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Digital skills


Digital competence comprises knowledge and skills required for the use of information and communication technology as well as digital media [1]. This knowledge and skills can be applied in performing tasks, solving problems, communicating, managing, collaborating, creating and sharing content [2]. In addition, digital competence includes the set of knowledge, skills, attitudes, abilities, strategies and values that enable effective, efficient, appropriate, creative, autonomous, flexible, ethical and reflective action in the context of work, leisure and learning [2]. In summary, digital competence enables a constructive and self-determined approach to the challenges of digitalisation. With the term digital competence, other terms also appear, some of which are used as synonyms. These are, for example, digital knowledge, computer competence, ICT competence, e-skills or media competence [3]. However, these terms do not always have the same meaning.


Digital competences are often compared to media competences in everyday life, but the scope of digital competences is broader. The term media literacy is understood as an acquirable ability to use different types of media for one’s own communication and actions [4, 5]. According to Baacke, this refers to four dimensions: Media criticism, media studies, media use and media design [5]. In the age of digitalisation, however, new areas of application and challenges have arisen that require skills that are no longer included in Baacke’s definition [5]. In accordance with today’s digital requirements, competences are needed that are collected under the concept of digital competences [5]. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which promotes digital media education and training worldwide, has developed a comprehensive framework of competencies for digital literacy [6]. In this framework, it attempted to determine what skills constitute digital literacy and formed a broader definition of the term based on current digital demands. According to UNESCO’s definition, it is no longer primarily about skills for the confident use of media, but beyond that about the ability to use digital devices and networked technologies safely and appropriately, to be able to access, manage, understand, integrate, communicate, evaluate and create information on them [6]. This competence is central to being able to participate fully in economic and social life [6].

History and development of the term

In the English-speaking world, digital competence is referred to as “digital literacy”. The history of the term “digital literacy” (Figure 1) goes back to the 1960s and began with research on the term “visual literacy”. Visual literacy refers to the ability to understand images, graphics and symbols in various media and to use them for communicative purposes [7]. In the 1970s, the use of the term “library literacy” grew, referring to the ability to use a library, to search for specific literature and to evaluate sources [8]. When PCs became more and more common in the 90s and the possibility arose to search for information on the Internet, the term “information literacy” became established [9]. At the same time, however, the focus was also on the competent use of the computer itself, which is why the term “computer literacy” spread in the research landscape between the 1980s and 1990s [10]. In dealing with digital media, Lanham emphasises the growing challenges for the exchange of information and communication via a wide variety of formats, such as text, images, animation and sound [11]. Lanham summarises the competencies required for this under the term “multimedia literacy” [11].

Digital literacy encompasses the literacies mentioned as a multidimensional construct and includes not only technical and cognitive facets but also emotional-social forms of interaction that have emerged through the social web [12]. Currently, technologies from the field of artificial intelligence (AI) are playing an increasingly important role in our everyday lives, expanding the understanding of digital literacy. AI literacy is described in the first approaches as a competence that enables the individual to critically evaluate, communicate effectively with, collaborate with and use AI technologies as tools at home and at work [13]. Carolus and Wienrich direct the focus on competencies, skills and attitudes related to the increasing interactivity of AI-based systems and the perception of embodied AI systems [14].

Application and examples

Digitalisation is rapidly changing the world of work, education and private life and extends across all population groups. This is having a lasting and fundamental impact on the way we live, communicate and learn. Activities are being automated, new technologies such as 3D printers or data glasses are spreading, as are self-driving cars, robots as carers for the elderly or drones as parcel deliverers. In addition, services such as e-commerce, online banking and the use of social networks are becoming more and more standard. As a result, people will have to be increasingly digitally competent and adaptable in order to meet these demands, but also to be able to seize the opportunities that arise. In line with this challenge, digital skills need to be taught as a prerequisite for social participation and employability. This also includes the formation of perceptions, attitudes and values, in other words, thinking about digital systems and processes.

Schools are a particular focus of research in this regard. Here, digital competences can be acquired at an early stage and the confident and responsible use of digital end devices can be taught. For this reason, many school support programmes, initiated for example by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research, already deal with the teaching of digital skills and integrate the topic of digitality into everyday school life [15]. In this way, pupils are offered a wide range of opportunities to learn digital ways of dealing with things. The thematic design of such programmes is very diverse. The European competence framework DigCompEdu, for example, stipulates that pupils should acquire competences concerning 1) the search, processing and storage of information and data, 2) self-determined and digital communication, 3) the production and presentation of different formats using technical tools, 4) the protection of privacy in digital environments, 5) problem solving using technical tools, and 6) the analysis and reflection of the digital world [16]. The aim is to educate young people to become responsible users [16]. Thematic focal points that accompany this goal are, for example, questions dealing with the debunking of fake news, the influence of one’s own perception through filter bubbles and bots, the protection of privacy and informatics basics [15].

Beyond the school context, the MOTIV project recognises an awareness and education deficit in society at large and addresses in particular a competent approach to interaction with language-based AI systems.

Criticism and problems

In line with the parallels to other concepts and skills (e.g. media literacy), different authors developed different understandings and definitions, which made the term less precise (e.g. [17, 18, 19]). Again and again, digital literacy is associated with other concepts and approaches, such as e-literacy, e-skills, computer literacy, media literacy, e-competence, .. [3]. Belshaw criticises the fuzzy understanding of the term digital literacy, which leads to meaning-related ambiguities within different research directions [20]. Belshaw calls digital competences an “umbrella term” [20]. With this, he picks up on the tendency within academia to subsume literacies, skills and competences under a favoured umbrella term and to shape them context-specifically.

The multidimensionality of digital competence also brings with it problems of measurement theory. There are various measurement instruments that capture certain dimensions depending on the definition (e.g. [21, 22, 23]). However, reliable and valid measurability is a crucial building block for the analysis, development and evaluation of human-centred education and training competences. Accordingly, there is an enormous need for research in this area.


Modern technologies are ubiquitous. But what about the understanding of the users? This question is being investigated in the project “MOTIV – Digital Interaction Competence: Monitor, Training and Visibility” using the example of speech-based interactive systems. A particular focus of the research group is the analysis of feelings and thoughts that people have when interacting with speech-based AI systems. In addition, mental models about these systems are identified and investigated. This includes, for example, usage habits, ideas and misconceptions that users have when dealing with interactive language technologies. The clarification of possible misunderstandings as well as thoughtless interaction behaviour in dealing with speech-based AI systems should contribute positively to the thematic sensitisation and motivation for change of the population.

In this context, reliable and valid measurement instruments are also being developed that make AI literacy (AIL) ascertainable. Language-based technologies can be seen as a sub-area of AIL that has been neglected in their conceptualisation and current competency models on digital literacies and AIL. Given the penetration of voice assistants into everyday life, the consideration of these systems is of great importance [24]. Therefore, research at bidt is now addressing the question of what competences individuals need to use these technologies and how these can be further developed.

The project “Workplaces in Transition: Technology and Competence Adaptation by Companies and Individuals” investigates which competences employees need for the introduction of new technologies in the work environment and how they can be supported in acquiring them.


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[23] Ng, W. (2012). Can we teach digital natives digital literacy? Computers & education, 59(3), 1065-1078.

[24] Baumeister, J., Sehne, V., & Wienrich, C. (2019). A Systematic View on Speech Assistants for Service Technicians. LWDA, 195-206.