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Digital Literacy and the Fourth Industrial Revolution

I recently attended a two-day conference on big data. Two years ago, the concept was not even on my radar. As the internet was rapidly transforming the groundwork of my industry, I realized I needed the help of data analytics to target online marketing in order to grow clientele.

In a room full of analytics experts, a speaker asked us if we were “data literate.” Apparently, the concept of data literacy was new to the room, if only by a label. My virgin ears anchored on the term data literacy for the rest of the day, realizing that in today’s day and age, when almost everything can be targeted and measured, data literacy is a crucial component of business. And skills in digital literacy underpin it all.

The accelerating pace of technological, demographic and socio-economic disruption is transforming industries and business models, changing the skills that employers need and shortening the shelf-life of employees’ existing skill sets in the process.

World Economic Forum, “The Future of Jobs Report”

In the age of information and technology, we are on the edge of the “Fourth Industrial Revolution.” From flexible work times to work-from-anywhere telecommuting, the digital age has truly revolutionized the way we work and schedule our days, allowing more freedom and control for the workforce. We’re all connected—anywhere, all the time.

What’s more, the digital age has provided a sales platform for the savvy entrepreneur, and we’re seeing more and more opportunists taking the leap into self-employment, no doubt leveraging the marketing power of the internet. Those who have learned to successfully and unobtrusively join the “noise” that reaches us in our pockets and inboxes are reaping the rewards of business.

The rapidly changing information infrastructure has completely transformed our economy. “Ninety percent of jobs will need digital skills in the next three years,” writes Bas Burger for ComsMEA. He notes the current and future “digital skills gap” and the cost to our world economies—in the billions.

What is Digital Literacy?

Knowing how to find information online and use digital technologies to communicate and engage in our world is now a basic competency of our increasingly global society. These skills stretch beyond the basic Google search, email correspondence, and social media posts. My grandmother has mastered those. Even my four-year-old knows how to ask Siri a question and comprehend the answer.

Digital literacy today is a bit more involved. From using smartphone apps that engage clientele to buying goods with a click of a phone, digital skills have become basic life skills. Digital literacy for our age embodies a person’s ability to find and comprehend information online, even transform the information into meaningful, shareable content.

More precisely, the Global Education Monitoring Report defines digital literacy this way:

Digital literacy is the ability to access, manage, understand, integrate, communicate, evaluate, and create information safely and appropriately through digital devices and networked technologies for participation in economic and social life. It includes competencies that are variously referred to as computer literacy, ICT literacy, information literacy, and media literacy.

The GEM Report is developing a framework for measuring and monitoring international digital literacy proficiencies amongst adults and youth. The proposed framework breaks down digital literacy competencies hierarchically:

  • At a basic level is a person’s ability to manage online accounts, passwords, and privacy settings.
  • In the middle are skills like netiquette, managing digital identity, and protecting devices and personal data.
  • Problem-solving is at the top of the pyramid, recognizing the ability to creatively use technologies and even solve technical problems by identifying needs and gaps—all considered higher-level digital competencies.

The framework separates career-related competencies, defining this level of proficiency as “the knowledge and skills required to operate specialized hardware/software for a particular field, such as engineering design software and hardware tools, or the use of learning management systems to deliver fully online or blended courses.” (UNESCO Institute for Statistics Blog)

As our often-lamented talent shortage suggests, herein lies the gap and a key component for future employees’ marketability is specific technical know-how.

Beyond Tech Skills: The Real Digital Intelligence Competencies

Tech skills aren’t the only part of the digital competency equation. The Coalition for Digital Intelligence recognizes the DQ Institute (a private community interest organization) for their work in breaking down digital competencies.

The DQ Institute goes beyond technical skills and suggests that digital emotional intelligence be a core competency going forward. Emotional intelligence, we know, is gained through life experience, and so digital emotional intelligence can’t be developed without the benefit of social interaction through screens.

The homepage of DQ’s website shows a picture of a young preschooler sitting with a tablet in hand. The question “Is your child ready for the digital future?” runs across the screen. Another picture shoes three young school boys holding pads with the tag, “What is your school’s DQ? (Digital Intelligence).”

The emphasis on digital learning and engagement for young children—while valid—may also disrupt some key developmental milestones. Digital education for young children does need to move forward sensibly so as not to swing the pendulum too far.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution and Disruptive Change

It seems that the frantic push toward digital intelligence education is a response to the economic shift brought about by our technological revolution. The World Economic Forum warns against the rapidly “shortening…shelf-life of employees’ existing skill sets” as major technological advances in robotics and machinery will call on workers to re-focus their efforts towards new tasks. They refer to this renaissance as “disruptive change,” noting that it took many years to build the necessary infrastructures for previous industrial revolutions.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is fast-paced and dynamic. The World Economic Forum cites a daunting estimation that roughly half of the area subject knowledge a student learns in the first year of a four-year technical education will be obsolete by the time she graduates, highlighting how quickly the present technical workforce must also adapt to changing technologies.

Adaptability to changing technologies is one of the most sought-after characteristics of an employee in today’s technical workforce, according to Forbes. With the unpredictability of technology, companies need to pivot quickly or perish, and so top talent needs to remain sharp and teachable.

Among others like cloud computing and expertise in artificial intelligence, Forbes recognizes data skills—mentioned twice—in their top thirteen tech skills sought by employers. Data scientists and those who possess skills in analytics are increasingly in demand as virtually all industries continue to adopt new ways to use data to make expensive decisions.

Skills in applied machine learning are also growing in importance, as are those in cybersecurity—one of our economy’s most in-demand fields. Protecting data and the vulnerability of networks are on everyone’s mind in our era of digital everything.

Of course, programming skills are important, but the dominant JavaScript may soon take a back seat to blockchain programming technology and quantum computing. I first heard the terms six months ago, and have since been aware of this new technology’s rapidly accelerating buzz. TechRepublic claims that expertise in the blockchain programming language Solidity will be the number-one sought after programming skill of 2019.

And amidst all this tech talent, our project-driven industrialization needs leadership. On a top-ten list of high-demand tech skills, The Balance Careers places project management in the top three. (Data analysis and programming were numbers one and two, respectively.) The writer points out that management skills may be considered more soft skills than very teachable hard skills like coding and social media navigation; however, all tech projects need effective leadership and monitoring skills.

With so much emphasis on specific technical know-how over the past few years, intangible soft skills like approachability and critical analysis are gaining attention as valuable assets in the project-based tech world. The increasingly team-oriented workforce depends on communication and cooperation amongst its talent, and so interpersonal skills will undoubtedly propel employees to the top in the tech industry.

Interestingly, the World Economic Forum predicts that by 2020, 36 percent of “all jobs across all industries are expected…to require complex problem-solving as one of their core skills.” Many studies are now showing that playing with blocks at a young age develops a child’s problem-solving centers of the brain more effectively than a digital learning program.

Considered a soft skill, I’m not convinced that problem-solving—and its close cousin, critical analysis—can be acquired at a higher level through digital resources, the learning method currently being pushed in today’s classrooms. Still, as many international movements are showing, digital competency skills are lagging behind, particularly amidst rapidly changing requirements. We need to engage in a larger dialogue about the developmental skills learned early on that build the foundation for success in the digital world.

A Core Digital Competency: Evaluating the Credibility of Information

One of the biggest challenges in education is helping students evaluate digital information. Today’s digital users are faced with a problem that library-goers with card catalogs didn’t have to wrestle with: evaluating the actual source. With so much content online and the ease at which it is published, astute researchers must consider the source before trusting the information.

This task is much harder than it seems. After all, it’s hard to “un-know” something once you’ve read it, and, often, evaluating the credibility of a source takes almost as much time as it did to review it.

This is particularly challenging for today’s students who have grown up with digital media, print material being the thing their grandparents have around old bookshelves. I feel fortunate to have gone through the higher education system when I did—on the very cusp of the digital age.

Because of the era in which I was educated, distrust for much of what I read online comes naturally. But how do today’s students who have grown up with information spoon-fed from Google learn to judge what is and is not reliable? An article that pops up on their tablets after a Facebook click looks and appears credible. Fifteen years ago, much of what was published from a person’s basement online looked like it was home-published with a clunky website. Now, most material online looks professional, clean, and trustworthy.

There is a lot of valuable information on the web and being a part of today’s digital age requires the skills necessary to evaluate the validity of information. The presence of a content filter—even if subconscious—is an essential tool. Even knowing when to share and what to share is a core digital competency.

Skills for Tomorrow?

Problem-solving recently moved to the top of the most sought-after skills list for employers—a skill that didn’t even make the top ten just three years ago.

While many contemporary sources cite the need for digital problem-solvers, the question is how to successfully prepare adults for tomorrow’s workforce. With such rapid changes in the composition of in-demand skills, it’s difficult to know where future job-seekers should focus their efforts.

That said, true digital literacy today includes the ability to adapt and grow with ever-changing technology and industries. Keeping up with one’s field is an ongoing engagement, and so thriving in our digital age will require regular continuing education.

Resources for Digital Skill-Building

General Digital Literacy Courses

  • Microsoft offers a basic digital literacy course, complete with a certificate (
  • The DQ Institute, through DQ World, offers programs for children ages eight to 12 to develop digital citizenship skills (
  • The Google Digital Garage offers free digital skills training and has now added certification programs, including the Google Digital Marketing Certificate, which is accredited by IAB Europe

Social Media Skills Training

  • Facebook Business offers courses in digital marketing (
  • Boot Camp Digital offers online certification training in social media and digital marketing (
  • The HubSpot Academy offers a free social media certification course (
  • For more formal training, Liberty University now offers an online master of science in social media management (

Tech-Specific Skills Training

  • FutureLearn offers online, pay-as-you-learn courses in tech and coding (
  • The Open University offers postgraduate certificates in technology management as does Syracuse University (;
  • OpenClassrooms has a large digital course offering (some as short as 15 minutes) for improving specific tech skills, such as programming and agile software development—a great resource to sharpen and grow professional skills (
  • LinkedIn now offers over 13,000 online courses for career advancement, with offerings on subjects like data science and software development (

Leadership Skills Training

  • The PMP® (Project Management Professional) certification is a great place to start (
  • Syracuse University also offers a project management certificate program (