The Digital Skills Gap in Education and Beyond article banner
Inside the Classroom Outside the Classroom

The Digital Skills Gap in Education and Beyond

Besides measuring academic progress, student scores on national and state tests, such as PARCC and SBAC, are also used by federal and state education agencies to make decisions related to curriculum and instruction, graduation requirements, and educator evaluations. So when there’s uncertainty in these scores, it becomes difficult to utilize them to make informed decisions.

In the 2014–2015 school year, students who took the PARCC exams via computer tended to score lower than those who took the same exams with pencil and paper. Since both exams tested similar academic skills, a likely factor in this difference is a new type of achievement gap: the digital skills gap.

What is the Digital Skills Gap?

In education, the digital skills gap appears when students are unfamiliar with and under-prepared to use technology. Tom Ryan, the CEO of a nonprofit organization that helps schools design and implement e-learning programs, explains that online exams typically require students to be familiar with digital devices and technology-enhanced items, such as text highlighting, drag and drop, and drop-down menus. Ryan says the schools that see the most success with online testing are “the ones where technology is woven into everyday instruction.” This means students should use digital devices for more than just online exams.

In a joint report with the School Superintendents Association and the National School Boards Association, the Consortium of School Networking outlined the benefits of online assessments and provided best practices for online assessment planning, including embedding technology into daily instructional practice. If a strong foundation in digital literacy isn’t developed early on, then the digital skills gap will only widen as the student progresses through the education system.

But What Exactly is Digital Literacy?

Digital literacy encompasses a broad range of skills, and you will probably get a different definition depending on who you ask. A compilation of the various definitions out there describes digital literacy as the ability to use technology to find, consume, create, and share digital content. The first step toward digital literacy is building foundational skills early on by familiarizing students with digital devices and technology-enhanced tasks. Then, students can continue to build their digital literacy skills:

  • Finding digital content requires you to query a search engine using keywords, navigate through the results, and assess the reliability of various websites and authors.
  • Consuming digital content still requires your awareness of how reliable the website, author, and content are, but you also may have to make certain decisions about clicking on hyperlinks in the text, viewing videos, and engaging with interactive graphics.
  • Creating digital content, such as blogs, emails, Tweets, videos, and podcasts, involves creativity, of course, as well as collaboration, experimentation, and risk-taking.
  • Sharing digital content requires your awareness of appropriate internet behavior. Digital writing can be a very powerful tool for social good, allowing students to “actively participate in civic society and contribute to a vibrant, informed, and engaged community,” the American Library Association says. But it can also be dangerous. Deciding when and what to share online can have serious consequences for your safety, privacy, and reputation.

Depending on your own digital literacy and awareness, some of these skills may seem like common sense. However, these skills don’t always come naturally. For instance, children are taught how to write persuasive essays, identify parts of a story, and cite their sources for a research paper. Without proper guidance and education, these tasks are not easy the first few times around. Students nowadays may be sophisticated with texting, social networks, and video games, but we shouldn’t expect them to know how to use word processing/spreadsheet tools, navigate online search engines, or evaluate online sources without proper guidance.

Digital Literacy for College

The argument for building digital literacy skills early on only gets stronger as students move through school, since many college-level admissions exams are also transitioning to the online format. And in the U.S. alone, over six million college students—about one in every three—are taking at least one course entirely online. Students who graduate high school without at least average digital literacy skills will have fewer options when it comes to attending college.

Some colleges and universities are looking beyond incoming students’ applications and tests scores and examining their use of appropriate digital citizenship. Harvard rescinded acceptance offers to at least 10 incoming students who had posted offensive jokes in a private Facebook group. Improved digital literacy skills won’t necessarily prevent this type of behavior, but for the average teen, a class about appropriate internet usage and potential consequences of distasteful online behavior could make a huge difference in how they choose to use the internet and become a responsible digital citizen.

Digital Literacy in the Workplace

Digital literacy skills stay with students past their formal education. Panel members at a recent Human Resources influencer session agree that early exposure to technology gives students an advantage when they enter the modern workforce, which is shrouded in digital mediums of all types.

In the workforce, the digital skills gap appears when employees don’t know the right technology tool to use for their job or how to properly use the technology tools available to them, such as those used for customer relationship management, online meetings, and cloud-based storage. According to a 2014 poll, only one in ten American workers say they have mastered these technology tools. The digital skills gap costs the U.S. economy roughly $1 trillion a year in lost productivity. And by 2020, it is estimated that nearly 80% of jobs will require some level of technology proficiency.

When students receive adaptive instruction, technology-enhanced items, and targeted assessments by using classroom technology, teachers continually receive feedback on their students’ performance throughout the year. Implementing programs like this not only helps to identify where students are struggling academically, but also gives students regular interaction with technology and tasks that are similar to what they’ll encounter on high-stakes exams. If we want our students to excel in a digital age, we need to prepare them with the right tools for the job.

Source: “The 100 Best Online Colleges for 2017.” The Best Schools. 2017. Accessed June 16, 2017.
Source: Ajayi, Luvvie. “How to Keep Your College Admission Offer: Start With Digital Literacy.” The New York Times. June 7, 2017. Accessed June 16, 2017.
Source: Fernandez, Jeff. “How the ‘Digital Skills Gap’ Bleeds $1.3 Trillion a Year From US Businesses.” Entrepreneur Media, Inc. July 7, 2014. Accessed June 16, 2017.
Source: Heitin, Liana. “What Is Digital Literacy?” Education Week. November 8, 2016. Accessed June 16, 2017.
Source: Herold, Benjamin. “Comparing Paper and Computer Testing: 7 Key Research Studies.” Education Week. February 23, 2016. Accessed June 16, 2017.
Source: Herold, Benjamin. “PARCC Scores Lower for Students Who Took Exams on Computers.” Education Week. February 3, 2016. Accessed June 16, 2017.
Source: Oelrich, Keith. “The New Digital Divide.” Language Magazine. June 14, 2017. Accessed June 16, 2017.
Source: “Online Assessment: From Readiness to Opportunity.” Consortium for School Networking. 2016. Accessed June 16, 2017.
Source: Pierce, Dennis. “Online Testing Highlights the Need for Digital Literacy.” Samsung Business Insights. April 8, 2016. Accessed June 16, 2017.
Source: Ronan, Amanda. “7 Technology Enhanced Item Types You’ll See On Common Core Tests This Spring.” Edudemic. February 7, 2015. Accessed June 16, 2017.
Source: “Should Digital Literacy Be Part of General Literacy?” IT – Online. June 6, 2017. Accessed June 16, 2017.
Source: Veiga, Christina. “Kids Can Tweet, but Many Lack Digital Literacy Skills.” eSchool News. July 30, 2015. Accessed June 16, 2017.


About the Author


Ashleigh Lutz

Ashleigh graduated from Arizona State University with a BA in Psychology and a minor in Women and Gender Studies. She spent over three years in higher education developing resources and helping students succeed in online courses. During her tenure at Edgenuity, Ashleigh was eager to support Where Learning Clicks and the team’s commitment to helping teachers and students meet important goals and explore their passions. In addition to writing, a few of Ashleigh’s favorite things include rock climbing, chocolate, and cats.