02 July 2014

Technology, IT & ICT vs Digital Literacy

It's a constant frustration for me, the way the terms 'technology' 'IT' and "ICT' are all used interchangeably as if they all mean they same thing—they don't.

Why does it matter? That's what this post is all about.

This is IT - A focus on the machine

This is ICT - A focus on using the machine

I'm a DLC, a 'Digital Literacy Coach, I'm not an IT (Information Technology) Teacher, I'm not even an ICT  (Information Communication Technology) teacher, but this post is not about what I do, I've written about that here. No, this post is about why distinguishing between these is essential if we are serious about integrating digital technologies effectively and meaningfully into educational contexts.

Let's just clear this up at the outset, here's the difference:

Information Technology (IT) is a focus on the machines, the hardware, and the code that enables these machines to be controlled effectively, this the computing, the Computer Science, the electronic engineering, the coding, without which nothing that we call ICT or Technology Enhanced Learning (TEL) would be possible.* 

Information Communication Technology (ICT) is a focus on the use of these machines to communicate with each other, communicating with ordinary people who are not skilled in IT, people like you and me. ICT refers to technologies that provide access to information through telecommunications. It is similar to Information Technology (IT), but focuses primarily on the kinds of communication technologies powerfully exemplified by the SAMMS framework. Communications mediums that provide situated, unprecedented access to tools that are multimodal, mutable and socially networked.

Digital literacy—Where do you want to go today?
I find a car analogy helpful in explaining this:

IT is a focus on the machine, the automobile— designing them, making them, fixing them, maintaining them.

ICT is learning how to drive the car, the driving instructor is the ICT teacher, and while this is a part of the role of someone like me, a 'Digital Literacy Coach' that's not at the heart of it. Why? Because it's still focused on the act of driving the car as an end in and of itself, what DLCs and all educators should be more interested in is, great, now you can drive - where do you want to go? On a vacation? To work? To school, college? The possibilities are endless, and with all/most of them, the technology is merely a (transformative) means to an end.

IT: Automotive engineering
ICT: Driving instruction/education
Digital Literacy: ROAD TRIP!

Technology Terminology

It is clear from the literature that many terms abound within this arena of learning, from the ubiquitous but ambiguous ‘technology’ to ‘21st Century Learning’ – used in a way where the term is assumed to bring with it an ‘obvious’ digital context, ie, the use of computers.

The term ‘technology’ is a particularly broad and ill-defined one (Ohler, 1999). Currently it is most often used as shortening of the full term, ’digital technologies’ ‘computer technologies’ or ‘ICT’, although of course it can mean, in theory, any application of human knowledge to solve practical problems. My Apple dictionary defines it simply as,

“the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes.” 

As such it includes not only mechanical artefacts, but also procedures and practices. Even when technology is interpreted as only mechanical objects, the range of objects is almost inexhaustible: from simple things such as an overhead projector, to a pencil, and consequentially, to more complex systems such as the computer and of course, the Internet. Even when we further narrow technology down to the computer, the list of things teachers need to know and do, using these technologies is still a challenging one. So it transpires that the issue of technology as a barrier is not new. Far from it, clearly, teachers have wrestled with technologies since time out of mind, although the ‘wrestling’ was generally more of that involving the need to sharpen pencils, or replace the ink in a pen – a dichotomy Mishra and Koehler (2006) approach by separating them into two distinct, but obviously related categories; namely, ‘standard’ technologies, “such as books, chalk and blackboard”, and more ‘advanced’ technologies, “such as the Internet and digital video (p 1027)”. So the problem then is more one of the rate of change than the actual use of technologies in teaching. As Mishra et al explain:

“… the rapid rate of evolution of these new digital technologies prevents them from becoming ‘transparent’ any time soon. Teachers will have to do more than simply learn to use currently available tools; they also will have to learn new techniques and skills as current technologies become obsolete (ibid, p 1023).”

A point endorsed by Cuban (2001) noting out that teachers’ definition of ‘technology’ is very selective, as since the 19th century, chalk and blackboard, pens, pencils, and textbooks have proven themselves over and over again to be reliable and useful classroom technologies.

“Teachers added other innovations such as the overhead projector, the ditto machine (later the copying machine), and film projector (later the VCR) because they too proved reliable and useful. But most teachers continue to see the computer as an add-on rather than as a technology integral to their classroom content and instruction. (p 163; my emphasis).
But, and it's a big but.

It is that ‘But’ that is at the heart of many barriers to integration.

‘Digital’ literacies and ‘multiliteracies’

The concept of digital literacies is fascinating both in its definition and its application. The term captures an arena of rapidly developing practices, as humans interact with technologies in new ways and for innovative purposes. The exponentially expanding ‘digital world’ of the latter part of the 20th Century and the early 21st Century are creating new opportunities for people to grapple with social norms, explore interests, develop technical skills, and experiment with new forms of self-expression. 

By exploring new interests, tinkering, and ‘messing around’ with these new kinds of media, we acquire various forms of technical and media literacy. Through trial and error, we add new media skills to our repertoire, (Ito et al, 2008). Within my own context, the term ‘Digital Literacy’ has been adopted as a replacement for what used to be referred to as ‘IT’. The assumption being that it fulfils the previous terms, and somehow implies something greater, more meaningful. The reality is all that has happened in most cases is the term has been misappropriated as meaning the same thing, which it does not. When Paul Gilster (1997) coined this term it is highly doubtful that he never intended for this term to be used in this way, what he was doing was introducing a term that very powerfully distinguished between the defining of a ‘thing’ to the more important business of using it. 

Move the conversation on from the mechanics and on into the potential of it to make meaning.

“The concept of literacy goes beyond simply being able to read; it has always meant the ability to read with meaning, and to understand. It is the fundamental act of cognition. Digital literacy likewise extends the boundaries of definition.” (p 2)

Of course since then others have attempted their own definitions, “digital literacy means knowing how technology and media affect the ways in which we go about finding things out, communicating with one another, and gaining knowledge and understanding” (Hague and Williamson, 2009) or “Digital Literacies are an enabling skill allowing for a broader range of learning interactions, using a greater range of tools, which then offers the possibility of a wider range of traceable meanings to be made in society.” (Technology Enhanced Learning phase of the Teaching and Learning Research Programme). 

What they invariably have in common is a shift in focus from the machines (IT) to their potential as tools for making meaning (Digital Literacy).


Literacy’ is a powerful concept to centre this focus. The widespread struggle among educators, parents, researchers and policy makers to conceptualise what it is (young) people “know” or need to know when using digital technologies, and by extension, the Internet, is usefully resolved by conceptualising this knowledge in terms of literacy. Unfortunately this also broadens the argument into a debate over the nature of literacy, which in turn leads us to a deeper question, which literacies are encompassed by this term? Livingstone (2008) alone includes print literacy, audiovisual and media literacies, information literacy, advertising literacy, cyberliteracy, games literacy, critical literacy, and many more. So it is that these ‘multiliteracies’ (Gillen & Barton, 2010) generally refer to the multitude of forms of literacy made possible by the phenomenal pace of IT development. 

Digital Literacies

The term "digital literacies" itself is relatively new within the field of literacy studies. Its definition remains open, but human judgment, or criticality, is assumed in most understandings of digital literacies and at the centre of the concept of ‘multiliteracies’.

Howard Rheingold (2012) has argued that we must actively cultivate skills such as mindfulness and “crap detection” that are central to these new realities of the digital and networked world, or more commonly referred to as ‘critical thinking’. In an online world awash with knowledge/opinion with the border often blurred between the two – critical thinking is essential, the ability to literally critique content, to extricate one from the other, knowledge/opinion, fact/fiction/feeling. 

What is clear is that these ‘digital’ literacies are in a deep and profound sense new literacies, not merely the traditional concept of literacy – reading and writing – carried on in new media. (Kress, 2010)

Accompanying the plurality of these digital literacies, we find a range of terms used by different researchers when extricating one from from another, including but not limited to; internet literacies, digital literacies, new media literacies, multiliteracies, information literacy, ICT literacies, and computer literacies. Coiro, et al (2008) notes that all these terms “are used to refer to phenomena we would see as falling broadly under a new literacies umbrella” (p 10).

These literacies need a unifying context, such as the notion of the learner in the 21st Century and digital literacies: Rheingold describes digital literacies in terms of, 'civil engagement in the Digital Age', what he calls ‘21st century literacies’ (Rheingold 2009), as requiring “attention, participation, cooperation, critical consumption, and network awareness.” Rheingold and Ito et al (2008; 2013) see this kind of learning as situated within the participatory online culture of 21st Century.

We find ourselves with a powerfully unifying focus, so let's stop talking abut technology and talk about literacy—whether that is linguistic, numeric, or digital, these are now the modes by which we learn everything else, it is, all of it, in the service of making and refining meaning.

* Interesting to note that as of September 2013, the term "ICT" in the UK National Curriculum, where it originated, has been replaced by the broader term "computing", I would imagine this is in order to mitigate the current confusion, and emphasise its computer science 'coding' credentials, as opposed to its capacity for communication.