Definitions and difficulties
“Digital literacy defines those capabilities which fit an individual for living, learning and working in a digital society.” (JISC / Beetham 2010)
“I am digitally fluent when I confidently, critically, skilfully and appropriately select and use digital technologies to achieve my goals.” (Baume 2011-12)
These are of course both empty-shell definitions, needing to be filled before they can be used.
The wish to use empty shell definitions is understandable – they push the responsibility of populating the definition on to the particular users, and thus increase local ownership.
But such definitions can frustrate users who, in answer to a question about what digital capabilities (whether literacies or fluency) they need to learn or toteach, may be told (or hear) “It’s up to you.”
By analogy: “Give a man a fish; you have fed him for today. Teach a man to fish; and you have fed him for a lifetime.” (Presumably the same is also true for a woman). A good principle. Except for the danger of our hungry person starving to death during their fishing lesson.
How to proceed? With a judicious mixture of fish and fishing lesson. Back to our digital concerns. Fish; suggestions about likely elements of digital literacy or fluency, maybe including making rational choices of technology rather than being dazzled in the toyshop; devising a search strategy rather than leaping straight into Google and, yes, how to use Word and email and Twitter. Fishing lessons; structured and responsive help and support on producing a locally, personally and professionally appropriate account of digital literacies or fluency. This mixture may be more helpful and developmental than either element alone.
A process of development?
It may be tempting to see the progression from digital literacies to digital fluency as a developmental sequence. ‘Teach them the skills, and in due course the skills will add up to fluency.’
A more productive approach may be to concentrate on the final outcome. If the final outcome (for now) is something like digital fluency, as described above, then maybe fluency is the place to start. Learners, whether students or staff, could audit their current state of digital fluency. They could unpack the extent and nature of their confidence, their critical approach & etc. in their use of digital technologies to achieve their goals. And then they could seek and obtain the necessary support. (Fluency, as described here, has an important affective component as well as describing capabilities.)
At the same time, they will know what specific digital capabilities, what specific digital literacies, they are likely to need – because some at least of the demands and expectations of the subject, the course, the institution are known. So we can provide enough fish to ensure survival in the short term.
We have to support the development of digital literacies or fluency.
Changing metaphor: Let’s photograph the butterfly, not pin it to the board.
Our most valuable digital capability is probably to continue to review and enhance our digital capabilities. (Of course we could ditch the word ‘digital’.)
There, above all, may be where we should focus our development efforts.