Literacy, Fluency and Plurality: A Reflection on Digital Literacies

Quote from Doug Belshaw's book on digital literacies

Responding to Holly Clark, I explain why I cringe when the concept of digital literacy is replaced with fluency, subsequently overlooking the plurality of digital literacies.


There has been a lot written about digital literacy of late, much of the conversation stemming from the Engagement in a Time of Polarisation MOOC and danah boyd’s keynote at SXSW. Holly Clark enters this conversation explaining why she chringes when she hears the word ‘digital literacy’.

In Clark’s post, she states that literacy is about the ‘competence of knowledge’. It is that thing required to make meaning. She then goes on to argue that what is at stake is not necessarily the competence to make meaning, but rather the ability:

What students don’t possess most often is a not digital literacy, but rather digital fluency. As educators if we spend our time talking about literacy – and what feels like ONLY literacy – and we leave out the more educationally important idea of fluency we might be doing students an injustice. Fluency is the term that SHOULD be at the heart of everything we are talking about. It is where the transfer of knowledge happens, where kids apply that literacy they developed without our help, and get past the making meaning stage to a place where they are transferring knowledge on their way to becoming effective digital citizens and learners.

I agree with what she is saying, it is not our knowledge of these things that matters, but rather application of such knowledge. Therefore, I can know about two-factor authentication, which by her definition would be a part of being ‘digitally literate’. Tick. However, unless I actually apply two-factor to each of my accounts then it is of little use.

The particular example that Clark gives is that of searching. As she explains, you cannot have an knowledge of a search (or a query) unless you understand the consequences and to do so you would need to be fluent, not literate.

The question we should be asking as educators is – are they fluent in search? Do they know how to craft a search that will deliver to them a page of really meaningful and purposeful results – results that come from mostly credible sources? Do they have the fluency to evaluate the information the search produces. I promise you the answer is no in 98% of cases. There is a fluency to search, to knowing what happens when you add quotes, or the minus symbol, or keywords and how this all affects the end result. This is the digital fluency of understanding the intended message (or query) you are delivering to Google.

As Clark highlights, simply knowing to use quotation marks is not enough, we need to understand why this is the case.

Although I am not as confident as Clark to call out ‘98%’ as the number, I think that this difference between knowing and understanding is a consequence of a tick-box approach to many of these things. There are great programs like eSmart’s Digital License, which help build knowledge. However, like many licenses in life, it can be a means to an end. The question is often what happens once they have their license that matters. Again, if they find out about the importance of two-factor and security, but continue to use their dogs name as their password, then it is to little avail.

My concern with Clark’s argument is that she puts ‘digital literacy’ to the sword, replacing it with ‘fluency’. This is problematic on two fronts. Firstly, the concept of literacy is not fixed. Secondly, we are better considering the plurality of digital literacies.

In The Essential Elements of Digital Literacies, Doug Belshaw suggests that literacy involves using a tool for a particular purpose.

Before books went digital, they were created either by
using a pen or by using a printing press. These tools are technologies. Literacy, therefore, is inextricably linked with technology even before we get to ‘digital’ literacies.

This use is always a social process that is contained within a context, for “in isolation, an individual cannot be literate at all.”

Adding the ‘digital’ modifier increases the ambiguity associated with the situation. Instead of providing an overarching definition, Belshaw provides eight elements to make sense of the different incidences of digital literacies.

  • Cultural – the expectations and behaviours associated with different environments, both online and off.
  • Cognitive – the ability to use computational thinking in order to work through problems.
  • Constructive – the appropriate use of digital tools to enable social actions.
  • Communicative – sharing and engaging within the various cultural norms.
  • Confident – the connecting of the dots and capitalising on different possibilities.
  • Creative – this involves doing new things in new ways that somehow add value.
  • Critical – the analysis of assumptions behind literacy practises
  • Civic – the something being analysed.

What is important here is that we cannot meaningfully consider all these elements at once. Each offers the possibility of digging deeper or stepping back.

Take for example searching online. We can confidently search for information. This is what Clark captures with her discussion of ‘fluency’, However, this does not necessarily capture the critical side of search and algorithms. Interestingly, Clark makes mention of the plurality of literacies, but never quite explains what she means.

In the end, what is needed in this area is more conversation. It is complicated. It is contested. As always, comments, criticism and cringing welcome.


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It Takes a Family – A Reflection on Support Networks that Make Leadership Possible

A quote from Steve Wheeler on the importance of the village and support networks

Life can get busy, when this occurs, should leaders stand aside or do we need to stop and recognise that sometimes leadership involves the support of wider support networks?


In a post reflecting on leadership and the self, Paul Browning identified three aspects that great leaders are able to manage:

  • Emotions
  • Health / Sleep
  • Ego

The question I am left with is what happens when a leader can’t keep these aspects in tact? Not for the lack of trying, but rather that life does not necessarily allow for it. Maybe it is raising a young family, suffering from illness or balancing life situations. Should leaders stand aside or does it sometimes take a team?


Discussing the challenges of balance, Corrie Barclay shares a number of tips associated with raising a family while also being an assistant principal. These include doing what you say you will do, learning to say no, making time for you, mindfully moving around and living life to the fullest. Barclay’s post was a response to a post from Eric Sheninger on the same topic.

For Sheninger, worklife balance can be broken down into three areas: professional, family and personal. Some of his strategies for answering each of these areas is to consciously block out time for things, think about eating patterns and cut back on social media. He also states that sometimes you need to be selfish.

Our well-being is not only good for us on a personal level, but it has positive impacts on our professional work and family life.

When Sheninger was a principal he would leave early in the morning in order to fit in a gym session before the start of the day.

Chris Wejr provides his own take. His answer has been to remove email, as well as schedule his family into his calendar.

For Steve Brophy the challenge is the transition from one mode to another. He does this through the use of a routine when he arrives home, where he gets his clothes ready for the next day, writes a few notes and leaves his phone in the bedroom. This then allows him to give his best to his family.

Taking a different approach, John Spencer has his own solution to the personal problem. He and his wife give each other one night a week to pursue other interests. This means going somewhere else, whether it be Starbucks or a microbrewrey, and focusing on something unrelated to teaching.

What each of these situations and suggestions demonstrate is that there is no quick fix to finding balance. Whether it is food, scheduling or space, each approach is based on a particular context. Having said this, there is one thing that ties them together. The part played by our wider support networks.

Other than John Spencer, there is little mention of partners and their part in the play. Although Eric Sheninger identifies family as an area that is a part of the balance, he does not touch upon their particular influence. Steve Brophy recogises his wife’s role on his ‘learning board of directors’, but not necessarily what this involves.

Like Sheninger, I too used to exercise early in the morning. However, I now choose to help out at home, before dropping my children off at childcare. My wife is in leadership and I feel that it is important to help out where I can.


Returning to the beginning, Browning talks about what leaders are able to manage. Similarly, Philip Riley highlights the stresses that principals are put under. What seems overlooked in both accounts are the structures often in place that allow leaders to prosper and the sacrifices made by those within the support networks involved, such as family and friends.

Reflecting on guilt of not always being their for her children, Pernille Ripp recognises the role played by her husband in allowing her to do what she does. Maha Bali is another who explains the need to say no to various requests because she is also a mother. While when she does present, this often involves a team of carers or her daughter actually attending various events. Although neither are explicit leaders of schools, they are still leaders in their own spaces.

I wonder then if the greatest challenge we face in regards to leadership is realising we cannot do it alone and recognising those who help out to make it possible? As always, comments, criticism and communication welcome.


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Secret, Safe and Informed: A Reflection on Facebook, Cambridge Analytica and the Collection of Data

Tufekci on Informed Consent

There have been a lot of discussions lately about Facebook, social media and connected society in light of the Cambridge Analytica revelations. Here are my thoughts on what it might mean to be more informed consent.


Secret and Safe?

At the start of Lord of the Rings, Frodo Baggins inherits a ring from his cousin, Bilbo Baggins. He is unaware of the power it holds. After leaving Frodo to find out what it is, Gandalf returns. He promptly askes Froddo,

Is it secret, is it safe?

Still unaware of the ring’s power. Gandalf explains to the hobbit the gift he has been bestowed and the journey he must go on.

I think that connected education and social media pose us with the same challenges. There comes a time, when after signing up and dipping our toes in, we need to stop and ask ourselves,

Are we secure, are we safe?

Our responses to this can go in a number of directions. On the one hand we can don our silver suits like Chuck in Better Call Saul and become possessed by fear.

via GIPHY

Or we can become completely paranoid like Elliot in Mr Robot, where we always think the worst and react accordingly.

via GIPHY

We need some sort of compromise. We need to, together, demand better.

Informed Era

A few years ago, Doug Belshaw made an attempt at mapping the internet. He divided it into five eras:

  • 1993-1997: The Information Superhighway
  • 1999-2002: The Wild West
  • 2003-2007: The Web 2.0 era
  • 2008-2012: The Era of the App
  • 2013+: The Post-Snowden era

I have been thinking lately, with fake news and data breaches, maybe we are entering a new era, what Belshaw mooted as an ‘informed era’.

Although there has been a call for companies to improve the clarity of their terms and conditions and governments to put in place policies to protect citizens, I think that ‘informed consent’ needs to go beyond that. If we are to demand better then the conversation needs to go beyond the features and affordances of digital technology. For tools themselves are just one actor in a larger play.


“EdTech Enablers – Modern Learning Canvas” by mrkrndvs is licensed under CC BY-SA

A useful framework for making sense of technology is Belshaw’s Eight Elements of Digital Literacies. Split between four mindsets (Critical, Civic, Confident and Cognitive) and four skillsets (Creative, Communicative, Constructive and Cultural), these elements provide a means of appreciating the complexity at work.


“The 8 Essential Elements of Digital Literacies #digilit” by mrkrndvs is licensed under CC BY-SA

These elements though do not provide a checklist to tick off, but rather the start of a richer conversation. They should not considered all times, but they help in realising that there are always other aspects to consider.

Take for example an application like Hapara. It provides an added layer of control on top of GSuite, which allows teachers to organise and manage learning in the classroom. Using digital literacies as a lens provides an insight into a number of aspects which help to inform our use.

  • From a cultural perspective, Hapara posits that teachers are largely responsible for creating the conditions for learning.
  • Cognitively, it involves new ways of working. Although it may be more efficient, if you have been using GSuite, these are still habits to unlearn and relearn.
  • Constructively, there is a blur between empowering students with the power to participate in actions and the dangers in excessively moderating their learning.
  • From a communicative point of view, GSuite allows a number of ways to engage, Hapara provides the means to manage and moderate this within different cultural norms.
  • Connecting with GSuite through the use of APIs, Hapara has the ability to both hinder and help the creative process depending on how it is deployed.
  • From a critical and civic point of view, it is important to consider why there is a need to manage learning at all and the consequences associated with such actions.

What this example highlights is that you cannot meaningfully consider all these elements at once. Each offers the possibility of digging deeper or stepping back to develop a wider perspective.

Becoming Informed

One of things I have noticed about the current discussions around Cambridge Analytica, fake news and polarisation is that there are no quick fixes or simple solutions to any of this. As Seth Godin points out,

Advertising has shaped our culture. Not the ads, but the money. And Facebook’s woes are a symptom of that.

Being informed is not some sort of process where one day you wake up certified. This is a problem with things like cybersafety programs. They are often designed to get everyone to a particular level of knowledge, but fail to address the mindset and ongoing practice. The real problem that needs to be addressed is what next?

The challenge as I see it is to understand that consent is something that we inadvertently give each time we tap into an application. I would argue then it is a constant state of becoming more informed. In an ever changing world, with goals forever moving, it is a case where we can never quite be fully informed. Here then are some strategies to start with.

Critically Reflect and Ask Questions

I think that the most important thing we can do is wonder. This helps go beyond the how-to to the how-do-they-do-that. Ian O’Byrne has written a useful series of posts with questions to consider in staying safe online. He touches on issues such as passwords, backing up and protecting your connection. In part, I think this a part of the push for computational thinking.

Learn from and through others

For me, being informed takes a village. If we are to ask questions, then it is useful to have people to talk about them with. Dean Shareski wrote a post a few years ago that that has really stuck with me. In it, he spoke about leaving conferences with new connections, not just new content. I think that this is important. Meeting people beyond your own context helps extend your thinking and develop new ideas.

Engage in new challenges.

Reflecting upon his digital workflow, Clay Shirky talks about each year getting rid of perfectly good habits. He fears that if he doesn’t he will stop noticing the ever changing digital environment around him. For me, such change starts with reading widely. There are so many places to find content these days. Whether it be on social media or reading books. I am an advocate for feed readers. All you need to do is find a few interesting sites, add the feeds and you are away.


So to come back to the start: “Are you secure? Are you safe? And are you informed?” Maybe the answer is actually the question itself? As always, thoughts and comments welcome.


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