UB op-ed: How to move from digital literacy to digital fluency

You’ve heard the term ‘digital literacy,’ but are basic literacy skills enough to equip students to thrive in today’s world?
Kelly Walsh is CIO of The College of Westchester in New York.
Kelly Walsh is CIO of The College of Westchester in New York.

If you work in higher education, you have likely heard the term “digital literacy.” Technology is ubiquitous, and students must be capable of navigating their way through communication, resources and information using computers and mobile devices.
But are basic literacy skills enough to equip students to thrive in today’s world?

Jennifer Sparrow, associate vice president of Teaching and Learning with Technology at The Pennsylvania State University, believes we need to help students move beyond digital literacy to achieve digital fluency.

What is the difference? Sparrow offers an analogy focused on learning a new language. Learning how to listen, read and speak in a foreign language indicates a degree of literacy in that language. But when a student can take the next step and actually create something new, such as a poem or article, then the student is developing fluency in that language. Similarly for technology, when you can create rich new content using tech tools, you have moved beyond literacy and toward fluency.

Digital fluency also means being able to assess the validity and authority behind an online news source, and being aware of issues such as diminishing privacy and protecting your identity, for instance.

In fact, Sparrow says, “Digital fluency can be viewed as an evolving collection of fluencies, including, but not limited to, curiosity fluency, communication fluency, creation fluency, data fluency and innovation fluency.”

Practical suggestions for evolving digital fluency

While improved fluency with today’s digital tools and resources can benefit educators and students alike, how we go about achieving fluency is not straightforward. One safe conclusion is faculty members must achieve digital fluency before they can help students work toward achieving it. With that in mind, here are several practical ideas that higher ed institution leaders can consider to help both faculty and students achieve a higher degree of digital fluency.

  • Offer professional development. Ongoing PD is commonplace at colleges and universities and can be a great opportunity to improve faculty skills. Develop live and on-demand training so your faculty can get hands-on experience with digital tools and resources and can explore different ways to use them in their courses.
  • Provide digital badges. Many school leaders are exploring the use of digital badges for faculty and students. Badges can lend themselves to the development of, and recognition for, increased capabilities with applications and digital content. Consider a badge for creating quality flipped or blended learning content. Badges should be awarded based on substantive skills that are clearly defined and accurately assessed if school leaders want to ensure that badges are perceived as meaningful credentials.
  • Offer the choice of traditional or digital assignments. In place of a multipage, double-spaced report, allow students to demonstrate their knowledge with rich digital media, such as a multimedia slideshow or video. Be sure to provide clear guidelines and expectations for content. Consider a rubric, for example.
  • Have students demonstrate their ability to assess the validity of information. Coursework should provide students with opportunities to consume information and assess its accuracy and usefulness; to learn from information; and to communicate their findings to an audience.
  • Include peer instruction. Provide students with opportunities to become adept at using new tools and resources, and then to instruct other students, or teachers, in their use.
  • Consider new learning outcomes. If school leaders are serious about the importance of having students achieve digital fluency, they can consider adding a new learning outcome across all disciplines or at the program level.

Today’s traditional-age college students are often referred to as digital natives, but their comfort with devices and apps is not enough to equip them to assess an overwhelming flood of information or to solve complex new problems. As the world moves in an increasingly digital direction, the students we are teaching will need to become even more adept at using digital tools and to embrace lifelong learning if they are going to truly thrive. They need to achieve digital fluency, and higher education leaders need to help them get there.

Kelly Walsh, CIO of The College of Westchester in New York, is the founder of the EmergingEdTech blog at emergingedtech.com.

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