Digital Literacy: The Need to Prepare Students for the 21st Century Workplace

Dobson & Willinsky (2009) noted that the “digital aspect of literacy, invisible to the naked eye, is the very current that drives the global information economy” (p. 1).  The need for a digitally literate population is critical if Canada is to successfully compete in the world economy, especially given that the service sector comprises 70% of Canada’s gross domestic product (GDP) and employs 76% of the Canadian population (Chinien & Boutin, 2011).  The challenge facing educators is how to ensure today’s students are prepared for the 21st century workplace.

Importance of Digital Literacy

Bawden (2001) noted that “as digital technology becomes ubiquitous, workers will increasingly need an appropriate set of digital skills to access and process information using digital systems and tools” (as cited in Chinien & Boutin, 2011, p. 14).  Due to globalization, Canada now competes with other countries and “while the production of hard goods is important, national prosperity heavily depends on increasing productivity in the service sector” (Information and Communications Technology Council, 2012, p. 6).  Unlike past trading, however, where the focus was on raw materials, today’s trade takes place in a knowledge economy without borders.  As noted by the Information and Communications Technology Council, (ICTC), (2010), digital literacy “is the fundamental requirement for effective participation in the world’s economy” (p. 1).

Canada’s productivity problems are not new, as Statistics Canada noted that Canada’s productivity from 1981 to the second quarter of 2012 was 0.1 per cent lower per year (as cited in McKenna, 2012, para. 3).  This drop in productivity is consistent with the recent rankings by the World Economic Forum where Canada dropped from 10th place in 2010 to 2011 to 14th in 2012 to 2013 in the Global Competitiveness Index (World Economic Forum, 2012).

Digitally literate individuals are viewed as being more flexible and adaptable (Ng, 2012), as well as capable of working more efficiently (Information and Communications Technology Council, 2010).  The ICTC (2010) concluded that digital literacy is needed “to retain flexibility and mobility of career and job openings” (p. 6).  The ICTC (2010) also identified that digitally literate individuals can positively impact productivity, innovation and research and development in a number of ways, such as “speed[ing] up the responses of companies to commercial opportunities, extend[ing] academic research more deeply and quickly, and exchang[ing] best practices with global colleagues” (p. 2).

Dobson & Willinsky (2009) noted the existence of a digital divide based on factors such gender, geography (developed vs. developing world), and income.  The ICDC (2010) suggested the existence of another disparity known as the digital literacy divide, where “some groups are falling behind in their [digital literacy] skills and have less access to new technology” (p. 6).  This divide could lead a digitally illiterate worker to be “condemned to ever-shrinking choices of employment” (Information and Communications Technology Council, 2010, p. 6).  Not only would this situation have a negative impact on the worker, but the economy would also suffer as Canada will likely face a shortage of skilled workers due to the impending mass retirement of baby boomers (Information and Communications Technology Council, 2010).  So how does Canada position itself to ensure it has digitally literate workers?

Educational Needs

Eshet-Alkalai (2004) and Lankshear & Knobel (2008) noted that many attempts have been made to define digital literacy, resulting in definitions that “are quite different in nature and often inconsistent” (as cited in Nelson, Courier & Joseph, 2011, p. 96).  Gilster (1997) noted that digital literacy is an “essential life-skill – becoming as necessary as a driver’s license” (as cited in Bawden, 2001, p. 21).  Since the definition of digital literacy is “still incomplete” (Aviram & Eshet-Alkalai, 2006, para. 32), Nelson et al. (2011) suggested this inconsistency “challenges the effective design of curricula and courses targeting digital literacy” (p. 95).

Gilster (1997) postulated that the fundamental skill of digital literacy should be “critical thinking” and not “technical competence” (as cited in Martin & Grudziecki, 2006, p. 254).  For example, students should be able to use critical thinking to assess the credibility of an Internet source when completing research.  Based on experience, this is not always the case, and as observed by Cheney (2010), students “typically use information that finds them, rather than deciding what information they need” (as cited in Hobbs, 2011, p. 16).  Nelson et al. (2011) noted that “a focus on the appropriate application of skills (digital competence), i.e. situational embedding, as opposed to just a mastery of skills is crucial” (p. 104).  The importance of applying digital skills was also echoed in the DigEuLit project, which posited that “the informed uses of digital competence within life situations” (Martin & Grudziecki, 2006, p. 258) was critical.  The New London Group (1996) postulated that simulating life situations could involve “work relations of collaboration, commitment and creative involvement” (p. 72).

Ng (2012) posited that the teacher plays a pivotal role in helping students acquire digital literacy skills, and that educators “need to know how to use the tools and model their uses or explicitly teach their students about the technologies and their uses” (Ng, 2012, p. 1077).  Margayan, Littlejohn & Vojt (2011) also suggested that students have a “limited understanding of how technology could support their learning and that their expectations of learning with technologies are influenced by their lecturers’ approaches to teaching (as cited in Ng, 2012, p. 1077).


As noted by Aviram & Eshet-Alkalai (2006), “the digital era is not going to disappear, and the need for education to respond to the growing digital tide is rapidly increasing” (para. 90).  To prepare students for the 21st century workplace, curricula must focus on the acquisition of digital competence by applying skills to real-life situations wherever possible.  In addition, teachers should model appropriate technology use during lesson delivery and provide students with opportunities to use technology on a regular basis. A digitally literate workforce is necessary if Canada is to improve its productivity and successfully compete on the world stage.


Aviram, A., & Eshet-Alkalai, Y. (2006).  Towards a theory of digital literacy: Three scenarios for the next steps. Retrieved from

Bawden, D. (2001).  Information and digital literacies: A review of concepts.  Retrieved from

Chinien, C., & Boutin, F.  (2011). Defining essential digital skills in the Canadian workplace: Final report.  Retrieved from

Dobson, T., & Willinsky, J. (2009). Digital literacy.  Retrieved from Literacy.pdf

Hobbs, R. (2011). Empowering learners with digital and media literacy.  Knowledge Quest, 39(5), 13-17.

Information and Communications Technology Council. (2010).  Digital literacy: Canada’s productivity opportunity.  Retrieved from

Martin, A., & Grudziecki, J. (2006). DigEuLit: Concepts and tools for digital literacy development.  Retrieved from

McKenna, B. (2012).  Canadians even less productive than thought over past 30 years.  Retrieved from

Nelson, K., Courier, M., & Joseph, G.W. (2011).  Teaching tip: An investigation of digital literacy needs of students.  Journal of Information Systems Education, 22(2), 95 – 109.

New London Group. (1996). A pedagogy of multiliteracies: Designing social futures. Harvard Educational Review, 66(1), 60-92. Retrieved, August 15, 2009, from

Ng, W. (2012).  Can we teach digital natives digital literacy?  Computers & Education, 59, 1065– 1078.

World Economic Forum. (2012). Global competitiveness index 2012 – 2013: Canada.  Retrieved from

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1 Response to Digital Literacy: The Need to Prepare Students for the 21st Century Workplace

  1. Danielle Dubien says:

    Hi Deborah,

    I really enjoyed your commentary because it shows the importance of digital literacy in the world outside of school. There are points you brought up that I’d like to address because they reveal potential obstacles to improving digital literacy on a large scale.

    You mentioned the curriculum. Sometimes the process for updating the curriculum does not keep pace with advances in technology. When it comes to goals purely about technological skills, the curriculum may need to be made more flexible or easier to update.

    You mentioned teachers’ abilities to teach digital literacy and their approaches. It wasn’t so long ago that I heard of teachers who were unable to use their own email programs at work. It would be great to know how well developed teachers’ digital literacy skills are, in terms of both technology and critical thinking. Maybe your references contain this information. If not, a survey to this effect could be useful to determine whether substantially more funds need to go to training. It would also be good to know about the approaches teachers use. Some methods likely perpetuate technophobia, especially if teachers themselves have a negative or fearful attitude toward technology. The reason that attitude is so important is that self-confidence with regards to technology use can be more important than technological skills themselves. A student who knows how to use a few programs well but can’t troubleshoot or transfer his skills to different programs will soon be overwhelmed in the ever-changing technological world.

    You quoted Gilster concerning the importance of critical thinking in digital literacy education. I agree that critical thinking is extremely important, but I hope that no one sees it as a new skill just because it relates to the Internet. Teachers should already know how to teach students to determe the credibility and accuracy of online references, for the most part anyway. It’s not all that different from dealing with print resources. So if students aren’t capable of thinking critically about online sources of information, it’s likely a symptom of a greater problem: the students aren’t capable of thinking critically about references in any format.

    When I get a chance, I’ll take a look at some of the documents listed in your references. You seem to have listed a lot of useful resources!


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