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Understanding, Measuring and Fostering Digital Skills

Understanding, Measuring and Fostering Digital Skills

KU Leuven
The ySKILLS first year in a nutshell
The Youth Skills (ySKILLS) project aims to enhance and maximise long-term positive impact of the ICT environment on multiple aspects of wellbeing for all children by stimulating resilience through the enhancement of digital skills. As digital skills are at the core of our project, in its first year ySKILLS carried out various activities to get a better understanding of current conceptualisations and ways of measuring and fostering digital skills and related concepts. A systematic evidence review , interviews with experts from the educational sector and the labour market as well as roundtables with young people from various European countries offer important insights into these topics, but also highlight the need for further research. Year 1 concluded with the development of a robust, crossculturally validated measurement instrument: The youth Digital Skills Indicator (yDSI) .
Lessons learned during the first year of the project
The ySKILLS first year was marked by the active exchange with practitioners, experts, policy-makers and other interested parties. During the ySKILLS webinar Understanding, measuring and fostering digital skills, we invited Sonia Livingstone (LSE), Matthew Johnson (MediaSmarts), Leslie Haddon (LSE), and Divina Frau-Meigs (UNESCO/Sorbonne Nouvelle University) to reflect with us on some of the key findings and related questions that emerged during the project’s first year of activities. The discussion focused on the following questions: How are digital skills to be conceptualised and measured? Why does terminology matter? How can we efficiently foster digital skills? Are we giving too much attention to online safety and too little to media literacy and digital skills? Below we summarise the key points discussed during the webinar.
Speakers and discussants of the ySKILLS webinar on Thursday, 25 February 2021.
From top-left to bottom-right: Sonia Livingstone, Leen d’Haenens, Matthew Johnson, Leslie Haddon, Verónica Donoso and Divina Frau-Meigs
 
What are digital skills? The importance of terminology
Divina Frau-Meigs (UNESCO/Sorbonne Nouvelle University) presented different frameworks which attempt to conceptualise media and digital literacy and skills (e.g. DigiComp, UNESCO, MediaSmarts, and Competences for Democratic Citizenship (CDC) Butterfly). She argued that these frameworks can be useful to make cmparisons across countries and to inform policy debates. However, she warned us that the existence of competing frameworks also brings methodological limitations such as the absence of a universally accepted definition of media literacy which results in differences in how this concept is understood and consequently the lack of common evaluation frameworks which makes comparisons across countries  and  between a diverse range of media literacy projects difficult.
Divina emphasised that in spite of the differences in existing frameworks and terminology, there are important overlaps. For instance she referred to the EU DigComp and UNESCO MIL and illustrated how both frameworks consider aspects such as creativity/content creation, communication or critical assessment of information as key skills/competences:
We are progressively, it seems to me, in Europe and in each country reaching a kind of consensus, maybe not on the competences breakdown, but on the dimensions that need to be covered in the digital world.
Divina Frau-Meigs
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She also pointed out that one dimension that is usually forgotten are the digital skills of adults and educators and that although the EU developed a framework for educators’ professional competences such framework “doesn’t mirror what we expect young people to learn (…) There is something obsolete about the way we train teachers in higher education institutions” and this creates a mismatch between what teachers (are trained to) teach and what studetns are expected to learn.
Divina concluded that it is important to take some steps back and reflect on the key dimensions that we want to put forward, but also emphasised that digital skills should not be narrowly conceptualised. As an illustration she introduced the Competences for Democratic Citizenship Education , developed by the Council of Europe. This “butterfly” model includes four key dimensions: values, attitudes, skills, and knowledge and critical understanding. In such a comprehensive model skills are important but they are not the focus of the model. As Divina pointed out:“If you only have skills a butterfly doesn’t fly”.
 
 
What is known about youth digital skills?
Leslie Haddon (LSE) presented the key findings of the systematic evidence review of the antecedents and consequences of digital skills. In his presentation he focused on two research questions: 1) What actors and factors shape children and young people’s digital skills?; 2) How, in turn, do their digital skills impact the rest of their life?
Figure 1: Overview of antecedents and consequences of digital skills
In general, the systematic evidence review did not lead to many novel or unexpected findings regarding the antecedents and consequences of digital skills. For instance, unsurprisingly, older children report higher levels of skills than younger ones and parents who practice restrictive mediation  (e.g. rules) are associated with children having lower digital skills. However, some of the more interesting insights are in the details, which prompt suggestions for further research: e.g. ethnic minorities and girls sometimes possess higher digital skills.
According to Leslie Haddon, what was probably surprising was the limited evidence found showing how teachers and the school positively influence digital skills as well as the fact that gaming and social communication (e.g. social media) were correlated with better digital skills,. He warned us, though, that this finding can be interpreted in different directions and therefore we do not know if it is children with higher digital skills who are more interested in games or if (certain types of) games facilitate the development of digital skills. Therefore, this is an area that deserves attention since videogames and social media are usually undervalued by some parents and teachers.
As regards the consequences of digital skills, there are less studies avaialble. In particular, as regards well-being studies are scarse and tend to be very narrow in their focus (e.g. perceived body image). When it comes to learning outcomes, digital skills are associated with a range of better learning outcomes (e.g. technical/digital abilities, academic performance, critical thinking). However, it depends on which skill is considered and what is being learned.
Leslie concluded that it is important to be specific and look more closely at details. It is, thus, important to explore which attitudes or perceptions would have a bearing on which types of digital skills rather than just looking at general attitudes or perceptions.
 
Fostering digital skills: What is needed and what are the challenges?
Matthew Johnson ( MediaSmarts ) explained that it is important to foster digital skills from an early age because children are using digital technologies earlier and earlier. However, to develop digital skills, children need not only access but also an adequate base to use, understand and creatively engage with digital technologies. Matthew identified some key challenges to ensure that all citizens acquire digital skills. These include: access is uneven and inequitable; digital skills are not yet perceived as a right; digital skills are not integrated into educational curricula; teachers lack training and support; digital technology is a moving target; and there are few opportunities for continuing education.
As regards access, inequalities should be broadly understood. For instance,  a linguistic minority may not be economically disadvantaged, however, its members may still face limited online resources in their language. Matthew also criticised the fact that most digital tools are primarily commercially owned or oriented:
Nearly all digital tools and spaces are commercially owned and oriented. That means that each user’s participation is contingent on their continued value to the company’s business model and that what users do in them is shaped by design and policy decisions that serve the company’s profit rather than the public good.
Matthew Johnson
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Another concern is that compared to skills such as literacy or numeracy, digital skills are not yet perceived  as a right. This is both the cause and the consequence of being narrowly defned as job skills or being viewed as a means of protecting children.
In terms of formal education, Matthew argued that the two biggest barriers to teaching digital skills at school is that they are not yet integrated into the curriculum and that teachers lack training and support to feel confident teaching them. Not surprisingly, also in Canada, many schools and teachers are reluctant to provide access or to allow the use of networked technologies in the classroom for fear of exposing students to risks or because it  may be disruptive. Interestingly, according to MediaSmart research more experienced teachers were more likely to use digital technology in the classroom.   
Last, Matthew referred to how citizens can be supported in the development of digital skills beyond formal education. Hence, the importance of teaching digital skills comprehensively and holistically and involving participants in programme design. He argued that rather than reinventing the wheel, we should first identify, evaluate and scale up successful interventions, building on existing networks, for instance, to deliver training. He also referred to the importance of creating and supporting public spaces and platforms, but more importantly empower underserved communities to create their own platforms. Finally government and industry need to work harder to promote diversity and inclusion within ICT because: ”We will never have full access to the internet until the people who build and own the tools and platforms more accurately reflect the people who use them.”
To be effective, digital literacy needs to be seen as fundamental skills. They have to be part of the curriculum and they have to be taught well (…). Make it present in the curriculum, and make the teachers comfortable with it.
Matthew Johnson
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Does digital literacy education focus too much on online safety?
Sonia Livingstone (LSE) argued that digital literacy education is often not implemented in schools or is marginally taught as part of other courses (e.g. computing (or coding) classes, citizenship, disinformation, relationships or media studies). However, children want digital literacy education and seek to learn about the digital ecology, where their data goes, about their online privacy, etc. She explained that one of the reasons for this is that digital literacy education is still too narrow in scope and it is sometimes conflated with e-safety.
Somehow digital literacy education is not yet happening in the schools in the countries that many of us belong to and I think the reason for that is that somehow the safety agenda has become so dominant and so prominent in the minds of the public, the media, parents and, indeed, schools that when we advocate for and create a space for digital literacy education somehow what we keep getting is e-safety. And e-safety is vital (…). It is prominent, but that doesn’t make it successful. Internet safety is only one part of digital literacy education.
Sonia Livingstone
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Sonia went on to argue that digital literacy education does not have a place in the (British) curriculum and she invited the audience to reflect on where digital literacy education is happening in their countries: “One critical challenge is where does digital literacy curriculum fit into the curriculum? It is so cross-cutting, it is so all-encompassing, children are learning in a digital world…that  figuring out where it goes into the curriculum is such a puzzle that it kind of doesn’t go anywhere”. Not having a place in the curriculum is problematic:
If we cannot say to our Ministry of Education: This is where it goes in the curriculum, then we will not even get passed the door. (…) If we can’t say here it goes in the curriculum, we can’t evaluate it, we can’t promote it. We have to resolve this and make a decision. The difficulty is that education is a matter of subsidiarity in Europe and most places in the world, so it is hard for us to come to a common answer and that makes it hard for us to speak with one voice.
Sonia Livingstone
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The Council of Europe has also been worrying about this particular challenge. For instance, in its recently published Guidelines to respect, protect and fulfil the rights of the child in the digital environment , there is a specific section about digital literacy which highlights that digital literacy should encompass safety within a broader critical and creative and participative idea of digital literacy, it should be included in the basic education curriculum from the earliest years, including formal and informal learning, and it should promote equality and inclusion.
The Council of Europe also developed a handbook for policy makers on the rights of the child in the digital environment especially designed to help decision makers to incorporate these issues into their policies. 
 
Some reflections
From this webinar, but also from our interviews with experts from education and the labour market, roundtables with teenagers and a webinar with experts in education and the labour market, we learned that the current quality and effectiveness of initiatives intended to build digital skills are often deficient and vary across European countries. These findings confirm the need for conceptual clarity as well as the importance of coherent (educational) policies that are well-aligned with effective media literacy education initiatives. There is also a need for more theoretically informed, reliable and valid instruments that can measure developments in this area. Our yDSI (youth Digital Skills Indicator) aims to fill some aspects of this gap.
As digital skills are vital to fully participate in society and not just in the labour market, more opportunities for all citizens to develop or enhance their digital skills outside schools are necessary. This means paying closer attention to the needs of those who lack access to formal education or to the job market as well as those who find themselves in situations of heightened risk or vulnerability. In times of the Covid-19 crisis, where existing inequalities have become exacerbated and disinformation populates social media platforms, governments all over the world must ensure that citizens have access not only to equipment and internet connectivity, but also to adequate opportunities for training and education. This is necessary to diminish inequalities and to enhance democratic participation.
Formal education remains crucial as schools reach practically every child and their families and are, therefore, strategically positioned to offer a solid media literacy and digital skills foundation to all children and young people. To achieve this, adequate initial and continuous teacher training is required. Investing in digital equipment in schools also remains important especially to provide access to those pupils and families who may lack access to devices or connectivity. Families, in turn, must be supported so that they can offer children the necessary guidance to navigate the digital world in positive, meaningful ways.
In sum, the momentum is there to bring conceptual clarity, to strengthen policy efforts and to include children’s voices, but this requires a strong political commitment and regulatory solutions to ensure that actions are coordinated across policy domains and that sufficient resources are allocated to develop sustainable, good quality solutions.
It is not the young people or the teachers, it’s the middle-range politicians who can open or not the decision-making process on the level of their country or region. And they are not trained and have no understanding of media/digital literacy. We have to keep hammering there. [Digital literacy] needs to be a discipline, not something transversal. We need to be more provocative.
Divina Frau-Meigs
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I’m looking for regulatory solutions because those don’t come and go when the ministry comes and goes and once they are structurally embedded, other things, resources, the systems adjust around them and then, I think, we may make progress”.
Sonia Livingstone
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It is time to give a proper place to digital literacy education in the curriculum and to invest in the robust assessment of educational initiatives and training programmes. It is time to develop sustainable and scalable, evidence-based programmes to respond to the real needs of real people. It is time to invest in initiatives which have demonstrated their effectiveness. We can’t continue relying on the number of people enrolled in a programme as a measure of “success”.  It is time to find out how media literate and digitally skilled we are. Without such basic, but essential knowledge, resources may continue being invested, but we will not be able to guarantee that the investment will pay off. 
 
View the webinar
More information
The report ‘ Digital skills: An inventory of actors and factors ’ informed the development of digital skills measures that will be validated for children and young people and influenced the design of performance testing of ySKILLS. This report brings a synopsis of the knowledge gained in four tasks performed in 2020, the first year of activities of the ySKILLS project: the systematic evidence review and a secondary analysis of EU Kids Online data collected in 2017-19 as well as interviews with experts on digital skills in schools and on the labour market and roundtable discussions with children and young people. The lessons learned from these tasks lead to an inventory of actors and factors whose roles in predicting and moderating digital skills acquisition and wellbeing will be tested in the school survey questionnaires through three new survey rounds in 2021, 2022 and 2023.
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