What is Digital Fluency?

What is Digital Fluency?

Shuana Niessen

EC&I 830, University of Regina


Dr. Vi Maeers and Philip Cameron


What is Digital Fluency?

In this inquiry paper, I explore answers to the questions: How important is digital fluency?  What is digital fluency?  How is digital fluency different from digital literacy/literacies? What are the components of fluency?  I became interested in this topic of digital literacies and digital fluency because I am an English Language Arts teacher, and therefore, think in terms of literacy and language fluency.  Technology provides not only another forum for communication, but also a preferred and prevalent forum.  In the 21st century, digital fluency is an important and necessary skill for students and teachers.

How Important is Digital Fluency?

Technology and social medias are increasingly utilized for information, communication, and maintaining and building connections.  Digital skills at a level of fluency are understood to have both positive and negative impacts on student achievement and successful employment.  Digital literacy and fluency are important for increasing positive information communication technology (ICT) effects.  Thus, there has been increasing demand for educational systems to integrate technology and digital literacy into curriculum.  Technology is an engaging medium for teaching and learning, and broadly used by students as a means of communication, information retrieval, and entertainment.

However, while technology has extended the ability to learn, communicate, connect, collaborate, and create and enjoy the creations of others internationally in engaging, timely ways unlike any previous time, there are several problems associated with Internet technology, which can be addressed through increased digital skills and fluency.  Hobbs (2010) highlights many negative aspects of the new digital and information-saturated world:

Contemporary media culture includes ultraviolent and sexually explicit movies, pornography, gossip-mongering blogs, public relations masquerading as news, widespread sales promotion of unhealthy products, hate sites that promote prejudice, sexism, racism and terrorism, cyber bullying, cyber terrorism, and unethical online marketing practices.  Stalking, online bullying and cell phone harassment may affect physical and psychological safety.  Intellectual property and reputation are also vitally important issues in a time when we are experiencing rapidly shifting notions of ownership, authorship, privacy and social appropriateness.  (pp. 15, 16)

Miller and Bartlett (2012) offer several reasons for the problems experienced online.  Online anonymity allows for credentials and identity to be easily faked, as well as open production and distribution of misinformation.  There are no “gatekeepers” and no “mediator[s] of truth” or “tester[s] of the veracity of claims” (p.37).  Pseudo-sites and propaganda are created to promote agendas, conspiracy theories, and misinformation.  Imagery is also being used in manipulative ways.  Algorithms are filtering information searches according to preferences.  Finally, there is a problem of shallow “bouncing” internet consumption (p. 37).

A survey conducted by Bartlett and Miller (2011) reveals that 88% of the teachers surveyed considered Internet-based research to be important for students’ schoolwork, and 95% report that students have brought information from the internet to the classroom; 95% believe that digital fluency is an important skill for their students but that students have below average digital skills; 47% reported students bringing misinformation or propaganda to school, and 48% report having arguments with students over conspiracy theories found on the Internet; 88% think that digital fluency should be given more prominence in the national curriculum (p.7). Therefore, while Internet sources of information are seen as important, students do not have the necessary skills for evaluating and analyzing information.  Thus, digital fluency is currently being incorporated into curriculums, frameworks and models are being developed, and content and pedagogical strategies are being developed within subject areas, and through common essential learnings  (including Saskatchewan curriculum: see http://www.education.gov.sk.ca/Instruction/digital-fluency).

Defining the Term

So, what is digital fluency?  Miller and Bartlett (2012) write that there is “a profusion of different terms – digital literacy, media literacy, cyberliteracy, visual literacy, information technology fluency – [which] have emerged that reflect these different approaches to the problem of literacy online.”  Many use the terms literacy and fluency interchangeably.  Fieldhouse and Nicholas (2008, as cited in D. Belshaw, 2011) observe this phenomenon, writing:

Definitions of digital and information literacy are numerous.  Within this pool of definitions, terms often are interchangeable; for example, “literacy”, “fluency” and “competency” can all be used to describe the ability to steer a path through digital and information environments to find, evaluate, and accept or reject information.  (p.185)

Thus, in my attempt to understand what fluency is, and to thereby, develop an understanding of what components are essential to digital fluency, I researched both literacy/literacies and fluency.


The online Oxford English Dictionary (2013) defines fluency as “(a) The quality or state of flowing or being fluent;  (b) A smooth and easy flow; readiness, smoothness; esp. with regard to speech; (c) Absence of rigidity; ease; and (d) Readiness of utterance, flow of words”(“fluency”).  This definition describes a level of ease in using language to communicate.  Communication involves both the out flowing aspects, such as speech, writing, and representing and the inflowing aspects, such as hearing, reading, and viewing.  Each of  these require abilities in understanding and interpreting, and at the level of fluency this would involve understanding humour, catching nuances, irony–all of which involve “not only speaking the language effortlessly and accurately, but also being familiar with different registers of the language, and also the culture associated with the language”  (Ager, 2009, para. 5).  Resnick, Rusk, and Cooke (1998) write, “Technological fluency means much more than the ability to use technological tools; that would be equivalent to understanding a few common phrases in a language.  To become truly fluent in a language (like English or French), one must be able to articulate a complex idea or tell an engaging story–that is, to be able to make things of significance with these tools” (p. 2).  Digital fluency involves not only the technological ability, but also the creation and communication of complex ideas and meaning are part of digital fluency, as well as understanding such communications.

            Pace of change.  As I considered the word “flowing,” I was struck with the appropriateness of using the term “digital fluency,” not only because the digital realm is another medium for communication requiring a certain level of ease and proficiency in its outward and inward flowing communications, but also because fluency or flowing is required for keeping up with the dynamic, quickly moving, flowing river of change associated with the digital realm.  Briggs and Makice (2011) write that since the 19th century’s discovery of electricity as a means for encoding and sending messages instantly over long distances, and because communication is a “vital component of change” (p. 12) this meant that

Change could happen far quicker, at greater distances, and with less perceived cost.  Since then, the pace of change has steadily increased, with widespread effects on what we know, what we can do, and our understanding of the way the world works.  (p. 12)

What, then, are the skills necessary for dealing with this fast pace of change?

            Lifelong learning.  Hobbs (2010) connects the pace of change with the need for lifelong learning:

The rapid rate of change we are experiencing in the development of new communications technologies and the flow of information is likely to continue.  Consequently, people need to engage actively in lifelong learning starting as early as preschool and running well into old age in order to use evolving tools and resources that can help them accomplish personal, social, cultural and civic activities.  (p.15)

A 21st century, digitally fluent citizen must, then, be a lifelong learner who is adept at finding new tools and resources to help them achieve desired activities.  This would also involve the ability to develop personal learning networks to help discover new tools.

            Evolving aptitude. With the understanding that a definition of fluency ought to include an understanding of fast-paced change, I noted the Boise State University (BSU) definition of digital fluency, which  includes the idea of change, using the term “an evolving aptitude”: According to BSU, digital fluency is “an evolving aptitude that empowers the individual to effectively and ethically interpret information, discover meaning, design content, construct knowledge, and communicate ideas in a digitally connected world” (para. 1).  Along with the idea of an evolving aptitude, BSU offers a method of developing this type of fluency.  “We believe this aptitude thrives when inquiry, play, and exploration are valued and encouraged as meaningful learning experiences” (para. 1).  Briggs and Makice (2011) help me understand why inquiry, play, and exploration might be necessary for developing this aptitude.  They suggest that new experiences with new medias are also part of the lifelong learning toolkit: “Fluency is never a static achievement.  Without new experiences, the same box of tools will become less useful over time” (p. 68).  Self-directed inquiry, play, and exploration would facilitate new experiences.

            Creative responseBelshaw (2011), building on the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, also considers the concept of Flow.  He suggests that literacy has been such a stable concept because of the stable or static technology (paper) upon which the concept was built.  He thinks the word “flow” is positive because with this term,  “[l]iteracy becomes a staging-post on the journey instead of the destination itself” (p. 192).  Further, he states that focusing on digital flow would transform the conversation from endless lists of literacies, to a “creative act” (p.193).  This concept of flow over time suggests that creative response or action is an aspect of fluency.

            What is the Difference Between Digital Literacy and Digital Fluency?

The National Research Council (NRC) (1999), in Being Fluent with Information Technology connects their preference for the word “fluency” over the word “literacy” to the pace of change; they write, “Literacy is too modest a goal in the presence of rapid change, because it lacks the necessary ‘staying power.’ As the technology changes by leaps and bounds, existing skills become antiquated and there is no migration path to new skills” (p.2).  The Planning Committee on ICT Fluency and High School Graduation Outcomes, NRC (2006), suggests that it is this emphasis on lifelong learning “which led to the report’s well-received tripartite framework of ICT skills, ICT concepts, and intellectual capabilities (p.12), (see Appendix A for details of framework).

Miller and Bartlett (2012) concur that the terms literacy and fluency are not interchangeable, but are interrelated.  They use the term fluency to describe the complex mixture of new skills required to navigate effectively through the epistemological hazards of the online realm:

[We] collectively terms these skills ‘digital fluency’ rather than digital literacy to capture the cross-cutting, transecting nature of the skills required to meet the challenge of critical engagement with online information: traditional critical thinking skills, but also internet-specific technical knowledge and ICT-specific competencies…  [and]… therefore interrelated…  (p.38)

When and Why

Briggs and Makice (2011) start with the basic idea of fluency as “an ability to reliably achieve desired outcomes through use of technology” (p. 62).  They attempt to further define fluency by what it is not, comparing fluency to literacy, “a literate person would understand what to do and how to do it, but would not be able to articulate the when and why [emphasis added]” (p.63).  For instance, a digitally fluent person would understand not only the function of Twitter, but also when and why its use is valuable.  A fluent person who is aware of the changing nature of Twitter would understand that a prompt change such as “What are you doing?” to “What is happening” changes the focus from inward to outward, changing the function of the social media.  Significantly, Briggs and Makice (2011) add to their definition the aspect of context or situation, external factors that can affect fluency: “Digital fluency is an ability to reliably achieve desired outcomes through use of digital technology.  This ability is helped or hindered by the situational forces and the digital fluency of others” (p.65).  Developing a digitally fluent personal learning network and environment is an important aspect of fluency.

David Crystal (2010), in a YouTube video interview entitled, David Crystal – Texts and Tweets: Myths and Realities, speaks to this ability to use language appropriately, (when and why we use certain mediums) when he describes teachers who are interested in “replacing the older black and white, incorrect/correct concept of language by a more sophisticated notion that every style of language has its purpose.”  They understand that certain subject matters work for one medium and certain subject matters work for another:   “What sorts of information are usefully communicated by text?  What sorts of information are usefully communicated by essay?”  This, in my opinion, would be part of digital fluency or fluency in general—knowing when and why we use certain forms, based on purpose.

A Socio-Cultural Lens

Though Belshaw (2011) prefers the term “digital literacies,” his thesis work adds the socio-cultural lens to my understanding of components of fluency.  Belshaw (2011) suggests that there are eight elements in digital literacy:

      • The cultural element is about “the need to understand the various digital contexts an individual may experience” (p.207)
      • The cognitive is a “mind expansion” that “comes through the co-creation and contextualization of digital literacies, not through attempting to impose an ‘objective’ definition…”  (p.208). Essentially, Belshaw (2011) is denying that objective facts can be known or taught, that all we have are lenses and perspectives that we co-construct.  I tend to think that there are knowable facts and these are an important in early stages of learning.  Only later, with much broader understandings, do we begin to learn and see the nuances (see section below: Socio-Cultural Digital Literacies and Content Knowledge).
      • Constructive: This is about “creating something new, including using and remixing content from other sources to create something original” (p.209).  I learned through ETMOOC conversations that with new creations there is movement towards not crediting those whose works have been used to create something new, the remix, with the idea that crediting people was too much work.  Again, I am skeptical of taking it this far.  I think it is important to credit those whose ideas or creations one uses to create something new.
      • Communicative: This is about how to communicate in digital networked environments (p.209).  I noted that in the ETMOOC that I took, there were social conventions for twitter chats being promoted and taught.  In addition, twitter lovers will say, “If you can’t say it in 140 characters, it isn’t worth saying.”  Blog readers will complain of long paragraphs.  There are different conventions for digital environments.
      • Civic:  This is about participation, social justice, and civic responsibility, within which lies the idea of citizenship (p. 211).
      • Critical: This involves “the reflection upon literacy practices in various semiotic domains.  Who is excluded?  What are the power structures and assumptions behind such literacy practices?”  (p. 213).
      • Creative:  This addresses the lack of gatekeepers and the importance of creating and co-construction knowledge (p.211).
      • Confident:  This “confidence is based on the understanding that the digital environment can be more forgiving in regards to experimentation than physical environments” (p. 210), and an understanding “that such literacies are mutable” (p.211).

Belshaw (2011) states that,

Remix is at the heart of these elements.  Whereas Traditional Literacy is about training and competence, the forms of literacy put forward by the sociocultural practices model involve interaction and creativity.  This almost ‘meta’ form of literacy is defined by the “mashup” and the remix; it could be seen as post-postmodernism, making one’s own sense of a fragmented “reality.” (p. 180)

Belshaw (2011) also writes, regarding the difference between the eight elements of literacy and fluency, “Imagine ‘digital fluency’ in the centre of this dartboard, as the bull’s eye, with the eight essential elements distributed clockwise around this centre point” (p. 215).  He places both fluency and remix (or sense-making, creative acts) at the centre of his elements of digital literacy.  It seems Belshaw (2011) is suggesting that fluency and remix are corresponding ideas.  Thus, I add “sense-making” to my list of necessary components for fluency.

Socio-Cultural Digital Literacies and Content Knowledge

Tree Octopus Problem

Some, however, are critical of advocates of digital literacies and skills.  Pondisco (2009) calls this the “tree octopus problem.”  Pondisco (2009) writes:

The 21st century skills movement has a problem.  It’s a problem that can’t be solved by all of the innovation, creativity and information literacy lessons under the sun, yet it can be deftly handled by a little bit of science knowledge.  Call it the tree octopus problem. (para.1)

The tree octopus problem refers to the false content found on this web page: http://zapatopi.net/treeoctopus/  This website was used by University of Connecticut researchers to develop an argument that kids need online learning skills (Murphy Paul, 2011).  Pondisco (2009) points out that rubrics, such as the Relevance, Appropriateness, Detail, Currency, Authority, Bias (RADCAB), (see http://www.radcab.com/), cannot solve the issue of lack of content knowledge.  He argues that there are limits to digital literacies, and they cannot replace content knowledge.  While there is need for Belshaw’s (2011) digital literacies, for new knowledge, remix, sense-making in a digital age which is changing what we know and how we learn, and though critical thinking cannot be accomplished without an understanding of how knowledge is socially-constructed, in the sense that societies agree on what they know, I also don’t think we should be throwing out the knowledge we already have.  As Dan Willingham, (as cited by Murphy Pauls, 2011) a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, who studies how students learn, writes:

Thinking well requires knowing facts, and that’s true not only because you need something to think about…The very processes that teachers care about most—critical thinking processes such as reasoning and problem solving—are intimately intertwined with factual knowledge that is stored in long-term memory.  (para. 4)

There is an epistemological debate going on between socio-cultural theory and empirical theories of knowledge.  As with most arguments, there is truth to both sides.  Therefore, I agree that knowledge construction and remix are important to fluency, as well as traditional content knowledge.  It seems a false dichotomy to adopt one and not the other.

I tend towards a moderate view of fluency that blends old and new literacy skills, such as what Miller and Bartlett (2011) assert:

That the future of the Internet as a socially and personally beneficial resource is really staked on meeting a central challenge: to equip each person, and especially young people, with the savvy and knowledge they need to distinguish good information online from its many imposters.  This skill-what we call digital fluency-is a blend of old literacy skills with new skills and knowledge required to understand the specifics of a digital ecology.  (p. 4)

Teacher as Mediator

 I wonder, what Pondisco or Willingham would say of Sugata Mitra’s (2013) “Build a School in the Cloud,” TED talk in which Mitra asks a question about whether we are heading for or living in a future where knowing is obsolete.  Mitra is a researcher devoted to the exploration of self-organized learning environments.  For his experiment, he places a computer under a tree in a remote village in India, demonstrating that children could learn 30% of basic molecular biology content unassisted, and with encouragement from an adult, could achieve 50% of the content.  The children had a limited number of websites to use to gather the information, and I think, therefore, his assertion of the role as teacher, extends beyond the two points he recognizes: the teacher’s role of asking the research question, and finding a friendly, encouraging mediator.  Even the selection of websites from which to learn was a mediation provided by Mitra.  He provided the content, and then left the children to discover its meaning.  Thus, successful development of digital fluency would also involve the teacher acting as a mediator in a digital age where mediation of knowledge is lacking.

Scaffolding. In the absence or decline of information mediation (editors and gatekeepers), Wood, Bruner, and Ross’s (1976) concept of scaffolding, along with Vygotsky’s (1896-1934) social learning theory of the zone of proximal development become important learning theory for building digital fluency.  Wood, Bruner, and Ross (1976), write that scaffolding involves an “adult controlling those elements of the task that are essentially beyond the learner’s capacity, thus permitting him to concentrate upon and complete only those elements that are within his range of competence” (p. 118).  As seen in Mitra’s research, students need a mediator to assist them in the learning process, temporary scaffolding to limit the freedom while learning a new skill.  The children also needed each other as they collaboratively (Vygotsky) worked on learning the function of the computer, the language of the computer, and the content itself.


It is clear from the number of definitions and components referenced in this paper that digital fluency is a complex concept that goes far beyond mere computer skills or information literacy.  Any definition must be adaptive and creatively responsive to rapid change.  Digital fluency development must include lifelong, inquiry-based, exploratory, playful, collaborative, ethical, scaffolded and mediated learning.  Fluency is to be equipped to attend to the difficulties produced by the Internet’s greatest asset, its openness, and accessibility to everyone, including those who would use it to harm others.  The digital fluency discourse parallels language fluency discourse, also adopting socio-cultural linguistic aspects. Belshaw introduces a critical theory lens to the mix.  As a language, some Internet enthusiasts, such as Mitch Resnick (2012), think that html code is the language of the future.  Those who know how to code will be considered literate.  This is an example of how a definition of digital fluency continues to evolve, resisting objective definition.  Out of all the definitions, I like the idea that fluency is an emerging aptitude that involves knowing when and why we use the digital media that we choose, and using it with ease to communicate and/or retrieve information. Saskatchewan curriculum is well on its way to developing digital fluency components both in the movement from English Language Arts to English Language and Literacies objectives, as well as in the Common Essential Learnings, which are developed through all subject areas.  The ELA strands of reading, writing, speaking, listening, viewing, and representing are not media or text specific.  These are flexible aspects of communication, which cut across medias, allowing for the development of digital fluency in students.


Ager, S. (2009). How do you define fluency?  Cactus Language Training. Retrieved from http://www.cactuslanguagetraining.com/us/english/view/how-do-you-define-fluency/

Bartlett, J., & Miller, C. (2011). Truth, lies and the internet: A report into young people’s digital Fluency. London: Demos.

Belshaw, D.A.J. (2011). What is digital literacy? A pragmatic investigation. (Doctoral thesis,  Department of Education at Durham University, UK). Retrieved from http://neverendingthesis.com/doug-belshaw-edd-thesis-final.pdf

Boise State University (BSU). Definition of digital fluency. Retrieved from http://at.boisestate.edu/home/definition-of-digital-fluency

Briggs, C., & Makice, K. (2011). Digital fluency: Building success in the digital age. Social Lens.

Crystal, D. (2010, Jun 28). David Crystal – Texts and tweets: Myths and realities [Video file]. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Boj8VYzDAy8

Hobbs, R. (2010). Digital and media literacy: A plan of action. Washington, D.C. : The Aspen Institute.

Miller, C., & Bartlett, J. (2012) ‘Digital fluency’: Towards young people’s critical use of the internet. Journal of Information Literacy 6(2), 35-55.

Mitra, S. (2013). Build a school in the cloud [Video clip]. Retrieved from http://www.ted.com/talks/sugata_mitra_build_a_school_in_the_cloud.html

Murphy Paul, A. (2011, October 26).  ‘Digital literacy’ will never replace the traditional kind. Time Ideas. Retrieved from http://ideas.time.com/2011/10/26/why-digital-literacy-will-never-replace-the-traditional-kind/

National Research Council (NRC), (1999). Being Fluent with Information Technology. Washington, DC: National Academy Press. Retrieved from http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=6482&page=2

Oxford English Dictionary (2013). Fluency. Oxford University Press. Retrieved from http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/72066?redirectedFrom=fluency#eid

Planning Committee on ICT Fluency and High School Graduation Outcomes, National Research Council, (2006). ICT fluency and high schools: A workshop summary. Retrieved from http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=11709&page=12

Pondisco, R. (2009, February 5). The Core Knowledge Blog: 21st Century skills and the tree octopus problem [Web log message]. Retrieved from http://www.ubc.ca/okanagan/library/citations/apa.html

Resnick, M., Rusk, N., & Cooke, S. (1998). The Computer Clubhouse: Technological fluency in the inner city. In D. Schon, B. Sanyal, & W. Mitchell (Eds.) High technology and low-income communities. MIT Press. Retrieved from http://web.media.mit.edu/~mres/papers/Clubhouse/Clubhouse.htm

Resnick, M. (2012) 10 places where anyone can learn to code [Video Clip]. Retrieved from http://www.ted.com/talks/mitch_resnick_let_s_teach_kids_to_code.html

Wood, D. J., Bruner, J. S., & Ross, G. (1976). The role of tutoring in problem solving. Journal of Child Psychiatry and Psychology, 17(2), 89-100.



Appendix A: Components of Fluency With Information Technology[1]


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