Digital literacy is fine. But not just any digital literacy, and not for any purpose – K12 and schools

Lately, I have been thinking a lot about lifelong digital literacy. I wrote a first article (in French only), defending a digital literacy that would treat the digital paradigm as a total social fact, eminently political, economic and cultural. And I encouraged a more committed, more critical digital literacy. On the one hand, with regard to the total digitalization of our society, without reflection or democratic debate. And the hegemonic domination of toxic platforms on the other.

I will continue to pull the thread by focusing on digital literacy in school education. My intention is the same as in my first article: I do not claim to have ready-made answers. But I at least propose to ask questions, and to contribute to the reflection.

This article is therefore primarily intended for national education stakeholders, and please consider that os was written in regards with the French context. If you spot some typos or weird turn of phrase, feel free to let me know 🙂

Table of Contents

  1. What is expected from digital literacy in schools?
  2. From competence in use to competence in practice
  3. The limits of digital competences
  4. From digital competences to digital literacy
  5. From digital literacy to critical digital thinking
  6. Some final remarks

What is expected from digital literacy in schools?

To this question, I would like to answer with another question: what is expected of our school system? As an observer of national education for many years, I have the feeling that schools are torn between two missions. The first is to train enlightened, free and independent citizens. The second is to train and guide future workers towards their future academic and/or professional outlets. The tension between these two missions is palpable. It is political, philosophical. It can be found in the composition of curricula, in the place given to the critical thinking of students, to civic and media education, and more generally to the democratic time of schools.

So what is expected from digital literacy in schools? Skills, knowledge, culture, critical thinking? I think it depends on whether we want to create citizens or workers. If we focus on future workers, digital literacy could be limited to the appropriation of digital skills deemed essential[/efn_note]. There are now two skills repositories: the “CRCN” in France and the DIGCOMP on a European scale[/efn_note]. Young people will therefore learn to use a computer and a tablet. They will know how to use an office suite, perhaps create images. But it is not with these digital skills that they will become informed citizens and trained in the history of digital technologies, its culture, its many economic, social and political issues. It is not with these digital skills that they will be able to decide collectively on their future and the place that digital technologies will take in it.

From competence in use to competence in practice

We very often talk about digital uses in the world of national education. We talk much less about practices, and often, it is as a synonym of uses. However, I think that we need to look at their respective meanings. Some sociologists, such as Josiane Jouët, make a distinction between usage and practice, “considering that usage is more restrictive and refers to simple use, whereas practice covers not only the use of techniques but also the behaviour, attitudes and representations of individuals in relation to the tool. Furthermore, usage refers to the behaviour of an individual in relation to an object, whereas practice implies a social dimension1“.

In an article from his dissertation, Benjamin Menant2 establishes a direct link between use and consumption. Thus, one is the user of a consumable object. It is only possible to use the object in certain ways (the famous instructions for use) designed by the manufacturer. Conversely, practice is part of an accomplishment, a progression, both individual and collective. Practice emancipates individuation. It is striking to realise the extent to which computing and digital technology have moved from a hegemony of emancipatory practices to a hegemony of consumerist uses.

If we go back to our digital literacy, it is clear that it cannot be enough to transmit skills of use. We need to pass on practical skills. In other words, digital literacy cannot be limited to making us “good” consumers of digital objects. It must enable us to develop emancipatory and contributive digital practices. For example: creating a collaborative blog or a Peertube instance, setting up our own PC, changing our default software, etc.

The limits of digital competences

The competency-based approach, even when it integrates the practical skills mentioned above, still seems to me to be too simplistic to achieve the school’s mission: to train enlightened citizens who understand the digital “thing”.

First of all, it should be remembered that digital skills are melting like snow in the sun, as technologies, tools and programming languages are evolving rapidly. We therefore need digital literacy that organises the systematic transfer of skills on the one hand, and lifelong learning on the other. For example, we must not only teach how to use Microsoft Excel. We need to teach how it works, the logic behind it and the diversity of office software on offer. Without this, citizens will not be able to continue to develop their practices on software other than Microsoft Excel.

In the same way, it seems to me that the challenge is not to develop specific digital skills but rather “meta-skills” or strategic skills. These meta-skills allow, for example, to understand the technical, social and political functioning of social networks in general, rather than focusing on mastering a particular social network. And to organise a capacity for lifelong learning, anchored on the strategic competence acquired.

From digital competences to digital literacy

For me, the digital literacy approach should encompass digital skills. To schematise, digital literacy is theoretical and reflective, it encompasses digital skills which are the more practical dimension. The current reference frameworks (CRCN and Digcomp) focus on skills3, but they totally overlook digital culture.

However, digital literacy goes beyond the question of skills. Skills are about uses and practices, they make people employable[/efn_note]The Digcomp says it all, stating that it provides “a common framework to help European citizens and the workforce to self-assess their skills, set learning objectives, identify training opportunities and access more and better career opportunities”[/efn_note]. But they do not provide the keys to becoming a full citizen on digital issues. This is illustrated by the incredible difficulty, still today, in bringing out quality debates on digital technology issues. Yet there is no shortage of subjects: 5G, the regulation of social networks, the generalisation of surveillance devices, the environmental impact of digital technology, etc.

Finally, digital literacy is essential for all citizens, whereas I think that certain digital skills are not, or might not be. In particular for those who have made the informed choice to limit their digital practices and equipment. For them, digital skills should be a choice, not an obligation. But digital literacy will nevertheless be essential for them to understand the digitised world in which they live. It is this digital literacy that will give them the means to take part in democratic life, in reflections and in struggles.

From digital literacy to critical digital thinking

This is the last block I wanted to mention. It seems to me that an ambitious digital literacy cannot do without a critical reflection (positive or negative) of the current digital paradigm. To paraphrase Bernard Stiegler4, we must understand digital technologies to be able to criticise and transform them.

This critical reflection should lead to thinking against oneself (a transdisciplinary ‘skill’ by the way). But also to systematically question a state of affairs. For example, every year I give my students the exercise of reflecting on the socio-technical and economic model of Google5. I ask them first to consider whether this is the only possible model for a search engine. If they have ever thought about it. And then I ask them to propose alternative models.

For most citizens, the Internet advertising model is a fact of life. Alternative models are still too little considered, and therefore necessarily little developed and encouraged. The same applies to digital technologies in general. They are a state of affairs, a sub-politics as defined by Ulrich Bech, taken up by Dominique Boullier6. To get out of this incapability, and without derogating from the non-partisan values of the school, it seems to me essential to include a critical dimension in digital literacy.

Some final remarks

I defend digital literacy in schools with a threefold ambition: to move from consumerist usage skills to emancipatory practice skills. To move from strict digital skills to a broader vision of digital culture. And finally, to back up this digital culture with a critical reflection on the digital technologies. Only in this way, in my opinion, will future generations be able to take part in the democratic deliberation on digital technologies.

The distinction between uses and practices seems to me to be essential because it leads us to question many concrete choices. For example, what is the sense of massively equipping pupils and schools with tablets? When all the experts recognize that it is not a tool for contribution, but mainly a tool for consumption? What emancipatory practices and strategic skills can be developed with an individual tablet?

Like all learning, digital literacy will have to combine theory and practice. But in terms of digital literacy, or for the acquisition of certain practical skills, it is clear that there is no need for digital equipment, let alone individual equipment. If we need to imagine practical times for pupils to learn to develop contributory and emancipatory practices, this can be done with shared equipment, in formal or informal learning places, such as the library (which benefits from specialists in the presence of documentalist teachers!) or the computer room. I really don’t think that the need for digital literacy is a good argument for massively equipping pupils.

A specific discipline for digital literacy, or digital literacy disseminated in all discipline? A big question… I think that ideally, digital literacy should be cross-curricular, but for the time being, this seems unlikely. On the other hand, digital literacy should start at the end of primary school. In France, the DST discipline7 is a start, but apart from the fact that it does not include digital culture8, it comes far too late.

Digital literacy raises awareness, a little. It is often frightening. But it doesn’t give many means to act or to emancipate oneself. It is urgent to go beyond education about the risks (advertising, tracking, toxic algorithms, mass surveillance) and to raise awareness of the alternatives. We must go beyond the approach to uses to develop the approach to practices. And probably put most of the effort into learning how to contribute (publishing a blog, contributing to Wikipedia, opening a streaming channel, etc.), not into use or consumption.


Thanks for reading, the comments are open for exchange, and you can also contact me.

Featured image by Mike Hindle on Unsplash


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Notes de bas de page

  1. Read this article, Analysis of the discourses on the notion of “usage” in two journals in information sciences: Doc-SI and BBF
  2. Distinguishing the uses and the practices of digital practices (FR)
  3. And even so, if we dig deeper, we are still too often left with skills of use and not of practice
  4. Listen to this France Culture programme (FR), Episode 76/82: Bernard Stiegler: “We must not reject techniques but criticise and transform them”
  5. and other large digital platforms of course, especially those that rely exclusively or partly on an advertising business model
  6. Watch this very educational video (FR): What regulation? – Socio-political stakes of the digital age
  7. Digital Science and Technology is part of the second year curriculum
  8. in the sense that Dominique Cardon understands it in his book, for example

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