The Future of Digital Literacy: Skills for smarter digital citizens

Flickr_Juan Cristóbal Cobo

As digital life has moved from unconnected personal computers, mainly concerned with word and data processing, to a myriad of always-on, connected media devices, what one needs to know to be a successful digital citizen has evolved. Whereas once a family member may have asked for help in formatting a document, or finding a file, now he or she may seek assistance in establishing a presence on Facebook or learning Twitter etiquette.

These new concerns reflect the fact that digital life is always-on, social, and increasingly collaborative in nature. With these changes come new demands on users’ time and attention, and as a result, new skills are needed in order to successfully participate in and navigate the digital world.


  • What one needs to know to be a successful user of digital media has evolved.
  • Skills needed to be digitally literate include attention, filtering, participation, and collaboration.
  • Companies that learn to be digitally literate could hold an advantage over competitors and customers.


Digital literacy is the ability to effectively navigate and participate in today’s world of digital media and devices. Definitions vary to some degree, but most include reference to the ability of people to find, organize, evaluate, use, create, and communicate information using digital technologies.

As the social and technological environment changes, what people need to know to thrive in a networked, digital world continues to shift. Several factors are driving the need for new digital literacies.

Digital lifestyles. As recently as 10 years ago, digital interactions occurred at discrete points in the day and were contained to a small range of activities (e.g., email, online shopping, viewing webpages). Fast forward to today, and there is very little of a modern lifestyle that has not been touched and transformed by the Internet or digitization: communication via always-on social networking; entertainment and socializing; work (telecommuting, cloud-based software); and personal finance (mobile banking, social funding sites like Kickstarter).

Hyperconnected, mobile interactions. The shift from episodic, online interactions to an always-on and mobile digital experience is changing the skill set required for digital living— and the future will be increasingly mobile and connected. GSMA forecasts that the number of personal, mobile, connected devices will rise from 6 billion in 2011, to 12 billion in 2020.2 Even in a World 2 country such as Pakistan, more than half the country already has a mobile phone.

Blurred boundaries. The spread of Wi-Fi access points, QR and other scannable codes, geofencing, and augmented reality (AR) programs continues to weave the digital and “real” worlds together. Ironically, by allowing users to cut the cord to the desktop and venture out into the “real” world with their devices, smartphones and other mobile devices are giving users the opportunity to immerse themselves deeper into the digital world. Navigating this new terrain, where the digital and “real” worlds overlap and are intertwined, will require new skills.


  • While this analysis primarily focuses on highlighting the digital literacy needed by individuals, companies will also need to continue to grow more digitally literate. Building capacity in this area may become an increasingly important element of remaining competitive as the use of digital media grows and the Internet’s centrality increases. Companies should regularly assess their digital literacy, and ask questions such as: How data literate is our organization? Is our organizational culture on the leading edge of collaborative and participatory practices—or are we laggards? Does our network presence contribute to the communities we engage in, build our trustworthiness, and encourage reciprocity from our target audiences? Do the IT tools and devices we provide our employees help them mindfully manage their attention—or do these tools add noise and distraction into the equation?
  • On a basic level, there is a need for educational services to teach people what they need to know to be more effective and educated digital citizens. This could take a variety of forms— corporate training, K–12 curricula, or even training apps. For instance, an app might monitor user behavior and provide real- time interventions to help train a user to manage attention, or reminders to help a user be a more active online participant.
  • Security in the digital world will remain a persistent consumer and business issue in coming years. While not addressed directly in this analysis, the question of security should be considered through the lens of each of the digital literacies. For example, does intense participation or collaboration open me or my organization to increased security risks? How do we manage these risks, and filter real risks from non-threats?