Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime
The JISC use the term Digital Literacy to "mean those capabilities which fit an individual for living, learning and working in a digital society: for example, the skills to use digital tools to undertake academic research, writing and critical thinking; as part of personal development planning; and as a way of showcasing achievements."
There is a complex interplay between people's needs, their skills, attitudes and behaviours, the systems which are created, and ways in which those systems are then used. It is generally considered that systems should be created to be as simple to use as possible - minimising the cognitive load on the user, and maximising the productivity for whatever activity is being undertaken. That is a view which certainly has merit, but the world is not necessarily as simple as that.
Different organisations acquire and support different systems. Not all of them operate in the same way, and even if there is a drive towards simple-to-use ones, we are a long way from that being the de facto state of affairs. Some systems are needlessly complex, while others actually have a need for a level of complexity for which it may not be possible to provide a simple user interface.
In order to be able to live, learn and work in this digital society, where there is a great diversity od systems, and there is also a high rate of innovation and change, the individual needs to be able to flexibly learn and adapt to using new systems. Now, it is fair to say that the systems will also tend to adapt to the users through a process of natural (market) selection, if nothing else. The individual needs to be more adaptive than the systems, or other individuals if possible, if they are to have an edge in terms of being able to use the technologies as effectively and efficiently as possible.
Teaching people "how to" write an essay in Word, or "how to" use shortcuts in their browser, or "how to" use hashtags in Twitter is the same as giving them fish, rather than teaching them how to fish. Improving the systems so that they don't require the adaptivity inherent in digital literacy is the equivalent of driving all the fish in to the shore, to make it trivial for them to acquire their own fish. It's useful, but almost certainly not sustainable, and rather misses the point. It also 'dumbs down'; not a problem as long as things remain easy, but rather cruel if your victims ever have to actually deal with the fish dying off from over-crowding, viruses or plain old resource depletion.
If, on the other hand, you teach them about the ecology, how to study the behaviour of the fish, how to explore and develop new ways of farming the fish, or new ways to catch them, you are taking a real step in the right direction. Better still, motivate them to learn how to teach people how to develop and maintain sustainable fish farms.
In terms of Digital Literacy, then, I feel we should be aiming to motivate people to explore and learn and share. Showing them shortcuts can help them find the time to explore, certainly. But showing them how to explore any system they stumble across to find shortcuts works better. And yes, improving system design so that it doesn't interfere with normal use is great - but having the occasional stumbling block in your way motivates a lot of people to find ways round them - to explore and develop new ways of working.
Let's focus on the important bit - the people - and not worry too much about the tools and systems.
This work is licensed under a Attribution Non-commercial Creative Commons license