Aisha Walker

Thinking onscreen

Digital literacy or digital competence?

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The terms ‘digital literacy’ or ‘digital literacies’ have been in use for some time now to refer to the skills required for using digital tools. Although in common parlance people often say “I’m not computer-literate” to claim that they don’t know how to use computers or other digital technologies, “digital literacy/ies” refers to a wider set of skills or knowledge. For example, Hague and Payton (2010) define digital literacy as the ability to make, represent and share meaning in different modes and formats; to create, collaborate and communicate effectively and to understand how and when digital technologies can best be used to support these processes” (p5). The importance of these skills and knowledge is unarguable but if ‘advanced skills’ replaced the words ‘digital literacy’ then the definition would still make sense. This is because “the ability to make, represent and share meaning in different modes and formats” and “to create, collaborate and communicate effectively” are the skills now expected of an educated person and specific to neither literacy nor digital contexts.

Another definition, from JISC (2014), is “the capabilities which fit someone for living, learning and working in a digital society”.  JISC presents a model with seven components including ‘media literacy’; ‘information literacy’; ‘communications and collaboration’; ‘ICT literacy’ and ‘digital scholarship’. Scholarship, information literacy, collaboration and communication are undoubtedly important academic skills but they are not practiced in exclusively digital contexts or only with digital tools.

To take one example, delivering a good presentation requires the ability to organise ideas and to develop an argument. In addition, an effective presenter needs to be able to speak with confidence and in a way that engages an audience. However, when giving a presentation it is not essential to use digital tools and it is possible to be an excellent presenter with no knowledge of how to use presentation software. It is also possible to be very skilled at creating PowerPoint slides or Prezis without being able to develop an argument or to address an audience. Therefore there are three distinct sets of skills and knowledge in giving a digitally-supported presentation: a) developing the argument and content; b) creating support material and c) performing to the audience. Although we have a general expectation that we all now do our own typing etc., these three facets of a presentation could be carried out by different people. Indeed, for greatest impact it might be better to have each task performed by a specialist.

The task of ‘creating/developing content and argument’ is a cognitive process that requires domain knowledge and clear thinking rather than understanding of how to use digital technology. It also includes finding and incorporating information and it is true that this often involves digital tools (web or library catalogue searches for example) and digital sources (websites, electronic journals, e-books). Being able to conduct an electronic search is a digital skill as is being able to use reference management software such as EndNote or Menderley. However, evaluating information; knowing how and when to paraphrase or quote; synthesizing diverse sources into an argument and knowing how to use/create citations and references are not digital skills; these are academic skills which may be used in digital or non-digital working contexts. The term ‘information literacy’ is sometimes used to refer to the skills required for evaluating information, whether digital or non-digital.

The problem with the broad concept of ‘digital literacy/ies’ is that it confuses non-digital skills and processes that might make use of digital tools, with the skills required to use the tools. I became aware of this confusion when working on a project to explore non-construct-relevant unintended sources of difficulty in proposed tests of ICT in UK secondary schools (Threlfall et al 2007). It seemed that one of the problems with the proposed tests was lack of a clear construct to measure: what it means to be ‘good’ at ICT. The curriculum, and hence the testing, confused procedural knowledge and skills with broader aspects of literacy and communication. Following this, Walker (2007) proposed a model of ‘ICT competence’ based on Canale and Swain’s (1980) model of communicative competence. In Walker and White (2013) this model was slightly revised and renamed ‘digital competence’.

Model of digital competence from Walker and White (2013)


The model contains four components.

  1. Procedural competence: this might be termed the ability to ‘press the correct buttons’. It is the knowledge/skills needed to use a specific piece of hardware/software but does not imply skill or talent with regard to content. For example, a user may know how to use all of the functions of an image manipulation program without having ‘an eye’ for the creation of an artistic picture.
  2. Socio-digital competence: being able to choose and use the appropriate tools and language in a given social context. Professor Dorothy Bishop provides a good example of lack of socio-digital competence in her blog post about communicating with her mobile phone company. The customer service centre asked Professor Bishop to tweet her name and account details in order to resolve a problem even though Twitter is clearly not an appropriate tool for this task.
  3. Digital discourse competence: the ability to carry out extended tasks using digital tools. For example, a student essay involves research, planning, writing and submission and each of these sub-tasks requires different tools. A writer with a high level of digital discourse competence will be able to choose tools appropriate to each task and integrate them in ways that make the entire process as smooth as possible. Extended tasks also require linguistic discourse competence, of course, and in some cases may involve switching between codes or languages.
  4. Strategic competence: as in Canale and Swain’s model, this is the ability to tackle problems, repair mistakes and compensate for gaps in knowledge.

In practice, digital competence must co-exist with communicative competence; traditional literacy; language and domain knowledge. In some cases, the digital competence is the least important aspect because if domain knowledge and language skills are not present then digital skills cannot compensate. Digital competence, can therefore, also be domain-specific and it cannot be assumed that “the ability to make, represent and share meaning in different modes and formats; to create, collaborate and communicate effectively” in one domain (or language) will necessarily translate to any other.


Canale, M. and M. Swain. 1980. ‘Theoretical Bases of Communicative Approaches to Second Language Teaching and Testing’. Applied Linguistics 1/1: 1–47.

Hague, C. and S. Payton (2010). ‘Digital literacy across the Curriculum‘. Slough, Futurelab. accessed 12th March 2015

JISC (2014) Developing students’ digital literacy
accessed 12th March 2015

Threlfall, J.,N. Nelson,, and A. Walker. 2007. Report to QCA on an investigation of the construct relevance of sources of difficulty in the Key Stage 3 ICT tests. London: Qualifications and Curriculum Agency

Walker, S. A. 2007. ‘What Does it Mean to Be Good at ICT?’ School of Education Research Conference, University of Leeds 14th May 2007. Available online from British Education Index <> accessed 12th March 2015.

Walker, A. and White, G. Technology Enhanced Language Learning: connecting theory and practice Oxford: Oxford University Press


Ferrari (2012) presents another model of digital competence which included ‘information management’; ‘collaboration’; ‘communication and sharing’; ‘creation of content and knowledge’; ‘ethics and responsibility’; ‘evaluation and problem-solving’ and ‘technical operations’. (Ferrari, A. Digital Competence in Practice: an analysis of frameworks JRC Technical Reports, Luxembourg, European Commission accessed 12th March 2015).

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  1. Pingback: Aisha Walker · Digital literacy or competence: why does it matter?

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