How do you measure digital skills? How do you work out whether a candidate for a job has the skills and competences that they will need to do the work? Letting people self-assess their skills can seem like a simple solution, but it brings a big risk that they will misjudge their abilities.

ICDL Foundation’s new edition of the ‘Perception & Reality’ report brings together the results of research into self-perception of digital skills, and the reality, measured with a practical test. The new report includes findings from studies conducted in Singapore and India, reinforcing the original findings from five European countries.

ICDL National Operators in Austria, Denmark, Finland, Germany and Switzerland, as well as ICDL Asia in Singapore and India, have carried out research into digital literacy levels in their countries.

A common finding across all the studies, which asked participants to rate their own skills, then used practical tests to find out their real skill levels, was that people routinely overestimate their abilities. In the study conducted by OCG in Austria, 94% of participants described their skills as “average” to “very good”, but only 39% of them achieved a corresponding test result. In Singapore, 88.5% of participants rated their general digital skills as ‘fair’ to ‘excellent’, but only 55% achieved that level.

So how do we measure digital skills accurately? One interesting finding of the study in Switzerland was that holders of a computer skills certificate (ICDL) did significantly better than average. Clearly, structured training that leads to recognised certification is a key way to close these digital skills gaps.

We need efforts at all political levels, from the EU’s skills strategy to national and local plans for education and training. The danger of an unskilled workforce is that we will be quickly overtaken by the rest of the world. Is that a risk worth taking?

Fallacy of the ‘digital native’

‘We live in the age of the digital native’, or so many would have us believe. But what does the term really mean? Can someone truly pick up digital skills intuitively? Does this mean there is no need to try to teach young people how to use computers?

We don’t think so. This idea of digital natives is a dangerous fallacy that risks leaving young people without the competences they need for the workplace, and risks leaving businesses without the skilled employees they need. In an age when ICT skills are essential in almost any job, studies have repeatedly shown that young people have serious gaps in their knowledge of workplace ICT. A recent study in Australia, for example, showed that 45% of students could be described as rudimentary digital technology users.

We have published a report exploring the fallacy of the ‘digital native’ in more depth. The paper sets out the extensive evidence against the idea of ‘digital natives’ having intuitive computer skills and concludes that there is a vital need for digital skills development programmes to be part of all forms of education.

Download the position paper

Resources on the fallacy of the ‘digital native’

There has been plenty of research into the concept, and a number of studies demonstrate the flaws in the idea of the ‘digital native’.

We have collected some resources that debunk the idea of the ‘digital native’.

“We often wrongly assume that young people have a complete set of digital skills because they grow up surrounded by digital technologies. The skills that they acquire on the daily basis by using social networks and retrieving online content are not sufficient in the labour market. Required productivity skills can be acquired only by adequate digital education and training.”
—Kestutis Juskevicius, EU Digital Champion Lithuania

Simply providing the equipment does not help young people understand how that technology can better their lives without education and training”
—Nishant Shah, Director, Centre for Internet and Society, India, What does it mean to be digital native?’, Oliver Joy, CNN

“There is a myth about the digital native and the Google generation kid who, because they are young, are seen as being more computer literate than their parents, but that is totally wrong.”
‘Great internet age divide is a myth’, Dan Russell, Google

“Digital literacy does need to be taught: young people have usually acquired some knowledge of computer systems, but their knowledge is patchy. The idea that teaching this is unnecessary because of the sheer ubiquity of technology that surrounds young people as they are growing up – the ‘digital native’ – should be treated with great caution.”
“Shut down or restart? The way forward for computing in UK schools”, The Royal Society, 2012

“Young people’s engagements with digital technologies are varied and often unspectacular”
—‘The digital native – myth and reality’, Neil Selwyn, Academic, Monash University, Australia. Aslib Proceedings: New Information Perspectives, 2009

“In my fieldwork, I often found that teens must fend for themselves to make sense of how technologies work and how information spreads … It is dangerous to assume that youth are automatically informed.”
‘It’s Complicated’, Danah Boyd, Researcher and Author, Microsoft, 2014

“Talk of digital natives obscures children’s need for support in developing digital skills”
‘EU Kids Online Final Report’, Sonia Livingstone, Academic, London School of Economics, 2011

“76% of computer science students considered themselves to have a good level of knowledge, but only 45% answered the technical security questions correctly.”
‘Security of the Digital Natives’, Tech and Law Center, 2014

“There is a growing body of academic research that has questioned the validity of the generational interpretation of the digital native concept.”
‘Digital natives: where is the evidence?’, Ellen Helsper and Rebecca Enyon

“This research indicated that the average student is not a sophisticated user of technology.”
‘Beyond natives and immigrants: exploring types of net generation students’, Kennedy, Judd & Waycott, 2010

“Regardless of whether or not we consider young people to be digital natives, we would be naïve to expect them to develop Computer Information Literacy in the absence of coherent learning programs.”
International Computer and Information Literacy Study, IEA, 2013

In the media

The issue has also featured in a number of publications in different countries.

“Tous les citoyens devraient avoir la possibilité de développer leurs compétences numériques et les jeunes ne doivent pas être mis de côté.”
‘Les « Digital Natives » n’existent pas’, Rue89, France

“Una recente indagine condotta sugli studenti universitari italiani, per esempio, svela che il 42% dei giovani non è ben consapevole dei rischi di navigare usando una rete wi-fi aperta, il 40% non protegge all’accesso il proprio smartphone e addirittura il 50% non si preoccupa di controllare le autorizzazioni richieste per l’installazione di app.”
‘Il falso mito dei «nativi digitali»: quasi il 50% non sa usare Internet’, Scuola24, Italy

“Les «compétences» souvent mises en avant pour qualifier cette génération de «numérique» sont avant tout des «compétences de modes de vie» («lifestyle skills») comme écrire des SMS, jouer à des jeux vidéo ou regarder des vidéos. Or, ce ne sont pas ces compétences numériques qui sont utiles sur le marché du travail.”
‘La fracture numérique existe aussi chez les «digital natives»’, SlateFR, France

“Non sanno cosa si rischia a navigare con wi-fi aperta, non proteggono lo smartphone, non controllano le condizioni di servizio: i ragazzi dai 15 ai 29 anni non conoscono la Rete”
‘I nativi digitali non sanno usare Internet’,, Italy

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