Digital literacy: What, why and how in Languages

The following article outlines key concepts of digital literacy as related to languages education and proposes an Australian Curriculum-linked learning activity to develop both language and critical literacy skills.

The activity is aligned to digital pedagogical frameworks such as SAMR and TPACK, and a quick reference to APSTs for use by emerging teachers.

Digital literacies: Orientating multi-literacy thinking for 21C learners

Digital literacy has emerged as the most significant of all ‘multiliteracies’ required to participate in professional and social lives increasingly mediated by technology (Alexander et al., 2016; New London Group [NLG], 1996). Students require dynamic knowledge and skills to work with new “sets of conventions connected with semiotic activity […] in a given social space” (NLG, 1996, p. 74).

Policy responses include the “refreshed goals”  of the 2019 Mparntwe Declaration — claiming to “articulate the knowledge and skills required for the 21st century” — and the reported intention of ACARA’s (2023) latest national curriculum that “all young Australians become confident and creative individuals, successful lifelong learners, and active and informed members of the [increasingly digitally-orientated] community”. 

As a teacher, modelling enthusiasm for the affordances of the online space is as important as demonstrating caution (Hyndman, 2018). Equally, demonstrating adaptive learning approaches to new technologies (Jordan, 2016) recognises the role others’ attitudes play in mediating learning (Davidson Films, 2003). Regardless, the teacher will need to self-educate, as the existence of technologies does not ensure their effective use pedagogically (Alexander et al., 2016). AITSL (2017) requires teachers to implement digital strategies to enhance pedagogy, resourcing, communication and assessment (APST 2.6; 3.4; 3.5; 5.4) and their own practice (7.4), while maintaining safe and responsible online behaviour(4.4; 4.5).

As acknowledged by ‘multiliteracies’ theory, digital life also contains various modes of being ‘literate’, with varying views and resulting paradigms and taxonomies (Brown, 2017a; Camden et al., 1996).

While resulting frameworks differ in typology and structure, each framework reflects skills ranging from operant to creative, in addition to high order cognition, such as analytical, interpretative and critical thinking, underpinned by social emotional elements of empathy and respect (Brown, 2017b; 2017c; Lankshear & Knobel, 2008). (Examples below.)

The models of digital literacy (New Media Consortium, 2016)
Digital Capability Framework (Jisc, 2014)

Digital literacy in the Australian Curriculum

ACARA, 2023

As a teacher in Australia, I respond to the Australian Curriculum and these same literacies are apparent in ACARA’s directives. The shift towards cognitive and social capabilities is evidenced by the reorientation of the GC for Digital Literacy from its previous incarnation as the GC for ICT (ACARA, 2021). While the ICT GC foregrounded using ICT, the DL GC “encompasses” the cognitive tools required to engage in various ways. See below.

ACARA, 2021

Another key change is the introduction of criticality and the shift from limiting risk to empowering students to protect themselves and others (identified by the highlighting above). However, the shift from using tech to the cognition and capacity to engage critically as agents in their own interactions with technology — and the spaces it opens up — seemed a compelling launchpad for a more discipline-specific ‘dive’ into digital literacy (ACARA, 2021). For our 21C world, this community is digitally driven and mediated, consequently, (digital) citizenship is contingent on these skills, knowledge and even dispositions (NSW Govt., n.d.).

Situating the activity: Goals and research base for “You can with Toucan”

To operationalise this exploration of digital literacies in a languages classroom, I propose an activity to exercise the critical thinking aspect of digital citizenship through a language learning lens, as students’ grammatical, phonological and pragmatic knowledge is applied to translation evaluation (Faber & Turrero-Garcia, 2020).

Online translators (OT) can be used pedagogically to illustrate both the power and shortcomings of the technology, and the need for students to remain critically engaged (Enkin & Mejías-Bikandi, 2016) in the deeply intercultural processes involved in translation (Scarino, 2016).

As mentioned earlier, all models of digital literacy include critical thinking as a key behaviour of a 21C citizenship: participation in societal systems of interaction and industry (Gardner et al., 2021), even when talking about the basics of modern life: “digital life skills” (White, 2015, p. 8). Aligning digital literacy with discipline-specific pedagogy, the activity’s objectives include metalinguistic awareness and critical cultural awareness (Languages) combined with digital literacy (21C skills), integrated as ACARA (2022) intended. (Specifics in “Links to the Australian Curriculum” below.)

Enkin and Mejías-Bikandi (2016) assert that teachers can use faulty OT output to highlight and reinforce patterns of the L2 and to examine grammatical differences between the L1 and L2. Equally, by disrupting students’ ‘naïve’ perception that online translation tools (OT) produce direct equivalents between existing and target languages (McAlpine & Myles, 2003), students can develop a realistic, productive relationship with digital translation resources.

Conceived according to social constructivism, students will experience the limitations of online tools, thereby learning from the context, discursively engaged with online creators, reading material that engages them (Correa, 2014; Vygotsky, 1978).

Links to the Australian Curriculum

Year 10 French or Italian

Australian Curriculum: Languages content description: “apply [digital] strategies to interpret and translate non-verbal, spoken and written interactions and texts to convey meaning and intercultural understanding in familiar and unfamiliar contexts” (AC9LF10EC05 (French) and AC9LIT10EC05 (Italian).

Digital Literacy: “investigating” as they “interpret [translation] data” (ACARA, 2023c). The activity develops student ability to “collect and evaluate quantitative and qualitative data using specialised digital tools and processes in the context of identified [translation] problems” (Level 6 (Y9-10) learning continuum descriptor).  

Critical and Creative Thinking: Analysing: Interpret concepts and problems

Literacy: Reading and viewing: Understanding texts

You can with Toucan: The activity explained

First, students install Toucan and learn how to use it.

Toucan-provided instructions, modelling the tool’s use.

The teacher models the process: practising and recording new vocab/flagging known vocab as learnt.

Students are directed by the teacher to navigate to a self-selected webpage they enjoy (e.g., sport, gaming, technology, art, film & TV).

They spend 10 minutes playing with Toucan, practising and noting down their words.

Teacher is circulating, listening for when students start to notice that there are issues.

When enough students are beginning to wonder, the teacher regains students’ attention to unpack their own example.

An example to be displayed to students from a travel blog the teacher reads.

For example, the screenshot above from a travel blog refers to ‘the design industry’. It translates the word ‘design’ along with its definite article (‘the’ becomes ‘il’), but it does not reverse the word order to reflect the Italian convention of adjectives following the noun (in most cases, including this one).

The teacher identifies the issue, and using a think-aloud draws on linguistic knowledge to explicitly teach the critical thinking required to evaluate this translation (Fisher & Frey, 2021).

Gradually recruiting students into the process, the teacher will elicit suggestions and direct discussion until we land eventually at: “l’industria del design”.

NB: Design, like computer, hotel, and hamburger are English words regularly used in Italian. The correct translation for design would be “progettazione”, but you rarely hear “industria della progettazione”, everyone says “industria del design”.

Teacher leads students in search for other anomalies. Analytical processes repeated, as students and teacher draw on Italian linguistic and cultural knowledge to solve conundrums.

Brief reflective discussion: Is this a ‘deal-breaker’ or does it help us, as long as we remain vigilant and engage our own criticality and intercultural understanding? (Scarino, 2016).

Students return to their personal texts and workshop examples of problematic translations, comparing with topical Italian language sites.

Created using Craiyon

Students work together in groups of 2 or 3: Key question = does that make sense?

The final stage is a whole class activity

Students discuss shared examples, scaffolded by the intercultural learning cycle: noticing what’s wrong; comparing with Italian sites; reflecting on which words best reflect the construct; interacting/integrating into specialised vernacular (Liddicoat & Scarino, 2013; Scarino, 2016).

The activity closes with discussion about the limitations and affordances of this technology. Teacher guides the conversation to ensure limitations (e.g., fallacy of direct translations)and affordances (e.g., vocab in context; seamless integration; building ‘field’ [Halliday, 1994]).

This activity acknowledges the ‘flatness’ of critical thinking in an integrated digital space. Despite evaluation appearing at the top of the original (and revised) Bloom’s Taxonomies, students evaluated in the first instance, integrating identifying, analysing and comparing in iterative cycles of critical thinking (Ellerton, 2020).

Alignments with digital frameworks: SAMR & TPACK

SAMR: The activity aligns with the augmentation category: even if a teacher provided several texts with words randomly translated, students could not self-select content, click for definitions and/or receive real-time audio practice, simultaneously.

See image for TPACK alignments.

TPACK alignment of ‘You can with Toucan’ (Mishra & Kohler, 2006).
APST links and references

APST 2.6: Expanding opportunities to build vocabulary according to their interests, and encounter field-specific vocabulary (Rose, 2015).

APST 3.4: Toucan is used to resource semi-translated texts for analysis.

APST 5.4: Teacher can access student glossaries to “interpret student data” (AITSL, 2017)

Visit this page for a full list of references.