“But what’s this to do with me?”: why someone’s past, present and future must shape digital literacies thinking

“But what’s this to do with me?”: why someone’s past, present and future must shape digital literacies thinking

By Stuart Gray, 6th April 2022

The term digital literacy is used pervasively in writing and policy regarding the abilities of older adults to participate in present and future societies. Yet many ‘mainstream’ definitions misrepresent the complexities of the term. Such definitions often portray digital literacies as simply the ability to understand and use specific and contemporary digital concepts and technologies, which can be ‘trained’ in a generalisable fashion. From our primary research with our co-researchers, we believe this is an oversimplification which may inhibit attempts to encourage older adults’ digital inclusion. 

In order to foster digital participation that brings meaning (even transformation) within older adults’ daily lives, we propose that approaches to understanding and building digital literacies must be more person centric. Here we observe digital literacies as being influenced by the past, present and future lives of individuals. This requires us to build an awareness of the inconsistence and transience of various skills, abilities, and contextual circumstances across the lifecourse. As understood through the lives and experiences of our co-researchers, this blog post outlines three things that everyone must understand before trying to support older adults to develop digital literacies.  

At their most reductionist, definitions of digital literacy often appear as an individual’s proficiency in fixed digital concepts arranged in abstract thematic areas or as sets of operational competencies with technology. The former often resembles a series of vague capabilities one may possess or must strive to attain as a marker of ‘readiness’ to participate in a digital society. For instance, one might be regarded as being able ‘to use and communicate digital information’ or ‘be social media engaged.’ Although more tangible, lists of operational competencies often read like the highlights of a software engineer’s CV, with digital literacy catabolised into the ability to use specific devices, programs, and functions. The criticism here is not that one’s digital literacy cannot benefit from experiences and supported learning with an array of contemporary technologies. Neither is it to deny that being digitally literate may involve grasping abstract digital concepts and building accurate mental models of digital technology. The criticism is that these definitions categorise complex individual capabilities into neatly packaged boxes for which there are often prescribed, generalisable training solutions. Here, once specific routines have been drilled into the learner, they are now deemed digitally literate until further notice.  

While the above may be hyperbolic to a degree, the inconvenient truth is that one’s ‘real-world’ digital literacy is far more complex. Digital literacy may in fact be the product of a much wider set of mediating factors that span a life course and are influenced by one’s cognitive, physical, affective, and behavioural realities. Digital literacies are not always tidy, ordered boxes of capabilities. Instead, the boxes can be messy and inefficiently packaged but also with unexpected depth in specific areas. There may be dusty boxes that have sealed and left unopened for a long time and worn boxes that are in near constant use. In other words, the meaning and value of digital literacies is tied to individual contexts and are intrinsically linked to one’s past, present, and future. In the Connecting Through Culture project, we have opted to unpack our co-researcher’s digital literacies across the lifecourse. Here are three things that we have learned from doing so:  

#1 – Understanding political, economic, cultural, and social journeys provide the starting point for supporting the development of meaningful digital literacies  

Our co-researchers come from diverse backgrounds. Some are Bristolians, while others have moved to the city from other regions and even countries. Some have lives of relative financial comfort, while others survive in socioeconomic precarity. Some are connected to a strong social network, others have experienced the loss of key relationships, some find themselves living isolated lives. For some culture may entail art and creative participation, participating in one’s family and community, or maybe watching a good tv boxset. This list of differences is endless and what is more, many co-researchers have lived one or more of these different circumstances in different periods of their lives.  

Although there are themes and shared experiences among them, the point is that all the co-researchers bring with them unique political, economic, cultural, and social journeys which have helped to shape the people they are, their present circumstances, and their future aspirations. This also extends to explain the digital literacies they currently possess and those they may benefit from attaining. To encourage them to develop their digital literacies, their engagements with technology must provide help to empower them whilst taking the time to understand and recognise their political, economic, cultural, and social experiences across the lifecourse. This is meaningful digital literacy in the real world, and it is the basis for where all learning should begin.  

#2 – Understanding that digital literacies are transient, with their relevance subject to change by society and seismic personal events  

Digital participation (defined here as engagement with digital opportunities that further one’s self interests) has happened at different points throughout the lifecourse for each of our co-researchers, and their associated digital literacies have not followed a linear path of progression. However, we have noted that life transitions are a common factor that underpins many of our co-researchers’ digital participation and the development of their digital literacies. For some of our co-researchers, digital participation has only recently become relevant to their lives because of wider systemic transitions that have subsumed digital interactions within basic functions of society – interfering with their political, economic, cultural, or social security. For example, many vital services, businesses, and even individuals now require digital literacies in order to be engaged with. This is a trend that has been accelerated by the demands for social distancing during COVID-19 and the pandemic is littered with examples of this – typified by the ‘appification’ of everything and to the widespread transition from in-person to remote-only services.  

Yet this is not the whole story. In fact, most of our co-researchers have attested to the ebb and flow of digital technology within different stages of their lives. This has arisen at more acute, personal points of transition or following seismic life events, where digital participation is a means of responding to adversity, a way to reassert control over the present, and to provide hope for the future. There are some great examples from our co-researchers: to revitalise a marriage through the shared exploration of social virtual environments; to reinvigorate one’s creative practice by embracing novel interactive formats for storytelling; to find common ground with one’s child following their admission to a university computer science degree by learning about technology design; to manage and emerge from debt by mastering word processors to support employment applications and excel spreadsheets to help budget.  

Notably, life transitions can also be a double-edged sword, and there have equally been points of transition where certain forms of digital participation were suspended: ceasing to play videogames following the loss of a good friend and co-player; no longer being able to use once familiar devices following a medical diagnosis; following retirement from the workplace. It is important to realise that these transitions may continue into the future. New forms of digital participation may emerge, present forms may be suspended, and old forms may re-emerge. Thus, supporting the development of digital literacies to push beyond the day-to-day and encourage older adults to think critically, creatively and make assessments for themselves around digital technologies may have long-term benefits. This is an area we are currently exploring in our research process.  

#3 – Understanding that cognitive, physical, affective, and behavioural variables can both encourage the formation of new digital literacies and inhibit exist ones  

In both the engagement and disengagement in digital experiences, we see the influence of the cocktail of cognitive, physical, affective, and behavioural variables at play. Changes in cognitive and physical health can both encourage the development of certain digital literacies (in a bid to leverage technology to overcome adversity) and inhibit digital literacies that once existed. Affect and emotions associated with past experiences of digital participation may predict proclivities to do so in the present. Ensuring positive digital experiences is essential to support confidence in one’s own abilities. Meanwhile, utility and a place for digital technologies within day-to-day routines, is necessary in order to ensure repeated engagement and to support literacy development beyond a surface level.  

We realise that person-centred approaches to supporting digital literacies are challenging to scale and our ongoing research is attempting to analyse where granular knowledge of our co-researchers lives intersect with their digital participation. In a later post we will report on these emerging themes and how they may be accounted for in approaches to facilitate digital literacy development. Nevertheless, for anyone looking to support older adult’s digital literacy then, before arranging an array of devices on the table in front of them or enrolling them in an online ‘introduction to the cloud’ course, first consider these three takeaways. The examples given in this blog post illustrate that digital literacies are often led by lifecourse events and transitions and not the other way around. From starting with the person and considering the interplay between digital participation and their past, present and future lives, we can support the development of more relevant approaches to building digital literacies that provide real world impact.