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What Are Digital Literacy Skills? And Why You Should Take Note

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what are digital literacy skills

Digital Literacy Skills are without a doubt some of the most important and in-demand skills of today. No matter what age or background, your knowledge of these skills will allow you to function and thrive in an increasingly digital world. So, What Are Digital Literacy Skills?

Digital Literacy Skills are the ability and know-how of digital skills in conjunction with critical thinking across the varied digital platforms and devices. Having digital literacy skills means possessing a combination of digital skills, competence, knowledge, practical ability, research, digital learning, understanding, evaluation, interpretation, creation, and communication. The area between Digital Skills and Digital Literacies is where Digital Literacy Skills lie.

But wait… you might be wondering how do Digital Literacy Skills differ from Digital Skills? You might also be thinking that the definition isn’t quite clear or that you’ve noticed differences in definitions across the internet. You see, the nature of Digital Literacy Skill with the changing landscape of technology and the inclusiveness of thinking skills means that there is no clear-cut answer. Digital Literacy Skills are more of an area of human engagement and knowledge of digital technologies, rather than a tangible skill you can put on a resume. Here is a more detailed explanation:

What Are Digital Literacy Skills?

Just like with traditional literacy, there is a difference between reading words and sounding them out as a young child would, and actually understanding what you’re reading, saying, and writing. Digital Literacy Skills transcend just Digital Skills in a similar way.

For example, a digital skill would be your ability to take your computer, open PowerPoint, create a new document, and insert heading text and images. Digital Literacy Skills, on the other hand, would be taking that basic digital skill and using your digital competence, knowledge, practical ability, research, digital learning, understanding, interpretation, creation, and communication to turn that same PowerPoint document into a fully-fledged presentation with facts, data, headings, body text, image, videos, styling. You’ve essentially used your “digital literacy skills” to create and communicate with your audience. It’s a more rounded approach to Digital devices and software.

Writer Paul Gilster is a renowned expert writer in this field of Digital Literacy. In his appropriately titled book, “Digital Literacy,” Paul states “Digital literacy is the ability to understand and use information in multiple formats from a wide range of sources when it is presented via computers.” (P. Gilster, Digital Literacy (New York, 1997), p.1-2)
*Of course, the definition has expanded since 1997 when the book was published and would now include a wider range of digital devices, rather than just computers.  

Digital Literacy Skills vs. Digital Skills

As with a lot of people, I too thought these skills were one and the same. However, with a bit of research, two things became evident:

1. Digital Literacy Skills incorporated more thinking skills.
2. There seemed to be a lot of confusion and contradiction as to which skills fall under what category.

With the increase in online and digital usage, and younger generations growing up with technology, digital literacy skills are becoming increasingly important in our everyday life. However, as I alluded to above, digital skills or digital usage don’t necessarily translate to digital literacy. Understanding and critical thinking are needed for digital literacy skills. While the areas between what we define as digital skills and digital literacy can overlap, we can make some sweeping distinctions between the two.

A prime example of this would be the various videos of monkeys using computers, touch screens, iPads, and even scrolling through Instagram. One could argue that they have learned a very basic digital skill by using a touch screen. However, what separates this from digital literacy skills are those core competencies and understanding of greater implications of digital devices than just reward-based training or physical ability.

Digital Literacy Skills List

person using macbook pro on table 4348403 1

Here are some examples of Digital Literacy Skills:

  • App Development
  • Data Analysis/Analytics Interpretation
  • Deck/Presentation Creation
  • Digital Communication
  • Digital Content Creation
  • Digital Copywriting
  • Information Evaluation
  • Photo-Visual Literacy
  • Search Engine Optimization
  • Social Media Content Management
  • Software Creation
  • UX/UI Development

*Notice that these skills are broad terms and define the results from digital engagement, rather than specific skills or software.

It’s important to note that there are some glaring differences between what we can consider digital skills and those of digital literacy skills. For example, when advertising for a job availability, a potential employer might advertise that candidates need specific skills i.e., Microsoft Word and Excel, Photoshop, or even coding skills in HTML, CSS, and Javascript languages. These can also be described as hard skills. Whereas some employers might advertise for content creation, data analytics skills, and UX/UI development. These skills are less tangible than just knowing how to use the software. They require a combination of hard and soft skills. In an increasingly digital world, together with competition and increasing demands in our jobs, one can argue that having digital skills have become expected of potential employees, and having digital literacy skills is even more important in creating value in the workplace.

Elements in Digital Literacies

In his thesis entitled “What is ‘digital literacy,” and in a 2012 TED talk, “The essential elements of digital literacies,” Dr. Doug Belshaw, a Researcher/Analyst at JISC Advance, argues that digital literacies are plural and they depend heavily on context. He argues that the way we should develop digital literacies is more “progressive than sequential.”

Basically what he is saying is rather than focus on one way and a specific order to teach, learn, and assess digital literacy, we should be able to build our digital literacy skills based on our interest and in no particular order across the various digital disciplines.

Dr. Belshaw suggests there are eight essential elements of digital literacies. Those being:

  1. Cultural
  2. Cognitive
  3. Constructive
  4. Communicative
  5. Confident
  6. Creative
  7. Critical
  8. Civic

The Gray Area Between Digital Skills And Elements of Digital Literacies

There is much uncertainty as people try to tackle the definition of these two terms. But perhaps that’s a result of trying to put it in a box for us to clearly understand. Digital Literacy Skills are built on a foundation of Digital Skills and critical thinking. You have to learn to read before you can understand the complexities and themes of Shakespeare.

Also, digital literacy skills are still just as young and rapidly changing as digital technology itself. Rather than think of digital skills and digital literacy skills as having a clear definition with a line down the middle and a clear divide, we can think of digital skills as an overlapping diagram.

On one side you have basic digital skills. This could be as simple as turning a phone on or learning to type in Microsoft Word.

On the other side, we have elements of digital literacy with critical thinking and soft skills when using digital devices. In the middle, we have a gray area or an overlap where both digital skills and digital literacies are needed:

Digital Skills vs Digital Literacy
Digital Skills vs Digital Literacy Skills Infographic

Another way to think of these skills is that Digital Skills are the WHAT and HOW. Digital Literacy Skills are the WHY.

Digital Literacy Skills In Social Media

Digital Literacy Skills incorporate critical thinking and etiquette when dealing with the online world. We are communicating and accessing information more and more through digital channels. With the recent lockdowns due to the coronavirus pandemic,  “The Philippines itself recorded the highest percentage (64 percent) of internet users (aged 16 to 64) who report spending more time on social media.”

10 Increases in Social Media by Country DataReportal 20200422 Digital 2020 April Global Statshot Report Slide 48
Increased Social Media Use By Country” From the “Digital 2020 April Global Statshot Report,” attributed to Hootsuite and We Are Social.

There have also been many reports of “fake news” and “fact-checking” measures in the news recently. As much as there are advantages of social media in terms of communication and online culture, there are also safety issues and risks that come with it. There are very real implications of not being able to distinguish fact from fiction online and it’s up to us to educate ourselves and future generations with online etiquette, now referred to as “netiquette.” It’s also up to us to arm ourselves and others with Digital Literacy Skills to be able to safely use the internet and our digital devices, as we continue to use them to make life better.

The Digital Skills vs Digital Literacy argument could be applied to social media usage. The ability to connect to the internet, download a social media app, create a profile, and start posting images and comments could be described as digital skills. The relative ease, connection, and entertainment of these platforms make it so popular. But digital literacy is understanding that all the information is user-generated content and making sure exercise one’s judgment when assessing information received through social media. If you’ve ever been embarrassed by a family member not using social media “correctly” and believing everything on their news feed, you’ll understand what I mean.

Paul Gilster was already talking about this very topic just as social media was about to be conceived. “It will take all the critical skills users can muster to separate truth from fiction.” (P. Gilster, Digital Literacy (New York, 1997), p.xii)

Your ability to take digital information and inject your own critical thinking is a digital literacy skill in itself. Otherwise, what’s to distinguish one piece of information about a subject from another? How do you use your digital literacy skills to sift through the information? How do you distinguish “fake news” from reputable, credible sources? How will children differentiate the information on social media from the truth? There are many implications and advantages to having Digital Literacy Skills.

One humorous example of Digital Literacy, or lack thereof, springs to mind. During a United States Senate hearing on April 10, 2018, the Senate’s Commerce and Judiciary committees were probing Facebook on their data privacy. (Now former) Senator Orrin Hatch asked Facebook Co-Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg “…how do you sustain a business model in which users don’t pay for your service.” To which Mr. Zuckerberg replied, “Senator, we run ads.” A simple Google search on Facebook’s business model or any media business model for that matter would procure an answer.


The foundation of Digital Literacy Skills have been laid out for us but have room to change and be built upon as new technology and context develops. Having these basic digital literacy skills will allow us to use our own judgment and competence to navigate the new world and continue to thrive. I’ll leave you with a poignant and very relatable quote from Paul Glister as we look back on our fast developing digital world and look forward to the digital changes:

“But if we can’t always keep up with the specifics of Internet change, the core competencies of digital literacy remain viable. Technologies shift, but if you remember that knowledge assembly, Internet searching, hypertextual navigation, and content evaluation are all methods rather than specific hardware or software products, you will be able to apply them to the Net of tomorrow.”

Paul Gilster, Digital Literacy (New York, 1997), p.230
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Laurence Mossman

Laurence Mossman

Hi, I'm Mossie! I have a keen fascination with digital skills and learning. So, I took this passion and created Build Digital Space to help others like me who also want to learn the basics or to be pointed in the right direction of building their own digital spaces.


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