Digital Literacies and Technology Proficiencies — What do our students need to know?

Over the last couple weeks, I’ve been engaged in conversations with a number of my colleagues about the question of what digital skills and fluencies students need to know to be successful in college and beyond. [The longest and most fruitful conversation was with our terrific director of Teaching and Learning Technologies, Martha Burtis.] What follows is a jumbled beginning discussion of what I feel are priorities as we look toward getting students prepared for success in classes and creating adaptable, responsible, information-literate, global citizens.

First, we need to begin with basic informational and technological competencies and we need to start by defining in a broad sense what we mean by “competencies,” a word that has been gaining a great deal of traction lately without a great deal of explanation. I think (though I’m hardly the first to articulate this) that digital competencies are made up of both technical skills (ranging from changing margins in Word and more advanced MS Office functions to a familiarity with online tools including email, search engines, IM, blogs, wikis, and so on) and digital fluencies (requiring a higher-order deployment of those skills in producing and consuming information in an adaptable, creative, responsible way). [It’s also important to note that this definition of “competencies” goes beyond the notion of bare adequacy.]

If we accept this notion of skills versus fluencies, I would argue the emphasis of our digital proficiency goals should be aimed at achieving fluency, not skill mastery. Can we not expect students to come to college with a basic familiarity with the skills of digital life? Can’t basic skills (word processing, email, spreadsheets) be expected? But Jeff, aren’t there plenty of entering college students who are familiar with aspects of the digital world, but don’t know how to do all of these things? Why, yes, I’m glad you asked. Certainly a focus on fluency over skills would require institutional support in the form of a Technology Center, online guides, brief workshops (no more than an hour or two), and perhaps student tech tutors, so that students not capable of certain skills could find the answers to questions about margin changing or Powerpoint presentations or what ever they needed for a particular class.

There is, I think, an important parallel here with the way we address writing in college. A small percentage of our students have poor grammar skills. [Most are quite good at grammar.] There are resources on campus to deal with those issues, but we don’t send them to a separate class on grammar (nor do we advocate all students take a test on grammar). The school does have a writing intensive requirement, however, that necessitates students demonstrate a number of their writing skills, which of necessity requires familiarity and facility with grammar.

So, can’t we tell new students, “these are the basic computing skills every incoming student should have” and then offer them resources to address the gaps they have? The vast majority of our students do have a broad familiarity with basic computing skills. [We might even have an (optional) placement assessment like we do with foreign languages that would allow them to measure their technical computing skills.]

We can then focus the technology proficiency requirement on fluencies, on an adaptable ability to think, create, and operate within the digital world. And we need to make these fluencies the centerpiece of the requirement (not digital skills or even the classes/fulfillment requirements).

The advantages of focusing on digital fluencies over digital skills are numerous:

  • Testing students on basic skill sets makes most of them feel like they are wasting their time on things they already know, or on things they think they’ll never use.
  • Focusing on digital fluencies allows us to expect more technological sophistication from students. [This is as opposed to a kind of low-level investment in a skill-test system that encourages only completion (and that only barely) and not engagement, creativity, or adaptability.]

Broadly stated, what do I see as the key competencies of digital literacy?

  • Researching, finding and evaluating primary and secondary sources
  • Presenting one’s ideas in a variety of formats (written, oral, formal/informal–online)

The next question to ask is how these digital fluencies will be delivered. I think the material should be incorporated into one or a set of class(es), not a separate course on “technology”. Integrating digital fluencies into classes (general education and departmental requirements) has a couple of key results. First, it indicates the importance the institution and faculty have invested in those fluencies. Second, it provides students with content-linked opportunities to demonstrate their ability to maneuver and participate in the digital world (locally and globally)

The most recent discussions of our technology proficiency have revolved around a two-tier system, with a foundational level (a course or courses) intended to address those fundamental competencies incoming students need for their college experience in general, and a discipline-specific requirement. The latter would allow departments to integrate those discipline-specific digital skills and fluencies into their curriculum and support plans. [So a psychology department might incorporate SPSS into their methods classes, while Math could include work with Mathmatica or Dynamic Solver.]

In determining the success of the digital fluency approach (and more generally of the technology proficiency program), we need to make sure that the assessments are not multiple-choice, specific skills tests, but rather allow students to demonstrate competencies within a framework of actual activity and usage.

What do you think? Is this an approach that makes sense? Is it an approach that can garner support among faculty, students, and administrators?

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  1. 1. I would like to hear a little more about what fluency means and what it entails that is different from skills. Is it just the combination of one’s writing skills with one’s technical knowledge of how to construct/write a blog? Or does it also entail knowledge of the norms of blogging? Is there another category of things that differentiate skills from fluency?
    2. I don’t know that incorporating DL into classes–if they are to be tech across the curriculum–would work. Most faculty only know the skills that they need to survive (no members of my dept. write a blog or know how). I suspect that faculty ignorance would be a significant barrier to making this work (as I understand it).

  2. How many non-traditional students are faced with assignments requiring digital literacy in one course while enrolled in a Computer Applications course. Many of these students have no computer skills and the CA courses are often vague and leave students behind.

  3. Bill,
    I think that non-traditional students can certainly feel left behind in classes which require digital literacy, even when there’s a Computer Skills test (which I think my above post suggests is not something I think much of).

    Can you tell me a little more about what’s on the Computer Skills test at the place you’re discussing and about the broad goal of the Computer Applications course? [Also, how would you define digital literacy and do you think it’s something colleges should be addressing?]

    The experiences of non-traditional students are part of what makes me think that the creation of a Technology Center will be crucial for this kind of system to work. Rather than taking a Computer Applications class (at least as I think you mean), under this new system, there would be student and staff support people at the Technology Center who could help a particular student get up to speed with the particular digital skills he/she needed to address the requirements for that particular class.

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