Digital literacy is swiftly becoming a catchall term whose meaning is applied to the thinnest veneer of a continuum of modern behaviors. Those behaviors could include using a computer, a laptop or tablet, an array of popular websites or even using a smartphone. The definition does not include how well someone can use these technologies and may even represent knowledge of them without knowing how to apply them or evaluate their usefulness and relevance to a task.

My good friend and colleague, Silvia Rosenthal Tolisano, likens digital literacy to learning a language. She has described in presentations how being “literate” is about knowing and perhaps being somewhat competent with a new language. Think of how language acquisition works in middle and high schools. We teach aspects of the language, what some may call the “foods and festivals” modes of learning a new language, which gives students recognition of sight words and a low-level understanding. Fluency, though, Tolisano says, is “a demonstration of mastery at an unconsciously smooth” level.

Digital literacy is akin to the “foods and festivals” mode of learning about technology. What we need to teach our students is the “fluency” model. This means that students need to be able to do what the sixth capacity of the College and Career Readiness Capacities is asking of students: Students use technology and digital media strategically and capably.

“Strategic and capable” means that digital literacy is about more than exposure, knowledge and low levels of competence. It means that students need choices, toolboxes and opportunities to evaluate relevant resources. This is what I call “solution fluency.” Students need to go well beyond digital and technological literacy and be fluent in our modern learning landscapes.

To be critical thinkers and problem solvers, students need to know how to leverage technology and digital media to not only find relevant and useful information, but also be able to evaluate that information and create new learning from it.

The implications of this are many. For one, solution fluency demands ubiquitous access to technology and digital media. Computer lab time on Thursdays might engage some low levels of “digital literacy” but will never allow for solution fluency. Access at all times is important. Technology is the new pencil. Second, solution fluency demands a higher level of thinking about not only information, but also how that information is to be engaged, presented and learned. Students need to know that the top three Google results are not representative of focused Internet searches, but represent either a search for key terms only or paid advertising.

The biggest implication is for what happens beyond the K-12 experience. If we are going to truly prepare students to go out into the world with the requisite skills for success, solution fluency makes them valuable. Those who have the ability to navigate the modern landscape of opportunities within a framework of critical thinking and specific, actionable strategies are the ones who will run the world.

Some of you may be thinking, “this sounds great, Mike, but the real issue here is economic. We just can’t afford the technology at the level we need to make this work.” So before I wrap this up — let’s address the elephant in the virtual room. Money is a huge issue; I understand that. But I don’t think this has to be a school’s biggest roadblock. There is something you can do.

Websites such as Grant Wrangler and Donors Choose offer grants for schools to get a wide array of things, including technology. I know teachers who have gotten these grants and donations and it’s because they took the initiative, and in many cases, were persistent. Using Web services such as Diigo and Livebinders to search for grants could also be more fruitful than general Google searches. Oh, and just so I’m clear, writing these grants opens up a gigantic opportunity for your students to engage in solution fluency. Have students write the grants. What better way to demonstrate solution fluency than by getting a big check in the mail?

I’m not saying that digital literacy is not important, but I am saying that it is only the foundation of modern learning explorations. Fluency is what we build on top of that foundation — a solid structure that students can work within for years to come!

Mike Fisher (@fisher1000) is a National Board Certified former teacher with more than a decade of classroom and professional development experience. He is a full-time educational consultant and instructional coach, and works primarily with school districts to integrate the Common Core State Standards, make data-informed instructional decisions, sustain their curriculum mapping initiatives and integrate instructional technology. Learn more at The Digigogy Collaborative.

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