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What are digital capabilities?

Being competent with technology goes beyond simply being able to use a computer to surf the web, and even doing that requires skill. So what are these “digital capabilities”? What can we pin down?

The UK charity Go ON UK described ‘basic digital skills’ as ‘the minimum skills required to safely use the internet and access the benefits it can provide’ including the ‘skills needed to benefit from a digital world’, skills that ‘allow you to shop, transact, and find the best deals online; communicate with family and friends; access digital public services; and search and apply for jobs’.

The European Parliament defines digital competence as:

“the confident and critical use of information society technology for work, leisure, learning and communication. It is underpinned by basic skills in ICT, i.e. the use of computers to retrieve, access, store, produce, present and exchange information, and to communicate and participate in collaborative networks via the internet”.

Definitions have progressively moved from a focus on functional computer use to an emphasis on more complex learning literacies, and a critical approach to the digital tools we use and the information and media we consume online. In her 2011 Institute for Prospective Technological Studies report, “Mapping Digital Competence”, Kirsti Ala-Mutka describes digital literacy as including “a continuum of skills ranging from basic, operational skills to higher order cognitive, social and attitudinal skills and abilities”. She goes on to define the following five concepts:

  1. ‘Computer literacy’ or ‘technology literacy’: the ability to use computers and related software;
  2. Internet (or network) literacy: skills needed to locate, select and evaluate information on the internet;
  3. Information literacy: skills needed to locate and evaluate information, store and retrieve information, make effective and ethical use of information and apply information to create and communicate knowledge;
  4. Media literacy: skills that enable people to analyse, evaluate, and create messages in a wide variety of media modes, genres, and formats; and
  5. Digital literacy: the most overarching concept, which includes many of the skills discussed in the concepts mentioned above.

As you can see, digital literacy is not clear-cut and easy to define, overlapping as it does with other learning literacy areas, and being very much dependent on a person’s own context and experience. It is about situated digital practices, how people use technology in different ways in different situations - for example, presenting yourself online, or knowing what you can do with the information you find - rather than tick box skills.

There are many different frameworks and models that attempt to map out the essential skills and behaviours included within this broad area. Go ON UK, now part of Doteveryone, worked with a broad range of organisations to create a framework of Basic Digital Skills, to help organisations and individuals in developing those skills. They outline 5 broad categories of activity:

  1. Managing information - finding, managing and storing digital information and content
  2. Communicating - interacting, collaborating, sharing and connecting with others
  3. Transacting - purchasing and selling goods and services; organising finances; registering for and using digital government services
  4. Problem-solving - increasing independence and confidence by solving problems using digital tools and finding solutions
  5. Creating - engaging with communities and creating basic digital content

Within each of these they list some specific capabilities - a set for individuals, a set for organisations, and some capabilities that have safety and security implications (for both individuals and organisations). They also have some assessment questions that people can use to self-diagnose their competence in these areas.

There are many other frameworks available and lots of guidance and recommendations for particular groups. If you are a student or you teach in a University you may be interested in the Open University’s Digital and Information Literacy Framework, which defines skills and then attempts to break them down into levels of progression from level 1 undergraduate courses through to Masters level courses. Another of interest for Further and Higher Education is the JISC Six Digital Elements framework. In addition to their skills framework they have example profiles for different roles, such as teacher, researcher, learner and leader.

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This article is from the free online course:

Becoming a Digital Citizen: an Introduction to the Digital Society

University of York