So this post has taken a bit of time to construct and publish, but on the morning of 11th March I opened twitter for a quick peak at what people were talking about and if there was anything of interest or new to follow. Enter a debate on digital skills #festudentdebate and my initial question below.

— Michael Johnston (@mjjohnston1981) March 11, 2019

The response intrigued me. How do I define digital skills? It’s such a simple question that really does open said ‘can of worms’. In this post, I want to explore the question and hopefully come up with an answer.


So what are digital skills?

It’s a very simple question to ask, but it turns out the answer is not simple.

By that I mean, straightforward. Academic research does not have one agreed definition, but rather it identifies a set of skills as the definition. SkillSoft (a business perspective) identify three statements that need to be declared before any discussion of digital skills:

  1. A short, sharp definition of digital skills is not sufficient;
  2. Digital skills go beyond the technology itself;
  3. Any guide should be used as a shopping list to build your own definition as to what fits your environment.

And Microsoft, in their Innovative Education programme  give us a third perspective!

So let’s begin…

21st Century Digital Skills

Below are the digital skills outlined by Van Laar et al (2018) in their research paper entitled ’21st-century digital skills instrument aimed at working professionals: Conceptual development and empirical validation.’

The list is comprehensive and aims to give as full a picture as possible of what these skills refer to and a discussion of what these skills may look like for a student will follow the list.


This definition involves the digital skill of being able to use devices (including mobile devices) and applications to complete practical tasks and recognise specific online environments to navigate and maintain orientation. Key components within this skill involves knowledge of ICT and its characteristics as well as the usage of ICT. This includes basic operation and access of resources for everyday use.

Information Management

Information management includes the digital skill of being able to use ICT to efficiently search, select, organise information to make informed decisions about the most suitable sources of
information for a given task.

Through this, a skills competence will allow:

  • the use of ICT to formulate a response to a problem;
  • be able to access ICT to find and retrieve information from a number of relevant online sources;
  • be able to manage the use of ICT so to organise information to make it easier to access at a later date.
  • evaluate the use of ICT in judging the usefulness and sufficiency of information as relevant to a particular task.


This involves the digital skill to be able to use ICT to provide information to others, while ensuring that meaning is expressed effectively and succinctly. With regards to transmitting information, the use of ICT will include the ability to communicate information and ideas effectively to multiple audiences using a variety of media and online formats.


The digital skill here involves the ability to use ICT to develop a social network and work in a team to exchange information, negotiate agreements, and make decisions with mutual respect for each other towards achieving a common goal.


This includes the digital skill to be able to use ICT to generate new or previously unknown ideas, or treat familiar ideas in a new way and transform such ideas into a product, service or process that is recognised as novel within a particular domain.

Critical Thinking

This includes the digital skill to be able to use ICT to make informed judgements and choices about obtained information and communication using reflective reasoning and sufficient evidence to support the claims.

Competence in this area will involve the following:

– Clarification: using ICT to ask and answer questions of clarification related to the problem or task.
– Assessment: using ICT to judge the suitability and reliability of a source for a given problem.
– Justification: using ICT to invoke arguments for claims based upon their consistency with other knowledge claims (e.g. personal, memory, testimony, coherence, rationality, replication).
– Linking ideas: using ICT to connect facts, ideas and notions.
– Novelty: using ICT to suggest new ideas for discussion.

Problem Solving

The digital skill involved here include the use of ICT to process and understand a problem in context,  while combining the active use of knowledge to find a solution to a problem.

Ethical Awareness

This involves possessing digital skills to be able to behave in a socially responsible way, that demonstrates awareness and knowledge of legal and ethical aspects when using ICT.

More specifically, it will include:

  • Responsible use: be able to make decisions about the legal, ethical and cultural limits of personally and socially responsible use of ICT, by understanding
    potential risks that exist on the Internet when using ICT.
  • Social impact: understand, analyse and evaluate the impact of ICT in social, economic and cultural contexts when using ICT.

Cultural Awareness

The skills to show cultural understanding and respect other cultures when using ICT.
Key components (e.g. Yang, Huiju, Cen, & Huang, 2014; Young, 2015):
– Cross-cultural communication: attitudes towards online communication and collaboration experiences with people from different
cultures when using ICT.


The digital skills here involve the ability to adapt  individual thinking, attitude or behaviour in a changing ICT environment.


The digital skills here involve the ability to set goals for yourself and manage progression toward reaching those goals in order to assess your own progress when using ICT.
This will specifically include:
– Goal setting: upskilling and specific subject learning or time-sensitive goals when using ICT.
– Control: displaying a willingness to take control of their own learning when using ICT.
– Initiative: proactively take steps toward decisions and/or actions when using ICT.
– Monitor progress: assess whether previously-set goals have been met when using ICT.

Lifelong Learning

The digital skills involved here will show the ability to constantly explore new opportunities when using ICT that can be integrated into an environment to continually improve one’s capabilities.

OK...So Now What?

This should give you something interesting to work with in your classroom / workplace from that list alone. I found it interesting that of the twelve items, only two (maybe three depending on how you want to define it) are directly concerned with digital skills as they relate to using technology.

We can then split our attentions – if we can display these skills and attributes offline, then it should be quite simple to transfer them online. In one way or another they all work well on both mediums. Digital skills are not just skills that imply greater ICT competence, but rather the ability to move fluidly between media and create solutions to problems being faced. Be it by the client, in business, in education or individually. The ability to create or provide a solution are the skills that students are being asked to have.

SkillSoft - White paper

SkillSoft put forward twenty (!) statements to answer the question: “What are digital skills?” Twenty is a lot, and I don’t think it helps to present these skills as a shopping list. I’m happy to admit that it might just be me, and partially due to the fact that I’m an educator, not a business leader. We may view this differently and that’s OK.

I understand that from an employment perspective, employers want employees to have certain skills and so this does have a ‘shopping list’ feel to it, but let’s not be blatant about it, or consumerist. We are not talking about cogs in a wheel either. Yes people are hired to do a job and yes, that jobs fits within an organisational structure. We are talking about skills that people have and so we (teachers) should look to prepare our students for the workplace so that they can thrive, having the skills that are needed in today’s marketplace.

  1. Fluency in putting information digitally on a range of devices and software packages.
  2. Manipulating data into less cognitively-taxing and more understandable forms.
  3. Confidence moving between devices and using them equally.
  4. Reproducing and manipulating different types of digital information.
  5. Research, analysis and search skills.
  6. Understanding how information can be effectively and ethically used and manipulated.
  7. Confident and competent transacting via digital channels while being aware of the limitations.
  8. Effectively using and managing digital troubleshooting mediums.
  9. Setting up, modifying and personalising digital devices and software.
  10. Positive, sceptical and safe use of digital channels, devices and information.
  11. An awareness of how human beings consume content in digital mediums.
  12. Fluency in participating in social channels.
  13. Being able to manage virtual interpersonal relationships.
  14. An understanding of what digital collaboration looks like.
  15. An open mind to future digital developments.
  16. An awareness of digital trends in your (and related) domains.
  17. Comfortable with combining experiential and formal learning for new technologies.
  18. How to be data-driven (and the limitations of being data-driven.
  19. How automation can help and hinder operational excellence.
  20. Know-how and experience in stopping technology from controlling you.

Let’s just say it again. Twenty points is a lot. But when we move past this and examine each point, there are positives along with the negatives for this list of digital skills.

Addressing the negatives first, SkillSoft are guilty of employing some woolly language. As an educator, how do I assess a student to show they have awareness (#11 & 16), an open mind )(#15), or can manage relationships (#13)?

Put simply, the problem here is language. By using these words which are less than clear, it makes competence harder to measure. How do I measure that a student has an awareness of digital trends? I can assess if a student is able to  critically evaluate the usefulness of current digital trends in a given scenario and what may digitally trend in the near future, but I cannot assess an awareness of these things. The language is not helpful to achieve a meaningful measurement this digital skill.

The second problem is understanding of assessment. What measurable metrics do we place on these skills and how can they be assessed? Also, the terms used can be interpreted differently by the assessor. To take #11 as an example, I might enforce a higher standard of “awareness of how human beings consume content in digital mediums” than another assessor, but this creates a contradictory (and unfair) level of assessment for the student. What is accepted by one is rejected by another.

Thirdly, look at #5. It is obviously referring to search skills. But again, what does this look like? Is it the basic ability to use a search engine? Does it require searching skills around a particular topic or general areas? What level of research is needed – university undergraduate, post-graduate or PhD level? What is the expected output of this research? What is going to happen to this research? The ability to research, as well as present that research in a meaningful and easy to understand format is a skill that can be measured by the recipient of this research. Blindly stating that an employee/ a student should have these skills, without further context is not precise enough to be helpful or provide guidance as to what the company/employer is looking for.

The skill of being able to perform research is important for most simple daily tasks. For business leaders wanting to assess a potential new business venture, expansion or forecasting a high level of research is needed. For teachers researching a new topic to prepare for teaching, a higher still level of research is needed. For academic post-graduate or PhD level study, I would place this as the highest level for research skills. But which is being asked for? The employer has to be fair in this instance – what level is required? Does the salary reflect this? We can’t advertise for PhD level research skills but pay for a junior graduate role.

Microsoft Innovative Education

The Microsoft Innovative Educator platform has a course dedicated to 21st Century Learning Design in which it deals with digital skills within the classroom. It’s well worth checking out – there are free curriculum notes that can be downloaded to OneNote and the course itself doesn’t take to long. You can access it here.

The course talks about six major concepts, under which, the above list would fit under at some point within the course.

The six major themes are:

  1. Collaboration
  2. Skilled Communication
  3. Knowledge Construction
  4. Sel-Regulation
  5. Real-World Problem Solving
  6. Use of ICT for Learning

They do have a seventh, but this is about embedding 21CLD in practice and so is more focused to the teacher/lecturer and how they can put these ideas into practice.


We live in a globally-connected world but does that mean we can collaborate effectively? In our classroom activities do our young people have opportunities to collaborate with each other on learning tasks? What does it mean to collaborate? What form does it take? What skills do we need to be able to engage in effective collaboration? The Microsoft model defines the digital skill of collaboration as a hands on experience in which the skill is developed through doing, or actively engaging in the act of collaboration as the means to understand how to collaborate.

Students can ‘connect’ with people through social media but are they ‘collaborating’ to build a shared understanding; make their voices heard and effect change in their world? For many students, their social interaction is ‘reacting’ to or ‘sharing’ media rather than collaborating with peers or a wider network to create something unique.

Skilled Communication

In our connected society the internet provides us with numerous ways to connect and communicate with people all over the world.  The internet and the advent of mobile phones has revolutionised how people, of all ages, can communicate.

The explosion in the development of new technologies and associated tools is constantly creating new opportunities for us to communicate with people all over the world, without ever leaving our home or our school.  These technologies certainly have enormous potential to support skilled communication as a digital skill but they are also placing new demands on teachers to prepare young people to use the tools appropriately and maturely.

Unfortunately, all too often, these powerful tools are used to engage in low level “chatter”, where people send single texts, tweets or messages on unrelated topics.  Conversely, students could use these tools for far-reaching communication to engage in deeper conversations with other students about international issues, such as global warming or warfare, and suggest new, meaningful ways that these could be approached or solved.

What’s more, students do not have to be limited by this communication to written words pictures, audio files or video can be utilised when discussing issues with an extended community. Such multi-modal communication gives them the freedom to find a medium that best suits them to communicate their message.  

Knowledge Construction

Most of our education systems were designed during the Industrial Revolution and they placed a major emphasis on the teacher sharing information with their students in class.  This model of education generally views knowledge as something that is fixed and transmissible, placing a high value on students sitting passively absorbing information and later recalling it either orally or in written form. Thankfully, this model of instruction is changing. But is it changing fast enough?

And in today’s globally-connected society, is this model of education sufficient?

We live in a world that is constantly changing at an ever-increasing pace. In fact, we are drowning in a sea of information. For example, every minute:

  • Facebook users share nearly 2.5 million pieces of content. 
  • Twitter users tweet nearly 300,000 times.
  • Instagram users post nearly 220,000 new photos.
  • Email users send over 200 million messages. 

We need to ask the question: is knowledge something static or is it dynamic and constantly evolving?

We also need to be able to effectively make use of this vast volume of information in order to construct knowledge.

To be able to navigate this volume of data, we need to prepare our students to have more than just the skill of retaining or regurgitating information that others have developed.  There is a need for schools to design learning opportunities to move beyond repetition and students with the digital skills to arrange, order and make sense of this data. To turn it into information. To make it meaningful.


The industrial model of education was characterised by instilling discipline and obedience in learning to prepare the student to perform a relatively easy task over and over again.  Students became young people who became ‘cogs’ in the wheel where discipline and reliability were at the core.  Within such systems of education students were assessed to determine what they ‘lacked’ and then they were typically ‘drilled and skilled’ to fill the gaps.

Society had deemed that the content an educated person should learn was assumed to be universal, all learners received the same curriculum, the ‘one size fits all model’, with all expected to achieve the same understanding.  There was no allowance for individual difference in this model, either in in terms of ability or in terms of how relevant the content was to the learner.  The content or knowledge was contained in the textbook and students were expected to learn it, receive it and reproduce it’ when tested.  This paradigm placed enormous pressure on the teacher and often meant that the student was inactive and a passive recipient of information.

In today’s economy such a model is no longer fit for purpose.  Today there is a requirement on people in employment to manage themselves and engage in multidisciplinary projects with colleagues.  It is no longer enough to just obediently follow instructions and operate as a well behaved ‘cog’ in a wheel.  There is a need for the majority of employees to work in teams and to engage in complex problem solving where they are required to take initiative and be proactive.  In these work settings there is minimal supervision, so there is an emphasis on employees to plan their work, design products and solutions, accept feedback and then engage in a process of continual self-improvement.

Real-World Problem Solving

Whether it involves finding a cure for Ebola, cancer or Alzheimer’s, to addressing global climate change, or to simply ensure that we have sufficient water, food and energy for the planet, we face ever-more complex and challenging problems than ever before. Solutions to these problems are not found in textbooks or multiple choice tests. Instead, society requires problem-solvers who can tackle these ‘hard problems’ in creative and innovative ways and who can do so as part of a multidisciplinary team.

Similarly, the 21st century has already brought unimaginable changes to the world of employment. In our global, knowledge-based economy, the need for knowledge-workers to create new products and services that solve real-world problems to meet the needs of customers, is a major driving force for economic growth and employment in the 21st century. In our global, knowledge-based economy, employers are actively seeking employees who are adept at generating and testing creative ideas in order to solve complex problems. According to employers, the most important skills in new recruits include, attitude, aptitude and ambition.

The world now has a truly global financial and economic ecosystem. But since our interlinked economies depend on both natural and human resources from around the globe, we must continually find new ways to preserve our natural world while building more harmonious, culturally rich, and creative societies.

Use of ICT for Learning

We live in a connected world with unprecedented access to a vast array of digital information and experiences. The use of digital technology continues to transform how we work, live, rest and play. On-going adoption of new advances in technology has become more essential to living and working in the 21st century. In today’s globalised, knowledge-based economies, individuals increasingly need skills not only to intelligently consume information and ideas, but also to design and create new information and ideas using digital technologies. Using a broad palette of digital technologies we can engage with ideas in new and innovative ways that were not possible before now.

Furthermore, by using these digital technologies, we can connect with and build relationships with a wider network of people.  This enables us to understand our world in a deeper way through engaging with a multitude of perspectives.  Because it is only by engaging with and being challenged by others that we begin to truly understand ourselves and the world we live in.

Given the extensive use young people make of digital technologies in their world outside of the classroom, as planners and educators, we need to ensure that they can understand and use these technologies in new and more powerful ways to learn and make sense of the world they live in. While digital technologies are becoming increasingly common in classrooms and learning environments, they are often used to present or consume information rather than to transform learning experiences. What we need to do is design learning experiences so that young people develop the skills not only to evaluate and analysis information and ideas, but also to design and create new information and ideas using a wide range of digital technologies.

General thoughts

Having considered three examples of digital skills, we can see that there are similarities. There is a general consensus of what constitutes digital skills, but not one overarching definition. This can be a good thing because it means that our understanding of digital skills can grow with the technology. What constituted digital sills for me leaving university in 2005, will and should be vastly different to a graduate in 2019.

The SkillSoft model is – in my opinion – the least helpful. The definitions are vague and perhaps the easiest to implement becuase there is no real measurable aspect to the definition. By teaching a curriculum that taught these skills – regardless of student learning or outcome – I could say honestly that students will have an “awareness  of how human beings consume content in digital mediums” (#11). For this statemetn to be true, the student would merely have to be in the room listening. This does not make any meaningful statement as to competence or demonstrating understadning.

The Microsoft model is useful, but in its form as I have recounted the points here – more work needs to be undertaken to determine what each step will look like. So the Microsfot model might be the right choice, if you want guidance on what to include, but create your own unique content for your educational setting.

Van Laar’s model is by far the most comprehensive and helpful. This model lays out what each point is and what the applied definition will look like.

Whichever definition of digital skills you choose to adopt, the main points for consideration are that the definition is comprehensive, measurable and with sufficient clarity to be able to implement with certainty. You may choose to mix and match – taking a ‘Frankenstein approach’ by collating your own model, taking ideas from various, reliable sources to create a unique definition to digital skills.


  • Microsoft, 2016, 21st Century Learning Design, OneNote Course Notes, Microsoft Innovative Educator Programme, delivered 09/12/2016
  • SkillSoft (2019), What are Digital Skills? A Comprehensive Definition, [last accessed 24/03/2019)
  • van Laar, E., van Deursen, A. J. A. M., van Dijk, J. A. G. M., & de Haan, J. (2018). 21st-century digital skills instrument aimed at working professionals: Conceptual development and empirical validation. Telematics and Informatics, 35(8), 2184–2200.
Michael Johnston

About Michael Johnston

I'm a Lecturer in Computing and the Foundation Degree Director in Computing for the Northern Regional College in Northern Ireland. My research interests in the areas of technology enhanced learning, how we interact with technology, blended learning and professional development. Michael currently specialises in the computing areas of web development technologies, cyber security, software development and IoT. Michael has worked in a range of different roles in IT-from teaching roles to running his own web design company, Michael is equally at home working with theory, as he is conducting research, or building a bespoke IT solution. Michael is currently studying a PhD in Cyberpsychology.

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