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Towards a definition of Digital Literacy

As technologies continue to develop, school and school systems become repositories of outdated terminology which, arguably, reflect how slow to respond to change and changing environments they are.

The term literacy has evolved from a straightforward "capacity to read and write" to mean "competence or knowledge in a specific area", revealing in its evolution school's struggle to let go old principles. As a consequence of the shift in scholarly happening (as life moves away from paper-based into screen-based communication), terms such as literacy and fluency have seen a number of reinventions and redefinitions.

It is beyond doubt that our lives are becoming increasingly permeated by technologies. Think, for example, of the Internet of Things, or Smart TVs or our portable mini-computers (which we still call mobile phones even when nobody actually uses them to talk!). This revolution in social practices has made necessary to define a term that can represent the skills needed to operate and thrive in such a world. Digital Literacy.

However, in this multilayered scenario, being able to operate is not enough. We need a new term that can explain how we can flow through this maze of media not only to consume but to adapt,  analyse, compare, compile, create and share: Digital Fluency.

Resnick (2002) argues that "In the years ahead, digital fluency will become a prerequisite for obtaining jobs, participating meaningfully in society, and learning throughout a lifetime.", since Digital Literacy and Digital Fluency describe people's capability to use digital technologies to achieve desired outcomes.

The Ministry of Education (via TKI) defines these skills as capabilities:
Digital literacy – A digitally literate person knows how to use digital technologies and what to do with them.
 Digital fluency – A digitally fluent person can decide when to use specific digital technologies to achieve their desired outcome. They can articulate why the tools they are using will provide their desired outcome.
Miller and Barlett (2012) are of the opinion that "digital fluency combines old techniques – those classic skills necessary for any critical engagement with information – with new and specific knowledge bases about how the internet works, and how, given how it works, it can inadvertently deceive or be deliberately used to deceive".

Jisc (a UK higher, further education and skills sectors’ not-for-profit organisation for digital services and solutions) define these skills in terms of Digital Capabilities, and they estate that "to be digitally capable will vary for each person. It will depend on the requirements of their role, their subject specialism, career choice, personal and other contextual factors". They group these skills into six groups:
  1. ICT proficiency (Functional skills)
  2. Information, data and media literacies (Critical use)
  3. Digital creation, problem solving and innovation (Creative production)
  4. Digital communication, collaboration and participation (Participation)
  5. Digital learning and development (Development)
  6. Digital identity and wellbeing (Self-actualising)

A full description of these groups and the skills involved can be found here

In a more local context, CORE Education defines Digital Fluency as a combination of:

  • Digital, or technical, proficiency: able to understand, select and use the technologies and        technological systems;
  • Digital literacy: cognitive or intellectual competencies, which include being able to read, create, evaluate and make judgments and apply technical skills while doing so;
  • Social Competence, or Dispositional Knowledge: the ability to relate to others and communicate with them effectively.

Fluency, they argue, represents the highest order of ‘unconscious competence’ in Burch's ‘hierarchy of competence’.

The Joint Research Centre, funded by the European Commission, uses the metaphor of Learning to swim in the Digital Ocean in their Digital Competence Framework for Citizens to develop digital proficiency levels.  The framework describes five competence areas. 
  • Competence area 1: information and data literacy 
  • Competence area 2: communication and collaboration 
  • Competence area 3: digital content creation 
  • Competence area 4: safety 
  • Competence area 5: problem-solving
" Each level represents a step up in citizens’ acquisition of the competence according to its cognitive challenge, the complexity of the tasks they can handle and their autonomy in completing the task" (Carretero, 2017).

All of these models are trying to express the complexity of the skills needed to navigate today's multifaceted and multi-media ecosystems. They intend to promote critical digital mindsets in order to engage in a discussion on what "being literate" means in the 21st Century. However, in Brown's (2017) own words:
what we define or understand as digital literacy is messy and far more problematic than reflected in most of the current flashy, flimsy and faddish frameworks.


Brown, M. (2017). The Challenge of Digital Literacy: Beyond Narrow Skills to Critical Mindsets. Retrieved from

Carretero, S., Vuorikari, R., & Punie, Y. (2017). DigComp 2.1 the digital competence framework for citizens with eight proficiency levels and examples of use. Publications Office.

CORE Blog. (2016, July 21). Retrieved from

Digital fluency. (n.d.). Retrieved from

JISC. (n.d.). What is digital capability?  Retrieved from

UNESCO (n.d.). Retrieved from


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