What Is Digital Literacy? 5 Skills That Will Serve You Well
By Brianna Flavin on 09/20/2021
If you’re in the process of looking for a new job, you’ve probably seen skills like attention to detail, customer service and collaboration listed in job postings. These skills, like digital literacy, fall into a broad category of abilities that are fundamentally important yet sometimes easy to overlook.
“Digital literacy is everywhere, and everyone possesses some level of it,” says Karin Cross-Smith, president of Heretto.
Have you ever seen a child pick up a smartphone and start using it intuitively? Fixed your buggy internet connection to set up a smart TV? Or have you ever watched a video tutorial to teach yourself to use a new app? Cross-Smith explains that all of these examples stem from digital literacy. “It's the ability to navigate an environment that's fully integrated with diverse technologies.”
These days, most careers and work environments utilize a myriad of technologies, and employers want to know that their job candidates will be able to keep up. Digital literacy is commonly defined as a soft skill since it’s less about one specific technology (the likes of which are changing daily) and more about the ability to learn and adapt to technology.
That said, being digitally literate is not the same thing as being a good learner. To shed some light on this in-demand skill, we asked hiring managers to explain what they mean when they ask for digital literacy in their fields.
What is digital literacy, specifically?
Digital literacy involves four major pillars, according to Joaquim Miro, partner and CMO at Hoppin’ World. Miro explains these four pillars as the abilities to:
- Stay up to date with existing technologies
- Properly communicate in an online environment
- Manage your ideas in an online environment
- Manage teams leveraging technology
Within these abilities are many technologies you could learn, including some that most employers will expect you to know. For example, communicating in an online environment could involve video conferencing platforms that a manager might expect to train you in, but it also involves using email, a skill employers will likely expect you to have when you walk in the door.
“Digital literacy refers to someone’s ability to use IT and digital technology to find, evaluate, create and communicate information,” says Matt Dunne, hiring manager at HealingHolidays. “If an applicant claims to have digital literacy skills, I’d expect them to be able to conduct thorough online research, which they can then analyze and evaluate. I would also expect them to be capable of creating a range of different digital documents and to use digital communication systems.”
An understanding of web browsers, search engines and email is an expectation in digital literacy—not a perk, Dunne points out. “These are now considered pretty basic skills. While it isn’t hugely advantageous to have them, it’s a big disadvantage to not have them.”
Depending on the industry, the specific skills that fall under digital literacy will build from there. Dunne says creative roles might expect proficiency in Adobe Creative Suite® and video editing software while research-based roles might expect you to know how to evaluate the legitimacy of online data sources.
5 Digital literacy skills employers want to see
You can see why different skills within digital literacy would matter depending on the career you are headed for. We asked hiring managers to share some of the important digital literacy skills they look for and why.
1. Independent research
“A lot of digital literacy is figuring out how to use technologies that you've never seen or only have a cursory knowledge of,” says Cross-Smith. “The ability to independently research and problem-solve speaks volumes of a candidate's knack for adapting to dynamic technical landscapes—an incredibly valuable asset.”
In the technology industry, Cross-Smith explains that her company’s product continually updates and evolves, and the same should be true of the people working on it. “The technology industry is made for life-long learners. If that's what you're hungry for and you have the chops to prove it, you're in the right place.”
2. Familiarity with terms and common platforms
You might not think of a term like Wi-Fi as special knowledge, but thirty years ago, it barely existed as a concept. There are many terms the average internet user knows, and many you could understand with a little extra reading.
“Digital literacy means that you know your way around the digital landscape,” says Shayne Sherman, CEO of TechLoris. “It doesn't mean that you can write applications or install and configure a new LAN in the office. But you should know what I mean when I say these things.”
Experience with basic office software is also part of digital literacy for Sherman. “They should know how to use Microsoft Office® or Google® applications. The principles that Microsoft defined when creating its office software suite have been carried over by many software developers,” Sherman points out. “If you know Office, you can probably navigate most applications.”
In interviews, Sherman watches applicant reactions. “If I see that glazed look in their eyes as I approach more technological matters, they're probably not a great fit. If I see that spark of recognition, however, we may have something.”
“Playing nicely with others might not seem like a starkly digital skill, but you're part of a team,” Cross-Smith points out. “When that whole team is part of an ecosystem that uses a bouquet of different technologies, being able to marry collaboration and independent problem-solving makes true digital literacy a well-rounded professional characteristic.”
Additionally, many employers rely on digital tools and software to facilitate collaboration. You won’t have to be a power user of every individual platform from day one, but having the ability to navigate without much trouble is valuable.
4. Adapting to new technology
One of the most important aspects of digital literacy is the ability to adapt very quickly to new technology, according to Miro. “You need to keep an open mind to innovation whenever it's implemented within your office.”
“This is the most important skill as it allows for the workplace to remain agile and up to date with the latest progress across each company's respective industry.”
While we all love reaching a certain comfort level with our day-to-day work and the processes surrounding it, the world isn’t frozen in time. New tools, technologies and software will be rolled out, and you’ll need to be comfortable with adjusting when needed.
5. Teaching or explaining technologies you use
This could matter in many different ways. Maybe you will teach a new recruit how to use the technical tools they'll need on a daily basis, Cross-Smith suggests. Maybe you will need to translate the way you use a particular platform in a cross-functional team. “Digital literacy is both understanding and imparting knowledge on a continual basis. It's important because you'll be on both the learning end and the teaching end of technologies for the rest of your career.”
Digital literacy is a transferable skill
You might have noticed that most of the digital literacy skills above are not entirely specific to technology. But when they are applied in the digital world, they create valuable skills for today’s workforce.
The most exciting thing about digital literacy for a job-seeker might be that it isn’t restricted to specific technologies or systems. The ability to adapt to new technology is a skill that will grow every time you master a new platform, and you can take it with you into any job setting.
The important thing is elasticity, Cross-Smith emphasizes. “This is the ability to learn, stretch, adapt and navigate the digital landscape as it's in constant flux.”
Practical ways to demonstrate digital literacy on a resume
When you approach job applications and interviews, there are many things you can do to showcase your digital literacy. Some of these will be industry specific, but here are a few common tips from hiring managers.
Format your resume well
“To really express your digital literacy, make sure you create a resume which has a sleek, professional appearance rather than just being a plain list of skills and experiences,” Dunne says. You can show proficiency with Microsoft Office or similar programs by formatting a document that enables some of the finer features.
Make a personal website or digital portfolio
Dunne suggests showing your work on a digital portfolio or personal website. You get the benefit of displaying what you can do in your field while also highlighting the digital literacy it takes to create an online presence.
Don’t list basics like “email” as a skill area
Unless you are in a job sector that rarely uses computers, don’t treat email proficiency as a skill worth noting. “Try to avoid stating some of the more basic IT functions, such as using emails,” Dunne says. “After all, this is such a basic skill that it should go without saying. Mentioning it can actually work against you instead of benefitting you.”
Do mention proficiency in specific tools
The flipside of the comment above is knowing when to highlight specialized software on a resume. While context will largely dictate whether they’re worth mentioning, highlighting your grasp of certain specialized tools or software can be a plus.
For example, if you know the role you’re applying to will require creating reports or data analysis, highlighting your experience with programs like Microsoft Excel® or Tableau® can help. The same goes for software like QuickBooks® for accounting and payroll-related positions. As a rule of thumb, if a job posting specifically mentions a tool or software application you’re familiar with, it likely won’t hurt you to include a mention.
Build your foundation of skills
Now that you have a broad answer to the question “what is digital literacy,” you might be able to see some of these skills in your life already! As so many careers dive deeper into specific technologies for their roles, employers value applicants who can adapt and thrive. You may not have realized that you already have some of these valued assets in the professional world.
But digital literacy isn’t the only broad term you’ll run into in the hiring world. There are other opportunities to locate key abilities you might not have even known you had. Check out “What Are 'People Skills' and Why Do They Matter So Much?” to explore another soft skill employers value.
Adobe Creative Suite is a registered trademark of Adobe, Inc.
Google is a registered trademark of Google, Inc.
Microsoft Office and Excel are registered trademarks of Microsoft, Inc.
Tableau is a registered trademark of Tableau Software.
Quickbooks is a registered trademark of Intuit, Inc.