What is Digital Competence?

By Anders Skov, internet sociologist, 2016 Center for Digital Dannelse. Published online March 2016

The concept of digital competence has emerged concurrently with technological development and as society has recognised the need for new competences. Development of technologies enables and constantly creates new activities and goals, and the importance of digital competence is therefore constantly changing and must always be seen in relation to the current technology and its application.

More than instrumental skills

European and Danish measurements are currently concentrating more on measuring access and consumption than real digital competence (i.e. measuring quality, attitudes and strategies for the use of technology). But managing basic digital tools and online platforms is just the first step towards advanced digital skills. Development of digital competences should be regarded as a continuation from instrumental skills towards more productive, communicative, critical and strategic competences.

Definition of Digital Competence

Digital competence is a combination of knowledge, skills and attitudes with regards to the use of technology to perform tasks, solve problems, communicate, manage information, collaborate, as well as to create and share content effectively, appropriately, securely, critically, creatively, independently and ethically.

More than High Consumption

Although the use of computers, mobiles and the internet is increasing among almost all groups of people, it does not necessarily mean that they develop skills and can benefit from it in the many different aspects of life. Research has shown that large amounts of computer, mobile and internet use only contribute to digital skills at the operational level. The higher cognitive ability for critical search and selection of information is not a consequence of greater consumption. Users can simply stay on the same level and only use some specific applications. Therefore, high consumption of technology as such should not be regarded as proof of digital competence (Van Deursen, 2010).

Lifelong Learning

With this understanding in mind, one of the best definitions and least vulnerable to the test of time has been drawn up by a major EU research project, after digital competence was recognised by the European Commission as one of eight key core competences for lifelong learning. The Digital Competence Wheel’s theoretical basis is the research and empiri that this definition is based on.

Mapping Digital Competence

The following describes some of the methodological and theoretical considerations made when mapping the digital competences of the Digital Competence Wheel.

The understanding of the concept of digital competence is so varied that there is no common or globally accepted definition. The same has happened and happens to virtually all concepts in relation to digital tools and processes. This is caused, among other things, by the constant and rapid development of technologies that enable and create new activities and goals. Examples include IT literacy, digital literacy, media literacy, information literacy, internet literacy, etc. They have emerged concurrently with technological development and as society recognised the need for new competences.

The fact that there are so many and varied definitions of the term reflects its importance. Common to all of them is that it is no longer about access to and use of technology, but the ability to take advantage of it in meaningful ways – for life, work and learning.

There are two main approaches in this bewildering amount of terms and definitions: A) Through a high conceptual level, describing topics on an abstract level which is therefore more immune to technological change. B) To recognise the specific knowledge, skills and competences that are important for the overall purpose: to identify the specific essential knowledge, skills and attitudes that can serve to assess people’s capacity at the designated area and initiate targeted learning. We have chosen the latter approach with the Digital Competence Wheel, as it methodically supports this purpose. However, this approach, by nature, is more dependent on the current digital tools and possible activities and therefore requires regular revision.

Digital Competence Consists of Several Learning Domains

In order to map digital competence, it is necessary to go deeper into what building blocks the concept consists of. It is argued that digital competence is more than the ability to use a digital platform in practice.

Instead, digital competence should be understood as the ability to combine the knowledge, skills and attitudes appropriate to the context. Digital competence is therefore divided into the following domains: 1) Instrumental skills for using digital tools and media. 2) Knowledge, theories and principles related to technology. 3) Attitudes towards strategic use, openness, critical understanding, creativity, accountability and independence. These three dimensions are called the learning domains.

The point in this three-legged division of the digital competence is to highlight the fact that strong digital competences are not created organically simply because of a high consumption of digital technologies. For example, a study showed that 19.5% of respondents had chosen not to go to the doctor while 7.9% had chosen not to follow the doctor’s advice, both because of information found on the internet (Ala-Mutka, 2008). The respondents have knowledge of how to find such resources, as well as the necessary skills to search and locate information through a web browser. On the other hand, they lack the critical understanding (read attitude) of the content they find.


Knowledge is the result of assimilated information obtained through learning. Knowledge is a collection of facts, theories, principles and traditions related to a job or study. Knowledge can best be described as either theoretical or factual.


  • Communicative knowledge includes, for example, theories on media effects or the knowledge of a range of digital collaboration tools.

  • Informative knowledge includes, for example, the knowledge of relevant search engines, self-service solutions, storage possibilities and strategies for assessing the validity of the information.

  • Productive knowledge includes, for example, the awareness of new technologies and how they can usefully support an existing workflow process.


A skill is the ability to solve a task or problem in practice, while an instrumental skill is the ability to apply a method, a material or a tool.


  • Productive skills are, for example, be the ability to use a variety of applications to create or edit multimedia of various kinds.

  • Communicative skills are, for example, the use of methodologies, strategies and applications to solve communicative tasks.

  • Informative skills are, for example, the use of nemId, finding sources for an assignment, or converting a file to another fileformat.


Attitudes represent ways of thinking and motivations behind actions. Therefore, they have a great influence on people’s digital activities. This includes, for example, ethics, values, priorities, accountability, cooperation and autonomy.


  • Attitudes toward communication can, for example, be whether you find value and meaning by talking to others via media. Or, if you are very careful with formulations so that they are not misunderstood by the recipient.

  • Attitudes towards information can, for example, be a proactive, analytical or critical position on finding and storing digital information.

  • Attitudes towards digital production can, for example, include ethical considerations in relation to what should be produced and shared.

The method for strengthening a competence is also dependent on which learning domain first needs a push. For example, knowledge can be improved through teaching or reading a book while skills can be improved by solving a concrete and practical problem or task. Attitudes are the most important and difficult domain to work with, as most people are governed by their attitudes. The process may involve giving up the old habits, strengthening confidence in the management, motivational talks, better explanations, adjustment of expectations in plenary, more involvement in change etc.

The learning domains are mutually dependent on each other. E.g. A change of attitude can result from more knowledge in an area. Likewise, a distinctive interest (read attitude) for a field can lead to a desire for more knowledge about it.

Digital Skills Overlap with Different Life Spheres

In the industrial society, human life consisted of work (boss, coworkers and subordinates), home (father, mother, children) and associations (companions and opponents). These were separate and clearly divided worlds. In our information society, it is more accurate to talk about spheres of life, because there are many more, and because they overlap. For example, life spheres can be work, home, families, interests, friends and consumption.

The measurable components of digital competence must be wide and varied enough to include the advantages and disadvantages of digital competence across multiple life spheres. Whether it is as an employee, citizen, consumer or for leisure. In a digital context, these life spheres overlap to such an extent that they do not make sense to separate. The instrumental skills and applications can obviously vary between work and leisure, but the basic attitudes, strategies, ethics and knowledge about digital information, communication, production and safety will overlap significantly. At the same time, it means that a digital competence that is learned and used in one life sphere can largely be applied in another. The less good news is that this also applies to bad habits.





Areas That Are Influenced by Digital Competences p>

The measurable building blocks for digital competence must be constructed in the light of the general advantages and disadvantages, across several spheres of life, and include elements from all learning domains. Digital skills can benefit people in different ways. Here are some examples of areas in very different spheres of life that are influenced by digital competences or the lack thereof.


As the use of social networks increase, it is crucial that the users understand that these platforms, without the appropriate settings for personal information and critical understanding, may result in the loss of control of personal data (e.g. data is handed over to third parties for commercial purposes).


IT skills have become a main focus of employment because of the need for IT-competent professionals in all sectors and for almost all types of tasks. Research has shown that workers with internet skills have better access to the job of their dreams and receive better pay. A study showed that 58% believed that digital technologies had helped them find a good job (Van Deursen, 2010).

Identity Theft

Publishing personal information online can also expose users to identity theft, harassment, or other unwanted results. In addition to the risks people create for themselves, they may be exposed to various technical risks such as malware or viruses that transmit sensitive information to malicious people (such as passwords for online banking, public logins, etc.).


Publication of personal information creates permanent visible traces, which can affect the labor market later. A study found that about 50% of employers used social media to investigate job candidates, and 35% of them found content that caused them not to hire the candidate (Careerbuilder, 2009). E.g. inappropriate photographs, attitudes, consumption of alcohol, drugs or slander of colleagues.

Responsibility, Ethics and Law

People can not only harm themselves, but also others. People often expose sensitive information about their friends and colleagues – though mostly for fun (Get Safe Online, 2007). In a workplace it has in many cases led to disciplinary proceedings against the employee (Proofpoint, 2007). People are often ignorant of current norms and laws (Chou et al., 2007).


In schools, cyberbullying is a concern for both students and teachers, and as many as 43% of students have experienced online bullying (Palfrey, Sacco, Boyd, DeBonis & Tatlock, 2008). One study shows that this is assisted by parents, where 21% have published names and pictures of their children that could cause bullying (ConsumerReports.org, 2011). Many parents need better digital skills in order to protect, help and educate their children in the digital world.

Critical Understanding

Online content affects people’s decisions and activities, and it is therefore crucial that people understand the internet as a resource where the validity of information is not necessarily verified. For example, a survey shows that 34% of European internet users had decided not to buy a selected product due to a negative review on a blog (Hargittai, 2009). On the internet, it is the reader and the recipient that are responsible for assessing the reliability and value of information, and it is important that people understand this. Many schools and educational programs have banned the use of Wikipedia as a source, as they believe that students do not have the skills for critical and responsible use.


Digital competence is important for both individuals and organisations to keep pace with developments to increase efficiency and innovate new products and processes. Those who do not have the skills to take advantage of digital media are excluded from the new possibilities offered by the technology. This way, we risk creating a divide (or a digital divide) between the people or organisations who use digital media and those who do not. Digital networks are also important for any entrepreneur, as it is easy to create an online platform for innovative business areas, even if they have a very narrow audience.

Social Inequality

Research shows that ICT strengthens traditional forms of social inequality. The economic, social, health, cultural and societal benefits of good digital skills are more accessible to those who already have these benefits and less accessible to the most needy, such as low-skilled, unemployed or elderly without social support (Van Deursen, 2010) . Therefore, initiatives should be taken to promote the development of digital skills for all citizens, regardless of their age, occupation or current use of ICT.

Social Innovation

People with strong digital skills can use a wide range of digital platforms for social innovations and initiatives. For example, launching collective initiatives in a local community, initiating a project or helping victims of disasters.


IT skills also have economic implications for the ordinary consumer as they are able to search for lower prices, and buy and sell products and services through different channels.


Digital tools and media also provide a new dimension to lifelong learning. They provide a means of developing innovative learning methods and teaching with student-centered approaches, as well as connecting schools in an organised collaboration.

Professional Networks

There are many professional networks where knowledge is developed and exchanged. It helps to provide people with informal learning as part of their personal activities – even when they do not set out to learn (Ala-Mutka, 2010). Through online practice communities, employees and professionals have been given a new and effective means of getting help with tasks and developing knowledge with other professionals around the world.


The digital social platforms also provide a new scene where people can share their personal expressions and interact with an audience. For example, a survey of blogs showed that bloggers used the platform for creative expression (77%), sharing personal experiences (76%) and sharing practical knowledge (64%) (Lenhart & Fox, 2006). People can also show their professional or artistic skills through online portals, thereby developing their professional identity and credibility.


Digital media provides access to many resources where it is possible to access up-to-date information from a wide variety of sources. It provides the opportunity to be better and wider informed about the ongoing events locally and in the rest of the world. These online resources also allow people to express their own concerns and ideas or report and highlight issues.


The emergence of various online networks also provides new support schemes for patients with rare diseases or parents of afflicted children. There is knowledge and resources created by individuals, but also by professionals and sometimes with professional editorial control. Overall, there is much information about health available online. A study found that 83% of adult internet users use online resources to find health information (Fox & Jones, 2009).


Social technologies allow you to identify interesting communities or create new connections based on your interests, values or attitudes. Research has shown that good digital competences can contribute to the social and cultural integration of immigrants and ethnic minorities (Redecker, Hache & Centeno, 2010).


Digital technologies create the opportunity to maintain contact with people we know. The technology supports communication for people who may not otherwise be able to interact socially (e.g. elderly people, remote workers, or family members far away from each other). Research also shows that elderly people who have learned to use the internet have more positive attitudes to aging and experience higher levels of social support and community (Cody et al., 1999).

Main Areas of Digital Competence

As is argued, digital competence or lack thereof influence a wide range of areas. Due to this complexity of professional concepts across the many aspects of life, it makes sense to categorise and simplify digital competence in a few main areas.

Below is a model where digital competence is divided into four main areas. There is, of course, in practice an overlap between such areas and a wide range of activities that can not be isolated into a single area. When we reduce the complexity of a few overall areas, the accuracy is also lowered. What we gain instead is a better overview and easier understanding of the field, which is the purpose when mapping digital competence.


Ability to identify, locate, retrieve, store, organise and analyse digital information and evaluate relevance and purpose


Ability to communicate, collaborate, interact with and participate in virtual teams and networks as well as make use of appropriate media, tone and behavior


Ability to create, configure, and edit digital content, solve digital problems and explore new ways to take advantage of technology


Ability to use digital technology safely and sustainably in relation to data, identity and work injuries and to pay attention to legal consequences, rights and duties

The main areas are still on a level that is abstract and difficult to measure. In order to enable measurement, the main areas must therefore be broken up into smaller pieces.

In the following sections, each main area is divided into four digital competences.


Information: Ability to identify, locate, retrieve, store, organise and analyse digital information and evaluate relevance and purpose

Typically strong professions at Information are librarians, school teachers and researchers.

In order to concretise the main area Information, it is divided into the following four competences. For each digital competence, examples have been added which aim to further clarify the competence.


The ability to format, organise and store digital material while keeping both safety and accessibility in mind


  • Carefully consider security, availability and legality when content is stored

  • Understands the guidelines for where and how material is stored.

  • Can format and save a picture in the most appropriate format (for example, JPG, PNG, or raw).

  • Know the pros and cons of storing data in the cloud, on a hard drive or a portable device.


Ability to search and find digital information, navigate between many online resources and sort through irrelevant information


  • I can quickly examine a complex topic, find facts, learning materials, or experts by using relevant search engines.

  • I can sort search results by date, author, multimedia, or file format using filters.

  • For example, I intuitively and as the first option look up train schedules, facts, opening hours, and news on the web.

Critical Evaluation

Ability to process, understand and critically evaluate digital information when sent and received


  • Always consider very carefully how information such as personal interests, profile picture, marital status and religion can affect future careers.

  • Understand how search robots process and index digital resources and how these search results are returned to the user

  • For example, I always consider the author and the website’s credibility and how old the information is


Ability and desire to seek out and benefit from self-service solutions online


  • Feel safe when using, for example, credit card details, NemId or social security number.

  • For example, I can make address changes, apply for a health card, make a dentist’s appointment, or pay a bill through online banking.

  • Always look for an online self-service solution (e.g. for appointments or purchasing tickets) before you call or ask in person.


Communication: Ability to communicate, collaborate, interact with and participate in virtual teams and networks as well as make use of appropriate media, tone and behavior

Typically strong professions within Communication are journalists, HR, marketing.

In order to concretise the main area Communication, it is divided into the following four competences. For each digital competence, examples have been added which aim to further clarify the competence.

Active Participation

Ability and interest in making use of, expressing opinions or otherwise contributing actively and making yourself visible in digital environments


  • Understanding the pros and cons of the internet’s possibilities for political debates and sharing political messages. For example, viral media.

  • For example, I know professional or social networks such as Meetup, Pinterest, Flickr, LinkedIn, Blogster, Youtube and Twitter.

  • For example, I often comment on newspaper articles, write on a blog, share posts on social media or participate actively in a professional network.


Ability to use technologies and media for teamwork, coordination and collaboration processes


  • For example, writing an email quickly and that conveys the meaning clearly and without misunderstandings.

  • Know the principles of digital collaborations and understand how to coordinate a project with a team.

  • For example, I have the ability to express an opinion or a feeling to the recipient by using a certain tone when writing a text.

Social Awareness

Ability to reconcile behavior, tone, language and technology with regard to context and social relations


  • I have a predetermined position on how I will respond to an offensive comment or a rude email.

  • I have sympathetic insight into the emotions, thoughts and attitudes of others (even if I have never met them face to face).

  • For example, I am good at tailoring languages, slang, image types, colors or multimedia to the recipient.

Media Choice

Ability to interact through a wide range of digital platforms and to be able to choose the best media for communicating with a specific recipient or group


  • Always checking the rules to be accepted in order to use an online service (e.g. terms of use for e-box)

  • In some cases, a picture is worth a thousand words. In other cases, the best format could be a short video.

  • For example, I understand the various strengths and weaknesses of communication technology such as telephone, email, chat, videoconferencing, SMS.


Production: Ability to create, configure, and edit digital content, solve digital problems and explore new ways to take advantage of technology

Typically strong professions within the area of competence Production are designers, programmers, IT professionals.

In order to concretise the main area Production, it is divided into the following four competences. For each digital competence, examples have been added which aim to further clarify the competence.

Production and Sharing

Ability to create, assemble parts and modify content in many different formats. E.g. images, text, video or sound


  • Can format and save a picture in the most appropriate format (for example, JPG, PNG, or raw).

  • I find joy in creating a product that is exclusively digital. For example, a picture, a piece of music, or a video.

  • For example, I can edit photos, videos, text, or audio in programs such as Photoshop, Final Cut, or Word.

Digital Exploration

Ability and willingness to stay updated on the technological developments and explore new digital opportunities


  • Can quickly learn how to, for example, use new digital devices, online services, or software.

  • Do not mind constantly renewing software and digital devices and can also avoid feeling irritation or stress.

  • Curiosity about, for example, new smartphones on the market and interest in talking about new gadgets or technological achievements.


Ability to modify or create digital solutions that can fully or partially automate and perform a task


  • Know how to use databases such as Excel, MySQL, Microsoft Access, or Oracle to store data when appropriate.

  • Knowledge of the process that leads from a concept of programming to a finished piece of software.

  • Understanding when, for example, a mandatory course can be replaced with more flexible e-learning or when a weekly meeting can be replaced with a videoconference.


Ability to adjust applications and devices to their own personal preferences, as well as to solve technical problems or tasks


  • Do not get very frustrated or give up when a technical problem arises.

  • Not afraid of trying things out without knowing beforehand what exactly is going to happen (e.g. when a printer will not print).

  • Understand the connection between elements such as CPU, RAM, motherboards, cables (e.g. HDMI) and network routers.


Safety: Ability to use digital technology safely and sustainably in relation to data, identity and work injuries and to pay attention to legal consequences, rights and duties

Typically strong professions within Safety are police, lawyers, ergonomics.

In order to concretise the main area Safety, it is divided into the following four competences. For each digital competence, examples have been added which aim to further clarify the competence.


Knowledge about current laws and licenses for digital behavior, information and content


  • Know when, for example, intimidation, harassment, bullying, and the spreading of rumors and secrets go from being annoying to being illegal.

  • For example, checking if I have the right to a photo before using it for anything.

  • Know the law on marketing, rumors, spam, copyright, threats, discrimination, private photos or speculation on the web.

Identity Management

Ability to monitor and protect your personal information online and understand the consequences of personal digital footprints


  • Always consider very carefully how personal information such as profile picture, marital status, political standpoint and religion can affect future careers.

  • Know how to search for and find personal data such as profile photo, previous comments, address, job, education etc.

  • Understand, for example, how criticising or complimenting other people or organisations in a public space can affect them.

Data Protection

Ability to identify and protect sensitive data and understand related risks


  • The ability to use, for example, a 2-Step verification or password protection on documents while ensuring that the line is encrypted when they are sent.

  • Methods for recognising attempts to lure sensitive data from you, such as username, password or credit card details.

  • The good habit of, for example, creating passwords using symbols, numbers, uppercase letters, and without the use of family or pet names.


Ability to care for both physical and mental health in an everyday life surrounded by technology and media


  • Knowledge that, for example, headache, blurred vision or pain in the wrist may be signs of overuse.

  • Knowledge of the most common shortcut keys such as undo, search, screenshot, bold, navigation, or zoom (ctrl +).

  • Knowledge of, for example, the most healthy posture, screen height, leg position, and the most ergonomic working tools.

Anvendt litteratur

  • Ala-Mutka, K. (2008). Social Computing: Study on the Use and Impacts of Collaborative Content IPTS Exploratory Research on the Socio-economic Impact of Social Computing: Institute for Prospective Technological Studies, Joint Research Centre, European Commission.
  • Ala-Mutka, K. (2010). Learning in Informal Online Networks and Communities: Institute for Prospective Technological Studies, Joint Research Centre, European Commission.
  • Benjamin Bloom et al (1956). Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: The Classification of Educational Goals. New York: McKay.
  • Chou, C., Chan, P. S., & Wu, H. C. (2007). Using a two-tier test to assess students’ understanding and alternative conceptions of cyber copyright laws. British Journal of Educational Technology, 38(6), 072-1084.
  • Cody, M. J., Dunn, D., Hoppin, S., & Wendt, P. (1999). Silver surfers: Training and evaluating Internet use among older adult learners. Communication Education, 48(4), 269-286.
  • ConsumerReports.org. (2011). Online exposure – Social networks, mobile phones, and scams can threaten your security. Consumer Reports, (June 2011).
  • Fox, S., & Jones, S. (2009). The Social Life of Health Information: Pew Internet & American Life Project.
  • Get Safe Online. (2007). Social networkers and wireless networks users provide ‘rich pickings’ for criminals. Dudley: Get Safe Online.
  • Hargittai, E. (2009). An Update on Survey Measures of Web-Oriented Digital Literacy Social Science Computer Review, 27(1), 130-137.
  • Lenhart, A., & Fox, S. (2006). A portrait of the internet’s new storytellers. Pew/Internet.
  • Lorin Anderson & D. Krathwohl (2001). A taxonomy for learning, teaching, and assessing: a revision of Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives. New York, NY: Addison Wesley Longman
  • Palfrey, J., Sacco, D. T., boyd, d., DeBonis, L., & Tatlock, J. (2008). Enhancing Child safety & Online Technologies. Final report of the Internet Safety Technical Task Force. Cambridge (MA), The Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University: Internet Safety Technical Task Force to the Multi-State Working Group on Social Networking of State Attorneys General of the United States.
  • Proofpoint, I. (2007). Outbound Email and Content Security in Today’s Enterprise.
  • Redecker, C., Hache, A., & Centeno, C. (2010). Using Information and Communication Technologies to Promote Education and Employment Opportunities for Immigrants and Ethnic Minorities: Institute for Prospective Technological Studies, Joint Research Centre, European Commission.
  • van Deursen, A. J. A. M. (2010). Internet Skills. Vital assets in an information society. University of Twente.