What are e-ssential skills?

door Ester van Laar

Many articles are published about the future labour market, often warning of a doomsday scenario that robots will take over our jobs. Technological advances such as artificial intelligence (AI), the Internet of Things (IoT) and robotics change the way work is performed, by augmenting or replacing workers in specific tasks. However, aside from eliminating jobs, automation also creates new jobs and reshapes the skills required for others. This raises the question: what skills do people need to be of value to the labour market? As the content and nature of jobs change, so do the skills required to perform them. The pervasiveness of information and communication technology (ICT) has increased the need to understand which skills are necessary for a global, competitive workforce. The industrial society has given way to a dynamic knowledge society. The emphasis has shifted from the production of standard products to the development and creation of knowledge. Work has become relatively more flexible, complex, and situation specific, which has raised the expectations of individuals’ level of skills. As a result, there is an increasing demand for jobs that require flexibility and social and creativity skills. In addition, with the increasing digitisation, the labour market has quickly evolved requiring a workforce that possesses extensive digital skills. Whether it is about big data, fake news, or privacy protection: digital skills are becoming increasingly important. The impact ICT has on human skills should be integrated in the broad spectrum of skills. Digital skills include, among other aspects, the abilities to communicate and collaborate across cultural and institutional boundaries, to understand the intent of online sources, and to create and share knowledge in digital environments. In other words, this entails a much broader concept than is often depicted in contemporary literature.

Conceptualising digital skills
One of the problems with conceptualising digital skills is that various closely related terms are used. A common feature of these terms is that they use a domain perspective (e.g., ICT, Internet, digital, media, twenty-first century) in combination with a knowledge perspective (e.g., competence, literacy, skills). Because of the large number of concepts related to designate the individual ability to operate and use digital technology, a variety of definitions accompanying these concepts exist. Another problem is that several initiatives have proposed skills and outlined frameworks, but the underlying skill dimensions often remain unclear. Consequently, an extended and explicit perspective on digital skills as a broader concept is still lacking. Although the term is the most specific because it focuses on action and not on knowledge and its application, digital skills often seem to emphasise the more technical conditions. Important to realise is that digital skills are not only about technical skills such as programming and data management, but also about substantive or content-related skills. An example of a concept that covers a broad spectrum of content-related skills is 21st-century skills. A popular term to describe the skills needed to be prepared for and succeed in the contemporary society, but the digital component is often not embedded within 21st-century skills. As such, the term ‘21st-century digital skills’ is used as a broader concept that covers and integrates digital skills. The core digital skills are, for instance, information management, communication, collaboration, critical thinking, creativity, and problem solving. This list of skills results from a review of the academic literature concerned with the closely related terms of 21st-century skills and digital skills. However, a description of important digital skills does not say anything about whether someone actually possesses these skills.

Measuring digital skills
Following the issues of conceptualising digital skills, measurement is often restricted to technical and information processing skills. In light of the rapid and continual development of digital technology, measurement needs to comprise advanced technical skills, but also the creation and understanding of content. Another key issue in the available measures of digital skills is the reliance on self-evaluation items. In most existing surveys, participants are presented with a list of skills and are asked to evaluate how well they perform those skills. Previous studies have shown that people have the tendency to overrate their own digital skill levels. More recently, digital skills research is moving in a direction where they more factually ask about how often someone performs a skill-related action. Still, survey measurements are always based on people’s self-reports. Therefore, performance testing is preferable over a self-reported survey from the perspective of validity. Although performance tests are more labour-intensive and difficult to conduct on large samples in comparison with surveys, they do rely on the completion of tasks to demonstrate skills. This means that the assessment of digital skill levels is based on the analysis of an individual’s directly demonstrated performance. Survey instruments can be improved by validating these measures through performance tests as a comparison.

Digital skills for youth
Findings from performance testing reveal that the younger generation score lower on digital information and strategic skills than older generations. These findings underline that the so-called ‘digital generation’ or ‘digital natives’, who have grown up surrounded by digital technology, need support for developing digital skills. The often-held assumption that just because young people undertake more activities online means that they are digitally skilled does not hold true. There are various reasons why it is important that children develop their digital skills at a young age. First, children are getting in contact with digital technologies at an early age. Therefore, it is important that they learn how to use them appropriately and effectively so that they can benefit from the online opportunities. Second, digital skills will be part of youth’s working life and required to actively participate in society. Improving digital skills can be seen as a form of empowerment. Nevertheless, it is often assumed that digital skills develop spontaneously or organically, at the initiative of the individual.

Digital skills mismatch
The issue lies in the complexity of what is required to prepare young people for digital-age work. The discrepancy between the skills that the youth have and those needed for jobs in the digital world is one of the most critical challenges of our time. There is a comprehensive concern regarding the ‘skills mismatch’ between education and work. On the one hand, the educational system is expected to provide young people with the skill requirements of the labour market. On the other hand, the workplace is expected to provide continued training and development to update skills of the workforce. Overall, education, industry and individual workers all have their responsibility and must take the call to action in order to fulfil the demand for a digitally skilled workforce. The involved stakeholders must first recognize the importance of a broader digitally skilled workforce before intentional and structural efforts are possible.

This blog is based on the following dissertation and also published on yskills.eu:
Van Laar, E. (2019). What are E-ssential skills? A multimethod approach to 21st-century digital skills within the creative industries. Enschede: University of Twente.