The Difference Between Digital Literacy and Digital Fluency

Update 6/13/2012: We finally finished our book on this topic. It is available in print here, and in Kindle format here

You can also download a sample chapter here: here  (601k PDF)


Literacy and fluency* have to do with our ability to use a technology to achieve a desired outcome in a situation using the technologies that are available to us. This applies to our ability to use a hammer, nails and wood to build the house that we intend to build:

..and it applies to our ability to use digital technologies to have the intended positive effect on people and situations:

Note that a literate person is perfectly capable of using the tools. They know how to use them and what to do with them, but the outcome is less likely to match their intention. It is not until that person reaches a level of fluency, however, that they are comfortable with when to use the tools to achieve the desired outcome, and even why the tools they are using are likely to have the desired outcome at all.



*For the sake of simplicity, we have boiled all of this down to three levels of skill, and have given them what we think are easy-to-understand names. Other words for these two levels are transactional (literacy) and transformational (fluency). For those of you who are looking for deeper explanations of the things that a person goes through in learning such things, you may want to look at the Dreyfus model of skill acquisition, and the conscious competence model (origin unclear).


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31 Responses to The Difference Between Digital Literacy and Digital Fluency

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention The Difference Between Digital Literacy and Digital Fluency | SociaLens Blog --

  2. Simon Fowler says:

    Great explanation!

    The question it immediately raises for me is “who defines the desired outcomes?”. I was following twitter on my phone last night while watching the Superbowl with friends at my neighbors house. It was very entertaining watching the various comments on the ads, the halftime show and (minimally) the game itself. So I was interacting with others I follow, and follow me, online. I was sharing some comments with my friends (i.e. aspects of ads that I’d missed because we were chatting, or because I was tweeting!). Almost immediately my friends were derisive of my “obsession” with … well all they saw was me holding a phone. My desired outcome – or rather, outcomes, since I wanted to watch the game, hang with friends, get and participate in the twitter chatter on the game – was different from theirs. All they saw was me doing something that ‘took me away’ from them. It did feel like a digital fluency fail on my part, even though I didn’t think I was on the phone that much, or for that long.
    Am I being fluent or, erm, effluent!?

  3. christian says:

    Great question, Simon!

    Fluency is never a guarantee of a good outcome for every stakeholder in a situation. In fact, a person who is perfectly fluent in a language or a technology can use that fluency to harm other stakeholders. It sounds as if the fluency-related question in your case is whether the result matched your intended outcomes, and perhaps even whether you were able to assess and satisfy the intended outcomes of your friends as well. We’re finding that the more fluent a person is, the better they are able to predict the outcome of their actions. In the example in the post above, a carpenter who is totally fluent with hammers, nails and boards has a pretty good idea of what sort of house she can/will end up with. She is also pretty good at understanding the fluencies of her team of carpenters, and she can even sense when she has to adapt her fantastic, advanced carpentry method to accommodate her team–even if their method might be less-efficient–in order to achieve a desired overall outcome.

    As a personal example of this, i almost never open up my laptop or take out my mobile in a meeting–especially when that meeting is with someone who is not comfortable with the “always on-ness” that they feel is associated with digital technology. I am not so much doing this for my own immediate benefit (i am able to have a computer in front of me without feeling compelled to look at it) but rather to achieve a shared desirable outcome: for me, i want them to be free of the perception that i am a digital nerd who has to be connected 24/7. For them, their desire is most likely to feel like they have my full attention, and to talk to someone who is not a nerd. As i become more fluent, i am better able (i think) to sense these sorts of dynamics and act intentionally.

    What do you think? Does this apply to your situation too? Okay, i’m headed into a meeting. Shutting down my computer. :)

  4. Simon Fowler says:

    This is helpful.

    So my desired outcomes don’t have to match theirs, but if I’m fluent, I am, as you say, going to be better able to predict the outcome (impact on others) of my actions. Your personal example helps uncover a couple of elements of my situation. First is that I am quite easily tempted to look (“glance”, thinking that no-one will notice!) at computers and phones when they’re open in front of me. That somewhat unconscious act probably means I’m looking it much more than I’m aware of. Secondly – and possibly because I’m not aware how much I’m looking at the phone – I’m a little dismissive of their derision, thinking it an over-reaction to just a few minutes of tweeting. If I was more conscious (critically reflective) of my actions, and of what I wanted from the evening for me and for them, I’d deliberately limit how much time I spend on the phone, and deliberately put it out of site so they wouldn’t think I’m just itching to pick it up again.

    It implies that for a fluent person outcomes will always be negotiated socially, to greater or lesser degrees of explicitness. Your decision to not open your computer is still ‘negotiated’ with [your assumptions about] their intended outcomes. But in other situations – particularly for outcomes that very strongly impact others, like organizational goals – the negotiation needs to be made explicit; “is it okay if I leave my computer open? tell me if it bothers you, or if you see me looking at it all the time!”, “”we’re making Widget Version A, not B, together, right?”.

    This helps my understanding of the place of ‘purpose/strategy’ (and relationship) in your framework for digital fluency.
    Very useful discussion, thanks!

  5. christian says:

    These are great thoughts, Simon. I hadn’t thought about it those terms, but you are dead-on right that outcomes are always negotiated socially. They always have been, of course, but social interactions are deeply affected by the technologies that are available to us, and the norms, practices and culture in which those technologies participate as they mediate those social interactions. So when a big change in technology usage occurs, such as the introduction of the longwall coal mining method into British mines [1], or the use of telephones, or the adoption of mobile digital media going on right now, there will always be social changes as well. I think you’ve made a very important point that focus on the larger, less malleable purposes, such as being with friends, serving the public or creating shareholder value, will help a group to negotiate the smaller, more quickly changing practices such as using Twitter during a game, installing an organization-wide collaboration system, or participating in social media marketing.

    I would be negligent if i did not point out the fact that this all highlights the need we’re seeing for digital fluency at the leadership level in organizations (something which is largely unnoticed). If i am a leader who doesn’t understand digital media and how it impacts the social negotiations in my market, my workers, my leadership, and even how it impacts my own perceptions, i am probably going to be less and less effective as a leader as time goes on.

    [1] This is a classic example where a far more efficient technology was introduced into an industry, but because of its impact on the social interactions of the miners, productivity actually went down, instead of up. Trist, E. L. “Some Social and Psychological Consequences of the Longxwall Method of Coal-Getting: An Examination of the Psychological Situation and Defences of a Work Group in Relation to the Social Structure and Technological Content of the Work System.” Human Relations 4, no. 1 (February 1951): 3-38.

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    • christian says:

      Thanks, Mike.

      I have not read this paper, but i will shortly. I just gave it a quick once-over, and it looks interesting. Thanks!

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  18. Alexis says:

    This is great. Later this summer, the Knight School of Communication at Queens University of Charlotte is launching a new Knight Vision journal that explores the intersection of digital/media literacy and civic engagement. If you want us to review your book, let me know.

    • christian says:

      Thanks, Alexis. We would love to have a review, though the book is very intentionally geared toward practitioners, so it may or may not be interesting for an academic journal. With that being said, i am working on a dissertation related to this topic, and our company SociaLens is doing ongoing research in this area which will result in a second book of a more academic slant. I also wrote a paper back in 2008 exploring the formative nature of digital media participation in civic engagement that you might find interesting. It is entitled “The Tocqueville Lens – Informing the Design of the New Township” (PDF)

      • Alexis says:

        Well, the great thing about the journal is that all print entries must score at least 35 on the Flesch readability test. This means that authors must craft their messages in such a way that anyone with high school reading proficiency can easily comprehend the content. (To complete the Flesch Test on a Microsoft Word document, visit: We hope that academics and practitioners submit work and contribute to the journal. We will publish traditional academic articles alongside creative digital projects that explore the intersection of digital/media literacy and civic engagement. Our goal is to include as many people as we can—and hear as many different voices as possible—in this dynamic and on-going discussion.

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