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What are digital competencies and why do today's learners need them?

April 30, 2021

Workforce skills, equipment and knowledge have always changed over time, being regularly replaced and renewed when the industry calls for it. A farmer in the early 19th century, for example, would have been very surprised by the technology available 100 years later. Similarly, an office worker’s experience in the 1960s is a world apart from someone doing a similar job around the turn of the millennium. 

Now, in the age of the 4th industrial revolution, which primarily marks the implementation of smart technologies, these changes are happening faster than ever (source). In some cases, new industries have developed entirely; an obvious example is the software industry. But even in sectors that have existed for centuries, including industries as diverse as farming and finance, technology is now widely used to streamline processes and better adapt to an increasingly interconnected world. In this context, today’s graduates not only need to have a sound understanding of their subject area but also how to apply this knowledge in digital contexts. 

What are digital competencies?

In a world that’s more digital than ever, a good understanding of technology is obviously key. A report from the European Commission showed that 93% of European workplaces across all sectors use computers and 94% use broadband internet (source). This means that almost every job requires basic digital skills such as being able to use the internet to find information, communicate with colleagues and customers, buy goods and services and so on (source). Some industries and roles also require specialist skills such as web analytics, user experience design and digital marketing (source): these are areas that didn’t exist before the advent of the internet and provide new career paths for today’s workforce.

However, the importance of digital skills for students goes beyond just understanding how to use various software and hardware. After all, it’s likely that they’ll be obsolete in 5 years or even less. Arguably even more important are attitudes that allow workers to embrace digital technology and associated changes throughout their careers, such as creativity, collaboration and flexibility (source). To put this into more concrete terms, Deloitte identifies some of the most important skills for the future workforce as active listening, critical thinking and time management, to name just a few (source). 

How can today’s learners develop their digital skills?

It can be tempting to think that many millennial and gen-z students already understand digital tools and possess the necessary attitudes to be successful in today’s workforce. While this may be the case for some, we should remember that not every student has the same digital access opportunities and that others may be very used to technology for entertainment, but less knowledgeable about workforce competencies. Regardless of comfort level, students benefit from being able to practise and develop their skills in a range of contexts.

Institutions can support students in developing and refining digital competencies in several ways. Attitudes such as creativity, collaboration and flexibility can be supported through group work, projects, interviews and presentations (source). These activities give students an opportunity to participate in scenarios similar to those that they’ll encounter in the workplace. When it comes to technical skills, many institutions make use of virtual learning environments which allow students to access learning materials and activities online as well as submitting coursework or research assignments. Since the pandemic, the vast majority of students worldwide have also attended at least one online lecture or seminar using video conferencing tools. All of these activities develop day-to-day digital skills such as research, communication and collaboration. 

How do we bridge the digital divide?

Yet, sitting between increasingly digital courses and increasingly digital workplaces is one area that has been somewhat less digitised: assessment. Given that students do much of their learning online and will do much of their future work online, does it not make sense that they would be assessed online too? Doing so allows students to show off their skills in an environment that they’re familiar with and to demonstrate their digital competence, which is so important for the modern workplace. 

To find out more about online assessment and its importance in education today, visit our page about the benefits of online assessment.

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