plas-
tic arts, but also in assessing the originality of academic writing. In the age
of reproduction, researchers and students use parts of texts that have already
been published as the basis for new articles. It is easy to identify extreme
cases of illegitimate reproduction of academic work, such as the U-banks,
Internet sites that sell ready-made academic papers (see, for example, http://
www.academon.com). However, what about a paper that constitutes a slight-
ly different version of an article previously published by the same author, or
in a more radical case, by a different author? How much change is necessary
for such papers to be considered original, real, and legitimate? The constant
improvement in the capabilities of computers and digital editing programs
presents a growing challenge regarding the use of reproduction to create origi-
nal, true, and creative work, both in art and in academia, and opens new hori-
zons for discussion of originality and creativity in the era of reproduction.
Writing an original academic work with the aid of digital techniques for
text reproduction, requires scholars to master a special type of literacy, re-
ferred to in this article as reproduction literacy. Digital reproduction literacy
is the ability to create a meaningful, authentic, and creative work or interpre-
tation, by integrating existing independent pieces of information (Gilster,
1997; Labbo, Reinking, & McKenna, 1998).
Reproduction literate scholars usually possess a good multi-dimensional
synthetic thinking, which helps them create meaningful new combinations
from existing information. Eshet (2002) found that reproduction literacy
among adults, who were asked to inject new meaning into existing texts, by
means of text reproduction, was much higher than that of younger partici-
pants. This finding indicates a reverse trend to that previously described for
photo-visual literacy, in which the younger participants demonstrated greater
ability than the older ones did.
BRANCHING LITERACY: HYPERMEDIA AND NON-LINEAR THINKING
In the time between the end of the Roman era (around the third century
AD), and the sixth century AD, two revolutionary technological inventions
Digital Literacy: A Conceptual Framework 99
were introduced: the first was the replacement of writing on scrolls with sep-
arate pages which could be gathered into books, and later—the numbering
of the pages. Bound books with numbered pages provided scholars with a
new degree of freedom in processing information: They could now navigate
easily to defined places in the text, or leaf through distant parts of a text.
Page numbering made it possible, for the first time, to crosscheck sources
and add a table of contents and index. The invention of books also created a
new way of looking at text: Scrolls are read linearly, row by row, but with
the bound volume it has become possible to leaf through a book, as well. All
these enabled navigation through texts in a nonlinear, easy, and precise man-
ner. Thus the most ancient roots of hypertext use reach back to the dawn of
the age of the bound book, in the sixth century AD, considerably earlier than
the invention of the printing press, not to mention the computer.
Modern hypermedia technology has presented computer users with new
challenges of digital literacy (Gilster, 1997). It enabled scholars to move
away from the relatively-linear data searches in traditional digital libraries
and databases, to knowledge construction from information that was access-
ed in a nonlinear manner. Until the early 1990s, work in the restricted com-
puter environments, most of which were not based on the hypermedia tech-
nology, promoted relatively linear thinking. This was dictated by inflexible
operating systems, and by the fact that the users were used to books, and ex-
pected to work in a computer-based environment that would imitate the lin-
ear book-reading environment. The modern hypermedia environment pro-
vides users with a high degree of freedom in navigating through different
domains of knowledge, but also presents them with problems arising from
the need to construct knowledge from large quantities of independent pieces
of information, reached in a nonlinear, “unordered” manner.
From the educational perspective, the central importance of the hy-
permedia-based environment lies not necessarily in the multitasking
capabilities that it offers users, but in the possibility of using such en-
vironments for associative, branching and non-linear navigation,
through different knowledge domains. This ability promotes multidi-
mensional thinking, and it led to development of a new type of digital
literacy—branching, or hypermedia literacy. People with good
branching literacy are characterized by a good sense of multidimen-
sional spatial orientation, that is, the ability to avoid loosing orienta-
tion when surfing through the labyrinth of lanes that characterizes the
hyperspace (Lazar, Bessiere, Ceaparu, Robinson, & Shneiderman,
2003). With the expansion of Internet use, users who lack branching
literacy increasingly complain of spatial disorientation, which hinders
effective work in the environment of hypermedia (Daniels, Takach, &
Varnhagen, 2002; Horton, 2000; Piacciano, 2001; Lazar et al., 2003).
Various studies suggested that people who possess a good branching
literacy also have good metaphorical thinking, as well as the ability to
create mental models, concept maps, and other abstract representa-
tions of the network structure (Jonassen & Henning, 1999; Smilowitz,
2001). Lee and Hsu (2002) found that the use of such cognitive skills
considerably improves navigation performance on the net, prevents
problems of disorientation, and improves the ability to construct
knowledge. In discussions of the influence of hypermedia technology
on learning, Rouet and Levonen (1996) described the transition from
linear to associative-branching thinking. In their view, this transition
requires scholars to acquire branching cognitive skills and develop
skills of knowledge construction from independent bits of informa-
tion, in order to perform complex and demanding tasks. Spiro, Felto-
vitch, Jacobson, & Coulson (1991) discussed the importance of hy-
permedia technology in creating multidimensional knowledge based
on cognitive flexibility. Other authors (e.g., Salomon, 2000; Salomon
& Perkins, 1996) described the limitations of the ability of learners to
achieve meaningful learning by navigating in hypermedia environ-
ments such as the Internet. Despite all this, branching literacy is in-
creasingly becoming “survival skill,” a necessity for learners who are
meant to perform knowledge-construction tasks in the information
Eshet (2002) explored the ability of users to perform tasks that require
branching literacy by testing the ability of representatives of different age
groups to perform the task of planning a trip to an unknown country by
means of hypermedia navigation on the Internet. The findings reveal that
the younger the participants, the higher their ability to perform the task
INFORMATION LITERACY: THE ART OF SKEPTICISM
With the rapid growth in access to information, the ability of consumers
to evaluate and use it wisely has become a key issue in creating educated in-
formation consumers (Kerka, 1999; Salomon, 2000). The need to properly
evaluate information is not unique to the digital era; it has always been cen-
tral to successful learning, even before the information revolution. However,
in the modern era, with the unlimited exposure to digital information, which
can be published easily and manipulated without difficulty, the ability to
Digital Literacy: A Conceptual Framework 101
evaluate and assess information properly has become a “survival skill” for
scholars and information consumers. The main problems in evaluating infor-
mation lie in the difficulty of assessing the credibility and originality of in-
formation and the professional integrity of its presentation. During academic
research, decisions are made as to which data items to use, and which to ig-
nore. These decisions are made in the course of retrieving information from
databases, or surfing the Internet. User awareness in making these decisions
largely determines the quality of the conclusions, positions, opinions, or
models constructed from the information. In the absence of effective mecha-
nisms for information evaluation, how can learners decide which of the infi-
nite and conflicting bits of information to choose, and which to doubt?
Which political opinions presented on the Internet should be adopted and
which rejected? The term Information literacy, as used in this article, refers
to the cognitive skills that consumers use to evaluate information in an edu-
cated and effective manner. Information literacy works as a filter: it identi-
fies erroneous, irrelevant, or biased information, and prevents its infiltration
into the learner’s system of considerations (Gilster, 1997; Minkel, 2000). In-
formation-literate people think critically, and are always ready to doubt the
quality of information. They are not tempted to take information for granted,
even when it seems “authoritative” and valid. Unfortunately, most current
studies on information literacy have concentrated on strategies and habits of
searching for information (e.g., Burnett & McKinley, 1998; Dresang, 1999;
Morahan-Martin & Anderson, 2000; Zins, 2000), and only a few focus on
the relevant cognitive and pedagogical aspects (e.g., O’Sullivan, 2000;
In his pilot study of digital literacy in different age groups, Eshet (2002)
found that adults showed a higher degree of information literacy than young-
er people, when asked to critically evaluate news events presented by seven
different news sources on the Internet. Similar results are reported by Harg-
ittai (2002a; 2002b).
The expansion of the Internet and other platforms of digital communi-
cation have opened up new dimensions and opportunities for collaborative
learning and information sharing in various forms, as learning communities,
discussion groups, and chat rooms (Scardamalia & Bereiter, 1996; Mioduser
& Nachmias, 2002). However, alongside the opportunities, these new possi-
bilities also present the user with problems, in a proportion unknown prior to
the Internet era. For example, how is it possible to know whether individuals
in a chat room are really who they say they are? How can we tell whether a
call for blood donations on the net is real or a hoax? Should we open an
electronic mail from an unknown person, even if the mail’s subject seems to
be interesting? It might contain a virus, but then again, it could be genuine.
These questions are only a few examples of the considerations that
present-day Internet users must take into account in order to “survive” with-
in the massive communications of the cyberspace, and benefit from true op-
portunities that come their way. Cyberspace has its own unwritten rules. It is
not only a global village; more precisely, it is a jungle of human communi-
cation, embracing an infinite quantity of information, true and false, honest
and deceptive, based on good will and evil. Activity in cyberspace may be
risky for immature, innocent users who do not understand the “rules of the
game.” Examples of such dangers touch almost every aspect of our life,
from surrendering personal information to crooks in the Internet, to users
who were gullible enough to open e-mail entitled “I Love You,” only to dis-
cover that it infected their computer with a fatal virus.
Socially-literate users of the cyberspace know how to avoid “traps” as
well as derive benefits from the advantages of digital communication. These
users have a relatively new type of digital literacy, which is referred to in
this article as socio-emotional literacy, because it involves mainly sociologi-
cal and emotional aspects of work in cyberspace.
Socio-emotional digital literacy appears to be the most complex of all
the types of digital literacy described in this article. In order to acquire this
skill, users must be very critical, analytical, and mature, and must have a
high degree of information literacy and branching literacy. Much research
has been devoted to drawing a socio-psychological profile of users in cyber-
space (e.g., Amichai-Hamburger, 2002; Hamburger & Ben-Artzi, 2000;
Mundrof & Laird, 2002). On the basis of the findings of these studies, socio-
emotionally-literate users can be described as those who are willing to share
data and knowledge with others, capable of information evaluation and ab-
stract thinking, and able to collaboratively construct knowledge.
Digital literacy can be defined as survival skill in the digital era. It con-
stitutes a system of skills and strategies used by learners and users in digital
environments. By employing different types of digital literacy, users im-
prove their performance and “survive” a variety of obstacles and stumbling
Digital Literacy: A Conceptual Framework 103
blocks that lie in the way within this special medium. The literature is incon-
sistent in its use of the term “digital literacy”; some restrict the concept to
the technical aspects of operating in digital environments, while others apply
it in the context of cognitive and socio-emotional aspects of work in a com-
puter environment. This article takes a first step towards shaping an integra-
tive conceptual frame of reference that encompasses most of the dimensions
of user activity in digital environments, which may serve as a basis for future
research on the ever-changing directions of digital culture. Application of
this framework may also improve communication among learners and devel-
opers, by providing a diagnostic and evaluative tool for use in creating pre-
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