What Is Digital Literacy and Why Is It Important?
You might know how to send a text or publish a tweet, but that doesn’t mean you’re digitally literate.
Digital literacy is the ability to use technology to find, create and communicate information in an effective and safe way. It encompasses all the skills needed to successfully navigate an increasingly digital world.
- Younger generations, the digital natives, are gaining independent internet and device access at an average age of eight. (Microsoft)
- Most people have a connection to the digital world right in their pocket, with 97% of Americans owning a cell phone of some kind. (Pew Research)
- More than 27 million Americans rely on digital tools to work entirely from home. (US Census Bureau)
- Despite the proliferation of technology, nearly 33% of workers lack foundational digital skills. (National Skills Coalition)
“We cannot distance ourselves from technology and digital platforms,” said Lucie Chavez, CMO of Radaris, “We're surrounded by it, everything runs by it, and most jobs involve at least one interaction with technology.”
So, what is digital literacy exactly, why is it important, and what skills do you need to achieve it?
What Is Digital Literacy?
Digital literacy is not much different from traditional forms of literacy. According to David Farkas, founder and CEO of The Upper Ranks, while traditional literacy refers to our ability to comprehend, write, interpret and read, digital literacy is the application of those skills utilizing a digital medium.
We can break digital literacy down into four categories:
- Finding digital content: Knowing where to look for information online, how to formulate meaningful search queries and parse through results.
- Consuming digital content: Reading or viewing digital content, along with assessing its value and validity.
- Creating digital content: Navigating various digital channels to create content (emails, tweets, videos, podcasts, etc.) that adheres to agreed-upon rules and norms.
- Communicating and sharing digital content: Knowing when, where and how to share content that communicates ideas effectively while maintaining safety, privacy and reputation.
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Top 6 Digital Literacy Skills
In today's workplace, employees must use tech constantly. This means a fundamental understanding of all things digital is critical to succeed.
But many workers still lack essential skills. A 2019 report by Pew Research Center found only 40% of respondents provided the correct answer on a range of technology topics, including identifying what cookies were, where phishing scams can occur, the largest source of revenue for social media firms and more. The scores point to a need for skills training in broad digital literacy concepts.
Chavez recommend companies play a part here by providing learning opportunities to compensate for the lack of digital literacy. Some key skill areas employers can focus on include:
1. Critical Thinking
Critical thinking is all about analyzing and evaluating information and arguments. It involves looking for patterns and connections, and identifying meaningful, relevant and accurate information. Good critical thinkers can apply the information they read online to a real-world context.
This skill focuses on staying curious and asking lots of questions, such as:
- Who wrote this?
- When was it written?
- What are the sources?
- Who is sponsoring this information?
- What details are left out of the information?
- Where can I fact-check this information?
Asking these questions allows you to detect inaccurate or misleading information, spot biases and assess source reliability.
Digital tools and technology are changing rapidly, and companies must keep up with changes to remain agile and competitive. Chavez said leaders should encourage employees to experiment with new solutions and provide feedback on how tools can be improved or replaced.
In return, employees must be willing to keep an open mind and adapt to innovations. "They should take the initiative to find out what’s new in digital technology and how it could benefit their workflows," she said. "Employees need to stay informed about upcoming trends so they can be prepared for any changes.”
Organizations should also foster an environment of collaboration and open dialogue, where employees feel comfortable voicing opinions and concerns. “Setting up regular meetings where employees can brainstorm ideas on how to improve current processes is also a great way to encourage innovation,” Chavez said.
3. Information Finding
People have massive amounts of information at their fingertips. But knowing where to find relevant, valuable and trustworthy information requires digital literacy.
Digitally literate people know the best places to search for information, how to construct meaningful search parameters and how to narrow down results. They know which websites and publications are trustworthy (or how to find out).
This skill also helps employees troubleshoot tech in the workplace. If an application isn’t opening or hardware malfunctions, they’ll know exactly where and how to find a solution.
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4. Online Safety & Privacy
The internet, as wonderful as it can be, comes with risks.
In 2021, the Federal Bureau of Investigation received nearly 850,000 complaints of online crimes — identity theft, monetary theft, personal data breaches, phishing schemes, ransomware attacks and more.
Navigating these risks is a significant part of digital literacy. A digitally literate person knows how to identify potential risks while browsing or sharing online. They know what type of information they can share — and what channels to use — regarding privacy, safety and reputation.
In the workplace, an employee with enough knowledge to identify simple phishing attacks — like an unusual email containing a link — can save companies a lot of money. In 2021, phishing attacks alone cost large organizations $15 million — more than $1,500 per employee.
5. Communication and Collaboration
Technology also plays a critical role in communication and collaboration, Farkas said. “That’s why having expertise in utilizing even simple gadgets such as phones and laptops is relevant, as it enhances employee collaboration,” he said.
Think of all the tools workers use to communicate with colleagues and leadership: instant message, email, phone call, video chat. They use words, emojis, graphics, voice clips, hyperlinks and more.
Digital experts know how to communicate effectively within the constraints they’re given. They think about:
- Behavior: Are they acting and communicating appropriately? How does their communication reflect on them?
- Language: Are they using the right words and phrasing? Staying away from inappropriate words for the setting?
- Perception: Will the message come across clearly despite lack of body or vocal cues?
- Timing: Has enough or too much time passed? Will the communication interrupt someone’s work or sleep?
- Copyright: What content is legally okay to share? Do they cite the source from where they pulled the information?
6. Practical Skills
Practical digital skills refer to the basics of operating and maintaining digital devices and software. These skills include knowing:
- How to start up a device
- How to change device settings
- Where to find applications
- How to use common software
- How to troubleshoot problems
- How to change privacy settings
- How to set up antivirus and ad-blocking tools
Digital adoption platforms (DAPs) are one way companies can help promote practical digital skills. The platforms sit on top of a specific workplace tool or application and effectively guide employees through the proper use of the tool. Providing guidance within the context of the work being done integrates such learning within the scope of work, rather than siloing it as a separate activity.
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Digital Literacy, a Growing Necessity Among Workers
Companies need digitally literate employees to get the most out of their adopted technology. The best way to get these skilled employees is to offer them opportunities to learn and grow.
“It may be challenging since some employees tend to be afraid of trying new things,” said Farkas. “But be consistent and show that change is inevitable.”
He recommends leadership set a good example and stay away from criticism. “It can make learning uncomfortable,” he said.
About the Author
Michelle Hawley is a Pennsylvania-based senior editor and writer for CMSWire and Reworked. She's worked in digital marketing and journalism for 7+ years and holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Wilkes University. In her free time, she likes to write fiction, play piano and hang out with her dog, Porky.