Digital literacy in education

Andrea Karpati
Publication Year:
  • SDG 9 - Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure




Information and communication technologies (ICTs) have penetrated all areas of contemporary life. In this context, digital literacy has become much more than the ability to handle computers – just like traditional literacy and numeracy, it comprises a set of basic skills which include the use and production of digital media, information processing and retrieval, participation in social networks for creation and sharing of knowledge, and a wide range of professional computing skills. Digital literacy improves employability because it is a gate skill, demanded by many employers when they first evaluate a job application. It also works as a catalyst because it enables the acquisition of other important life skills. The origin of the word literacy refers to the ability to read and write. Early descriptions of computer-related literacies also focus on the acquisition of sets of rules and technical capabilities. However, by the end of the 20th century, this definition had expanded considerably. According to the working definition, agreed at the UNESCO June 2003 Expert Meeting in Paris, “literacy is the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate, compute and use printed and written materials associated with varying contexts. Literacy involves a continuum of learning in enabling individuals to achieve their goals, to develop their knowledge and potential, and to participate fully in their community and wider society.” (UNESCO, 2004).

Components of Digital Literacy

Digital literacy is an umbrella concept for important skill clusters whose names are often used as synonyms; their content, however, is not exactly the same. ICT literacy refers to a set of user skills that enable active participation in a society where services and cultural offerings are computer-supported and distributed on the internet. Technological literacy (previously called computer literacy) entails a deeper understanding of digital technology and comprises both user and technical computing skills. Information literacy focuses on one of the key aspects of our Knowledge Society: the ability to locate, identify, retrieve, process and use digital information optimally.1 In this paper, we will employ the term digital literacy because it retains a close connection with other basic literacies (e.g. reading and writing, mathematical competence) that are integral parts of education.2 UNESCO’s Information for All Programme3 (IFAP) recognizes the considerable effort being invested by many international organizations in “measuring the information society”, defining digital literacy as a life skill. UNESCO identifies indicators for the development of knowledge societies and integrates them with more established milestone systems for other important skill areas. In May 2007, the Education Council adopted conclusions on a coherent framework of 16 core indicators for monitoring progress towards the Lisbon objectives in education and training. There are many of them with direct relevance to digital literacy – ICT skills, civic skills, learning to learn skills, participation of adults in lifelong learning. High values in these targeted areas certainly require the development of digital competence. Other indicators also may involve ICT skills. For example, cross-national mobility of students in higher education is made possible through blended learning courses that involve travelling students staying in touch with the learning process of their peers at home. Professional development of teachers and trainers, another key indicator, is mostly achieved through blended or e-learning courses in which new methodological skills are acquired and then applied in the workplace. These examples illustrate the importance of digital literacy for the achievement of Information Society goals. Digital literacy is a life skill because it targets all areas of contemporary existence. In seven out of the sixteen literacy indicators, digital literacy plays a central role. In the last century, the shift from the manufacture of goods to the provision of services has resulted in an economy based on information and knowledge. Computers substitute for workers who perform routine physical and cognitive tasks, but they complement workers who perform non‐routine problem solving tasks. Modern organizations and companies have been facing a restructuring of work, which means flatter organizational structures, decentralized decision making, widely shared information, flexible work arrangements and collaboration in project teams. Companies applying these changes in organizational structures and business practices require new skills, as wells as an increased role of ICT in the work place for communication, information sharing, and simulation of business processes. Routine cognitive and manual tasks in the economy decline, and non‐routine analytic and interactive tasks rise. Resulting new hiring practices demand workers with the ability to respond flexibly to complex problems, communicate effectively, manage information, work in teams, use technology, and produce new knowledge. These capabilities are rarely taught in schools or measured on typical assessments.1 The challenge school systems face today is to embed digital literacy in all levels of the educational system as well as in the professional development of teachers and trainers. This paper focuses on public education, and intends to provide an overview that policy makers of developing countries may use when planning for the development of integration ICTs in the curricula, communication, and management of their schools.


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