Digital Fluency vs Digital Literacy

5 min read

I’ve been doing a bit of research on digital literacy/fluency over the past few months, wondering what initiatives and programs are currently being offered at our post-secondary institutions that build capacity for instructors to use digital tools effectively within a teaching & learning context.

Many organizations have identified a lack of digital literacy among post-secondary educators as a barrier to the adoption of educational technology. In 2014, the NMC Horizon Report (PDF) noted that;

Faculty training still does not acknowledge the fact that digital media literacy continues its rise in importance as a key skill in every discipline and profession. Despite the widespread agreement on the importance of digital media literacy, training in the supporting skills and techniques is rare in teacher education and non-existent in the preparation of faculty.

More recently, this view was reiterated in the 2018 Horizon Report, showing that the issue of digital literacy is an ongoing and significant issue in educator training. Reports from both JISC (2018) and Educause (2017) also highlight a lack of digital literacy as being significant issues for higher education. The JISC report, in particular, highlights the damage to student learning that can be done when faculty lack digital competency noting that, “The report also shines a light on the digital competencies of staff, with many students reporting frustration when lecturers struggle to use digital systems correctly, saying it wastes time and restricts access to digital resources.”(2018).

To help address this gap, organizations have begun to devote resources towards increasing the digital literacy of faculty and instructors. Initiatives such as eCampus Ontario’s Extend program, the University of Brighton Digital Literacies Framework, and the Irish Education Digital Skills in Higher Education initiative. These are all examples of initiatives aimed to increase the digital fluency of faculty and staff in higher education.

Yesterday a tweet from Jeremy Dean confirmed what I have been seeing in some of my research – that there is subtle, but important shift occurring in the way we are talking about digital literacy.

As I responded on Twitter, this is a good shift in language as being digitally literate and being digitally fluent are two different things. For me, digital fluency is a much more holistic term than digital literacy. While many definitions of digital literacy focus on the development of basic digital skills and competencies, digital fluency goes one step further and focuses on the metacognitive skills required to transfer those digital skills from one technology to another, and to make sound, nuanced decisions about technology use.

If I think about the difference between literacy and fluency, I see them as a continuum.

Literacy is but a pause on the way to fluency. An important one to be sure because you cannot become fluent until you become literate. But literacy shouldn’t be the end-game for those of us who support technology enabled teaching & learning practice. We should be shooting for fluency.

Jennifer Sparrow, Senior Director of Teaching & Learning at Penn State University, has a good analogy that helped me understand the difference between between digital literacy and digital fluency;

How is digital fluency different from digital literacy? In learning a foreign language, a literate person can read, speak, and listen for understanding in the new language. A fluent person can create something in the language: a story, a poem, a play, or a conversation. Similarly, digital literacy is an understanding of how to use the tools; digital fluency is the ability to create something new with those tools.

Building on this language literacy/fluency example, I would consider an author like Anthony Burgess to have reached the highest level of fluency as he was able to twist and modify English (and Russian) in such a way that he created his own subculture dialect (called nadsat) for his novel “A Clockwork Orange”. To me, that is an example of fluency in its most evolved form, and helps me to see one of the differences between literacy and fluency.

There are other ways to be digitally fluent. I would say being able to move nimbly and confidently from one technology to another is another example of digital fluency. For example, a digitally literate instructor may have the skills to setup and configure tools within the confines of their LMS, and perhaps even understand when to use those tools to achieve a specific outcome, but then struggle when confronted with a different set of tools or different platforms that don’t work the same way. Whereas a digitally fluent instructor can comfortably and quickly move from tool to tool with confidence, and with an understanding of how and why the technologies may be different. A digitally fluent instructor is able to compare, contrast, and analyze differences in technologies, and understand how those differences might impact their pedagogy, and adjust accordingly. This ability to adjust accordingly is, to me, one of the biggest traits that distinguishes the digitally fluent instructor from the digitally literate one.

Finally, the digitally fluent instructor is one who continually focuses on their pedagogical use of the technology. Overarching all the digital skills they may have is the ability to contextualize their use of a specific piece of technology within their own teaching & learning practice. Why are you using it? What are the benefits? What are the drawbacks? Can you anticipate where and how your students may struggle with the technology? How are you hoping this technology will help your students learn? An instructor who asks these kinds of questions is well on the pathway to achieving digital fluency.

Subway map image credit: All Aboard: Mapping digital skills in Higher Education image by Blaneth McSharry CC-BY-NC


Clint Lalonde February 22, 2019

Thanks for that link, Doug. I know you have spent a good chunk of your career focusing on this stuff, so this must all feel like very well trodden territory for you (aside for those not familiar with Doug’s work

Wonder which term is more fraught with ambiguity, digital literacy, or open education?

Lawrie February 24, 2019

I disagree Clint, the discussion might not new, but the nuance is. And you have the benefit of actually being on the ground making it happen. Donna Lanclos and I have just finished a ethnographish piece of work interviewing academics in the UK. Digital Literacy was not mentioned by staff, but in their discussions around use of digital, you could infer that were talking about digital fluency, and that they were more comfortable with that.

The work you were talking about also frames digital fluency about a much more unsettled education sector than that original work, and to be effective it needs that framing, Ron Barnet described Higher Education as being in a time of supercomplexity, a time of uncertainty, unpredictability, challenge and change. Your framing considers that in a better way than “our” (I include Jisc in that) original way.

Clint Lalonde March 1, 2019

Thanks Lawrie. I see that Donna has just tweeted a link to your co-authored paper Trust, Innovation and Risk: a contextual inquiry into teaching practices and the implications for the use of technology Looking forward to digging in.

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