Searching for Tributaries of Digital Fluency

high-altitude image of an estuary

Did your eyes blaze or did they glaze over when you read the title of this post? If they glazed, I am surprised you are still reading. If they blazed, then I hope you might find some often overlooked ways to discuss technology and learning.

Digital fluency is a 2018 buzzword among those who likely also said words like disruption, MOOC, future, digital natives, etc. etc. You know. The “glaze or blaze” words of higher education. Thanks to a workshop* with Lee Skallerup-Bessette, I learned to rethink “digital fluency” with the familiar metaphor of the tributary. Previously, the only fluid metaphor I associated with ed-tech was “firehose.” Searching for tributaries and finding their sources involves research. At least, this is what I took away from Lee’s workshop: productive discussions about digital fluency start by searching for sources within the institution.

Digital technologies have existed at nearly every university in the global north for at least 25 years. How did they arrive? Where did they go? Are they still there? How many “digital tributaries” are there in your institution? Has an effort been made to find all of them? Creating and preserving institutional memory is a way to start making sense of what digital initiatives will go with the flow.

These are really useful questions for talking about learning technology with faculty, staff, and administrators. Rarely are they interested in the next best thing. Chances are better for conversations about your institution’s history, memory, and mission. These are the tributaries that make possible the current affairs. It is very possible to create a river from local sources that can carry a home-grown digital initiative downstream into the future. Mapping out the sources for digital fluency within an institution may provide a useful means of building consensus and action related to educational technologies.

The point here is to discover and make obvious what has already happened at your institution. Where are the digital tributaries? For example, perhaps there a long-forgotten institutional study or policy resides amid the minutes or agendas from decades ago. Or, you might find people who can recount the conversations and processes by which a certain policy or technology was adopted. Another source is likely to be found amidst your institution’s mission statements and strategic plans. What is being accomplished already? What are the stated aspirations for specific outcomes?

These discoveries of digital tributaries should not likely lead to future directions that are institutionally disruptive, revolutionary or shocking. They can provide an occasion to consider options for a long-game that that avoids throwing faculty, staff or students into the deep end. I may have exhausted the metaphor…

* The workshop was supported by Dr. Christine Taylor, the Vice-President and Associate Provost for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at the University of Alabama.

People entering water on a beach


Nathan Loewen is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies and Faculty Technology Liaison for the College of Arts & Sciences