Digital literacy: The ability to use technology for communications and beyond

Digital literacy, as defined by Spilka, does mean something different today than when I started working 25 years ago. At that time, digital literacy meant that you could use a dot-matrix printer and type on a typewriter, correcting errors as you went with Whiteout or one of those white correcting strips.

Today, in my job, digital literacy means being able to use a PC, software, high-speed printer and digital camcorder and being able to use the content management systems for my company’s Internet and intranet. I’m expected to understand Internet and intranet design, including user experience testing and implementation of those findings. I have to be able to read and analyze the analytics on both the Internet and intranet. And I need to have at least an elementary background in social media–and I’m pretty sure more will be expected of me in this area.

It can be difficult to keep up in the latest and greatest innovations and gadgets and in what is new and cool in Web design. Is it OK to make Web site users click more than once or twice to get to the page they’re looking for? Is it better to employ an endlessly scrolling design or one in which everything sits “above the fold”? What about those sites that have an austere minimalist design with maybe just a few words and you have to click on it to get to any sort of “real” information: are they suitable for our company?

Yes, there has been a “seismic shift” in technical communications. The shift from “blue collar work” to knowledge work means that it is a rare person who is still “just” an editor or writer. It is far more likely that we are editors, writers, Web designers and “new media” experts. Rarely am I now referred to as a “grammar” expert. Not that that role is any less important; in fact, it’s more crucial than ever. But my job goes far beyond knowing when to say “compared with” rather than “compared to” and when to use “which” versus “that.” That knowledge is part of the continuum of my job, which on any given day, could mean communicating with staff, senior leaders, media relations or the board of directors.

Teamwork has always been important, but never more so than today. No one works in isolation completing the same tasks over and over again. Every staff member is part of at least several different teams with different accountabilities. I work with technical staff, other communications professionals, leadership and administrative staff on different projects, because we’re all expected to go beyond the narrow tactical tasks of our resumes to work on strategic directions for projects, teams and beyond.

At the same time, if need be, I can do the work of several people to produce something like a brochure, user manual or e-newsletter. Today’s software packages and easy-to-use programs such as Microsoft Publisher allow me to do the work of a graphic designer, desktop publisher and printer.

Dicks says that the roles of grammar police and wordsmiths are not over for technical communicators but are diminishing in importance. I would argue that these roles are still extremely important–today more than ever. If social media are eroding young people’s use of grammar, spelling and architecture, we need to be there to make sure our writing and communications are of the highest quality. This, of course, goes beyond just grammar and wordsmithing to things like targeting the correct audience, keeping each piece of writing concise and precise, and avoiding “corporate speak” and jargon.

I, for one, welcome any new technology that is going to make my work easier and faster while still preserving high quality. Doing anything else is risking become an impediment or barrier to the work of an organization–or worse, irrelevant. Technology is going to keep evolving, and as communicators, we need to keep evolving right along with it.

Posted on September 27, 2015, in Digital, Literacy. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. I very much enjoyed this post from the nostalgia of correction film ( to your thoughts on the need for strong communication skills regardless of field. I’ve had experience with both but wanted to share what I have been finding out over the last four years.

    I ask new scientists and engineers who join the firm I work for about the quantity and quality of communication training they receive within their respective colleges. Without exception the reply is either they only had to complete one class or they received writing instruction as a secondary consideration in another type of class. Yet, I can tell you with absolute certainty that scientists and engineers spend at least half of their time writing, editing, and/or reviewing reports!

    The disparity exists, I believe, as a direct result of the emphasis on APPLIED science and APPLIED engineering, i.e., applied (or practical) versus theoretical. In my view, the schools focus on application with believe the student will eventually learn what is behind the application through his or her experience. But, I have observed they are so overwhelmed with wrestling to apply what they do not always understand they don’t take the time to intuit the foundation theory.

    This is reflected in their report writing. The focus seems to be on what they “applied”, if you will, and logical faults and gaps result. I wonder if a good communication/writing became a core part of the science and engineering curriculum as not just a means to end or afterthought, what would happen.

    • I can relate to your comment about the role of proper writing in scientific professions. My husband is getting his PhD in biology and behavioral sciences and he spends a huge amount of time writing, reviewing and submitting papers to be published.

      For my bachelor’s degree in Communications Design the only general studies classes that were required of us were two semesters of writing, but these classes were fairly unstructured and casual. Though I think I communicate effectively professionally, I’m finding myself struggling a bit with these blog posts. This is good practice for me, and my classmates provide plenty of great examples.

  2. Mary Van Beusekom

    Aaron, that would be my dream come true, although if they were too well-trained in communications, we may be out of a job! I think of how much easier it would be to work as a team with someone who talks the same language and understands the challenges of our work as well. Actually, I really believe that a degree in journalism or communications is a great foundation for any career, as it teaches you to think on your feet, be a quick study and be a great interviewer. Thanks for your comment!

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