What are the five skills of digital literacy?

Breaking down the ins and outs of digital literacy and the essential skills it encompasses

Instructor works with students on digital literacy skills in the classroom.
Teacher helping children individually with coding exercises at their desks. In this computer literacy class, he provides individual attention to the students, fostering a positive learning environment for the young minds.
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Today, digital literacy skills are at the core of an individual’s ability to pursue their goals—both personal and professional.

This is perhaps clearest in education, where young people in rural areas and underdeveloped countries experience access barriers to digital technology that can hinder goal achievement and productive adult living.

Consider Chantal Niyonkuru, a Rwandan student who recently completed a UN-led program to teach girls coding skills. Before starting the program, Chantal aced her exams at one of Rwanda’s top high schools—but her mother was still doubtful about her career prospects.

“She laughed and said ‘Do you know where you are from? That’s for students from the cities, rich families or boys,’” Chantal told UN Women.

This outlook was undoubtedly rooted in the reality of education access in their village. Still, Chantal decided to go after her dream to have a career in computer programming.

Now, she not only has extensive digital literacy skills of her own, she creates applications that enhance those same skills for her community—for example, a digital system to make medical appointment scheduling easier.

There are countless examples similar to Chantal’s that demonstrate how digital literacy helps to close the digital divide and can change lives. The program she completed aims to train 2000 girls with their own unique goals but the same ability to impact their communities for the better.

There are ways to do this everywhere—from rural villages in Brazil to urban American cities and even the most affluent and digitally-advanced areas of the world. In this article, we’ll take a deep dive into digital literacy and the skills that support it.

Quick takeaways:

  • Digital literacy is the ability to use and understand digital technology in everyday life.
  • Basic technical skills and independent research capabilities are essential to the development of all other digital literacy skills.
  • Media literacy, digital citizenship, and communication and collaboration skills enable individuals to be active, responsible participants in digital discourse.
  • Organizations with the right resources and expertise have a responsibility to contribute to digital literacy growth in their communities and around the world.

What is digital literacy and why does it matter?

Digital literacy is the ability to navigate, understand, and effectively utilize digital technologies in everyday life. It has become increasingly important in today’s world, where digital tools are pervasive and shape core aspects of our lives—communication, education, employment, access to resources, socialization, and more.

Without digital literacy, individuals are unable to participate in modern society, and as a result are at higher risk to experience things like poverty or poor health. Currently, there is a significant global digital divide that leaves too many people in these situations.

As of the start of this year, North America and other developed regions of the world still have tens of millions of residents who are not connected to the internet. In underdeveloped regions, this number jumps to the hundreds of millions.

This map from Data Reportal shows just how large the worldwide digital divide still is in 2023:

To bridge this divide, government bodies, NGOs, and for-profit organizations must take on the work of digital inclusion, or the ongoing effort to ensure people have the digital skills and access they need to be healthy, safe, and productive members of society.

Leaders in every kind of organization and industry can spearhead this effort by understanding the specific skills that contribute to digital literacy and how they can be taught to employees and community members at large.

5 Key digital literacy skills

Technical skills

Technical skills are the foundation of digital literacy. They encompass the basic skills needed to use digital devices, software, and applications effectively—things like computer operations, file management, using word processing software, creating presentations, using the internet, and managing spreadsheets.

Independent research

Independent research is the ability to explore and gather information autonomously online. It’s a core component of digital literacy that empowers individuals to obtain the knowledge they need for various personal and professional purposes.

People with independent research skills can successfully navigate search engines, databases, online libraries, and other digital tools and resources. They can assess the accuracy, relevance, and potential bias of information to make informed and reliable decisions.

Media literacy

Media literacy goes a step beyond the simple ability to use digital tools and encompasses the ability to understand, critically analyze, create, and otherwise participate in the use of different types of media, including text, images, audio, video, and online social platforms.

Individuals with strong media literacy skills are able to discern the credibility and bias of various sources. They can interpret and analyze media messages, understand their intended audience, and recognize propaganda or other misleading information. They can engage in discussions and add to them with original thoughts and content.

Media literacy empowers individuals to consume media critically and be active participants in online discourse that’s relevant to them. It also contributes to the next key digital literacy skill on our list: digital citizenship.

Digital citizenship

Digital citizenship is the obligation every individual has to maintain responsible and ethical behavior in the digital world. This skill requires understanding the rights and obligations that come with being an online participant.

It means respecting intellectual property, having digital etiquette, and understanding the implications of one’s online actions. Digital citizens are aware of their online footprint and strive to create a positive digital presence. They also understand the importance of online safety, including protecting personal data and not engaging in mistreatment of others.

By developing digital citizenship skills, individuals contribute to a safe, inclusive, and respectful digital community.

Communication and collaboration

This skill encompasses the ability to express ideas, share information, and engage in meaningful discussions using digital tools and platforms. It completes digital literacy by enabling individuals to fully engage in the social aspect of digital tools.

Those with high digital communication and collaboration skills understand social norms for online communication and can successfully navigate commonly-used communication channels like email, social media, and discussion forums.

Going forward

Chantal’s experience demonstrates how the development of digital literacy skills can change the trajectory of someone’s life—and make an impact on the community around them.

And, as you may have gathered from the skills we’ve covered in this article, digital literacy is also extremely teachable.

Individuals with existing digital literacy skills can help others get up to speed by volunteering in their communities or donating to digital literacy initiatives. Companies can provide opportunities to their own employees to develop their skills, and organizations with the right resources and expertise can play a significant role in advancing digital literacy skills worldwide.

The takeaway: Digital literacy can be established and enhanced in ways big and small. Knowing which key skills to focus on is a first important step toward taking action.

How Viasat makes a difference

At Viasat, closing the digital divide is at the top of our priority list, and enhancing digital literacy is a central part of that work.

Earlier this year, Viasat partnered with Microsoft on the Airband initiative, which will deliver reliable internet access to 10 million people in underserved areas of Africa, Latin America, and the United States.

The partnership will establish important digital literacy-building services like remote learning and education, while also increasing access to key digital activities such as telehealth and online banking. At the same time, Viasat’s satellite internet technology continues to bring connectivity to individuals, communities, and populations around the globe.

Additionally, Viasat partners with Psicología y Derechos Humanos (PSYDEH) to bring equitable access to technology and incubate entrepreneurship by teaching digital literacy skills to indigenious women in Mexico. The goal is to help PSYDEH convey these methodologies to local women and give them the tools to establish and grow on online business creatively and effectively from the ground-up

Learn more about how Viasat is making an impact.