Digital Literacy is Good, but Fluency is Better
Jun 28, 2012 Comment
In their new book, Digital Fluency: Building Success in the Digital Age, Christian Briggs and Kevin Makice offer a roadmap to digital fluency for individuals and organizations.
So what's the difference between digital literacy and digital fluency? According to Briggs and Makice, literacy means you know what tools to use and how to use them, while fluency means you also know when and why to use them. They also offer this core definition: "Digital fluency is the ability to reliably achieve desired outcomes through use of digital technology." Under this definition, fluency also includes the ability to choose the right tools and use multiple tools in combination.
The distinction between literacy and fluency is a very useful framework for thinking about how to survive and thrive in the digital age, and the concept of digital fluency has also been explored by Mitchel Resnick, professor of learning research at the MIT Media Lab. In a 2002 report, Resnick offered the analogy to learning a foreign language:
If someone learned a few phrases so that they could read menus in restaurants and ask for directions on the street, would you consider them fluent in the language? Certainly not. That type of phrase-book knowledge is equivalent to the way most people use computers today. Is such knowledge useful? Yes. But it is not fluency.
To be truly fluent in a foreign language, you must be able to articulate a complex idea or tell an engaging story; in other words, you must be able to 'make things' with language. Analogously, being digitally fluent involves not only knowing how to use technology, but also knowing how to construct things of significance with those tools.
Let's take Resnick's analogy to language fluency just a little deeper, in order to drive home the level of mastery and familiarity that fluency requires. If someone is fluent in a language, not only can they tell a story or convey a complex idea, but they also can effortlessly manipulate language at the level of syntax and vocabulary to help convey meaning more effectively.
What linguists refer to as functional shift is one interesting aspect of fluency. This is when a word that is originally one part of speech is used as another part of speech. Very often, this shift in syntax occurs when a noun is used as a verb (Calvin and Hobbes offers a delightful comic take on this), but all sorts of shifts are possible. Sometimes functional shift takes hold and the new use of the word becomes part of our shared vocabulary. "Disconnect" is now a noun as well as a verb. "Impact" is now a verb as well as a noun (to many people's chagrin). And believe it or not, "to Google" was not always a verb. Swear words tend to offer particular flexibility when it comes to functional shift. Go ahead, take an expletive and run it through its paces as a verb, a noun, and an adjective. I bet you can even turn it into an adverb.
Shakespeare was very big on functional shift, partly because Elizabethan English allowed more linguistic freedom than modern English. Many of his numerous neologisms were actually the result of functional shift, some of which entered the language permanently, such as turning "lone" into "lonely." Other Shakespearian shifts are not part of daily vocabulary, but still make immediate sense to any fluent English speaker. Adjective becomes verb when King Lear bemoans: "A father, and a gracious aged man...have you madded." Noun becomes verb, and then the verb takes on a negative prefix, when Richard III is "kinged" and "unkinged." The adverb "backward" becomes an evocative noun when Prospero speaks of the "dark backward and abysm of time."
Fluent language users also regularly employ what linguist Erin McKean called "undictionaried words" in a recent opinion piece for The New York Times. This includes words that have entered the language but that haven't shown up in dictionaries (of which there are many) as well as neologisms. According to McKean, "One thing that shouldn't stop you from using an undictionaried word: worrying about whether it's 'real' or (as Wordnik users like to say) 'madeupical.' All words (aside from unintentional errors and malapropisms) are words at their birth. All you have to decide is whether the word in question is the right one for the job."
This brings us back to the "when" and "why" highlighted by Briggs and Makice in their definition of digital fluency. Functional shift and undictionaried words are just two markers of true fluency. Others include idioms, modulating formality, and the ability to move in and out of regional dialects and vernaculars. With these linguistic examples in mind, the analogy to digital fluency becomes even more powerful. I think the masterful use of digital technology to "reliably achieve desired outcomes" requires something on par with the level of instinct and agility required by functional shift, neologisms, and many other nuanced aspects of language fluency. The point is this: fluency, linguistic or digital, is sophisticated and multi-faceted.
For their purposes, Briggs and Makice are focused on the importance of digital fluency in the workplace: "For success to occur within an organization, the individual digital fluency of everyone from the C-Suite to the part-time worker must be enhanced." Writing a decade ago, Resnick threw an even wider net when he observed, "In the years ahead, digital fluency will become a prerequisite for obtaining jobs, participating meaningfully in society, and learning throughout a lifetime."
The future that Resnick predicted is already upon us. If the United States doesn't figure out a way to facilitate and promote widespread digital fluency, especially in the workplace, we are likely to find ourselves madded and unkinged in the dark backward of time.
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