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New Literacies and Online Learning: Digital, Media, and Visual

We are hearing these terms more often in the context of higher education, online learning, and the integration of technology. Media literacy, digital literacy and visual literacy – are these just the latest buzzwords or is there something more here for us to consider as online students and instructors? With this post my goal is to provide some of the most current definitions of these terms, create a list of the basic elements of the new literacies that you should be aware of, and develop a list of resources for further research.


Literacy is defined as the ability to read and write. The evolution of technology is changing the way we read, via computers and other technological devices, and write, communicating in digital ways that include both text and images. In higher education, especially online delivery, students and instructors are expected to be skilled in the use of technology to both read and write.

While there are no globally accepted definitions for the use of these terms in higher education, there are a lot of interpretations that include a mix of knowledge and specific skills. Let's take a look at a few examples of how media, digital, and visual literacy are being defined by academic institutions and professional organizations. 

Media Literacy is…

"…a 21st century approach to education. It provides a framework to access, analyze, evaluate, create and participate with messages in a variety of forms — from print to video to the Internet. Media literacy builds an understanding of the role of media in society as well as essential skills of inquiry and self-expression necessary for citizens of a democracy." From the Center for Media Literacy

The central part of this definition "to access, analyze, evaluate, and create media" is the foundation for most of the definitions you'll find used in education. The University of Illinois helps to expand the description of media literacy by outlining eight key concepts that are part of school curriculum development in Canada. These concepts help us to understand our relationship with media as consumers responsible for assessing the meaning of messages sent to us via media, as well as the potential for commercial, social, ideological, and political implications of the messages.

The National Association for Media Literacy Education provides 6 Core Principles for media literacy education. Media literacy education requires:

  1. active inquiry and critical thinking about the messages we receive and create.
  2. expands the concept of literacy to include all forms of media.
  3. builds and reinforces skills for learners of all ages….that necessitate integrated, interactive, and repeated practice.
  4. develops informed, reflective and engaged participants essential for a democratic society.
  5. recognizes that media are a part of culture and function as agents of socialization.
  6. affirms that people use their individual skills, beliefs, and experiences to construct their own meanings from media messages.

In the context of online education, media literacy includes not only online materials, but also print and broadcast media (e.g. television, radio, film) that might be used as part of a course or as a resource or reference for a student as part of a class assignment. Students need to be able "to access, analyze, evaluate, and create media" as required in their academic programs.

Digital Literacy is…

"…the ability to find, evaluate, and create information using digital technology." From Cornell University

"…a person's ability to perform tasks effectively in a digital environment…includes the ability to read and interpret media, to reproduce data and images through digital manipulation and to evaluate and apply new knowledge gained from digital environments." From the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

"…critical thinking and making ethical choices about the content and impact on oneself, others, and one's community of what one sees, says, and produces with media, devices, and technologies." From

A group of educational technology researchers in Israel (Aviram & Eshet-Alkalai, 2006) developed a list of digital literacy skills, as well as suggested learning objectives for each one. These objectives not only provide a way to measure whether or not the literacy skills have been achieved, but also illustrate real-world application of each skill.

  • Photo-visual literacy – decipher the graphic user interface and use a multimedia program to construct a theatre stage.
  • Reproduction literacy – manipulate a given text in order to assign a new meaning to it.
  • Branching literacy – design a tour to an unknown country through surfing the Internet in a non-linear way.
  • Information literacy – write a critical composition of the same piece of news that was published in seven different Internet news sources.
  • Socio-emotional literacy – complete a content analysis of inputs of participants in a chat session.

(list from Aviram & Eshet-Alkalai, 2006, para 24)

These definitions cover more ground to include the evaluation of electronic materials, the production of electronic materials, and decisions about the use and potential influence of electronic materials. In the context of online education, digital literacy focuses on the skills required to access, navigate, and create digital materials using various technologies.

Visual Literacy is…

"…a set of abilities that enables an individual to effectively find, interpret, evaluate, use and create images and visual media. Visual literacy skills equip a learner to understand and analyze the contextual, cultural, aesthetic, intellectual, and technical components involved in the production and use of visual materials." From the Association of Colleges and Research Libraries

"…a group of vision-competencies…when developed they enable a visually literate person to discriminate and interpret the visual actions, objects, symbols, natural or man-made, that he encounters in his environment." From the International Visual Literacy Association

In combination with media literacy and digital literacy, visual literacy involves the ability to work with visual images in a variety of ways. This skill set ranges from being able to interpret a graph in a printed book to being able to create a multimedia version of a graph to represent a set of data, for viewing via computer or other technological device. For online students and instructors this range of skills is important for both navigating online course materials and creating original materials for course assignments and presentations.

Examples in Higher Education

How are these concepts becoming evident in higher education? Media, digital, and visual literacies are being added to curricula as part of official standards and competencies for learning and student assessment. These skills are also becoming pre-requisites for online learning and for entry to study specific academic disciplines. These literacies have a particularly important impact on online education where there may be an assumption that students are arriving with some of these skills already in place.

  • Michigan State University has a "Digital Driver's License" curriculum for students in its communications programs. All students are expected to obtain this "license" through the completion of assignments that essentially train them in basic digital literacy skills before moving on with courses that will require these competencies.
  • Cathy Davidson, a Duke University professor and researcher, recently asked her undergraduate students to create a list of digital literacies focused on social media. This list expands the knowledge base and skill set even further and includes technical skills, ability to collaborate in multiple ways with technology, and an understanding of complex policies surrounding media and the Internet.
  • Syracuse University's Center for Digital Literacy is working with students and instructors across campus to conduct interdisciplinary research in the area of digital literacy. They are focused on digital literacy's impact on "people, organizations, and society."

The Basics

On the most foundational level, the current definitions of the new literacies have the following elements in common as they relate to your pursuit of online learning.

  • Access – media and materials both offline and online through a variety of technologies and devices.
  • Analyze and Evaluate – materials found for use as potential resources and references for quality and relevance.
  • Create and Produce – information in the form of text, images, and other formats using a variety of media and technology applications.
  • Implementation and Use – of both technological tools and the materials created, choosing appropriate messages and ways to send them.

No matter your school, department, program or career field these literacies are growing in importance for students in a global sense. While you may bring some of these new literacy knowledge areas and skills to the table as you begin your first online class, you will no doubt refine these skills and develop additional ones along the way. Your experience with the tasks required in an online course, to communicate and complete assignments, will increase your level of media, digital, and visual literacy.

Additional Resources

There is so much to read and learn about the new literacies and how they are affecting higher education for both students and instructors. In addition to the resources provided by the schools and agencies listed throughout this post, you may also want to follow-up your interest in this area with articles from academics and practitioners focused on media in education: