What Is the Difference between Computer Literacy and Digital Literacy?

Computer literacy and digital literacy are related yet distinct. Understanding the difference is important to ensure people learn skills that equip them for the future. So what is the difference between computer literacy and digital literacy?

Computer literacy encompasses the basics of how to use the computer itself. To be literate, you must know how to turn on the computer, how to interact with its components, and how to troubleshoot the machine to resolve common issues. Digital literacy requires broad knowledge of how to use the machine to accomplish your goals. To be literate, you must know how to find information on the internet, how to avoid scams, and how to use digital tools.

It’s important to understand the difference between computer literacy and digital literacy to prevent disparities. Recognizing the difference between computer literacy and digital literacy allows institutions to build appropriate digital infrastructure to prevent disparities and equip people with necessary skills for advancement.

Key Components of Computer Literacy

The complexity of computer literacy, compared to digital literacy, is decreasing in modern life. Individuals should still know the basics of how to use a computer itself, such as how to turn it on and plug in the components. However, today’s user-friendly technology makes this knowledge less challenging to attain.

When automobiles were a new technology, vehicle owners needed to be well versed in mechanics. Starting the engine with a hand crank was challenging, and basic repair skills were necessary. Now, drivers can start a car with the push of a button. The ease of use doesn’t require much learning.

In the same way, computers have progressed. Instruction manuals are used infrequently, and you can hold a computer in one hand. Data from Pew Research Center shows that 97 percent of Americans owned cell phones in 2021 while just three-quarters owned desktops or laptop computers. Some cell phones are now more powerful than PCs.

Computer Literacy Skills

Basic computer literacy involves turning on and interacting with a device. For example, a person with basic computer skills can do the following:

  • Turn on and off a computer
  • Use devices like a mouse or keyboard
  • Run application software
  • Download and upload a file

Advanced computer literacy involves knowing the intricacies of computer science. For example, a person with advanced computer skills can do the following:

  • Install a motherboard
  • Implement network security
  • Write a computer program
  • Design artificial intelligence processes

Barriers to Computer Literacy

Whether the learner is an adult or a student, a user must overcome barriers to computer literacy. Barriers to learning generally fall into three categories: situational, institutional, and dispositional barriers.

Situational barriers refer to barriers caused by the person’s resources. The person may not have the time or money to invest in computer education. Access to technology, transportation, or childcare hinder individuals’ ability to attend classes.

Institutional barriers refer to barriers caused by an organization’s structure. A learner may not gain the necessary skills because the class size is too large. Poor advertising, inadequate course materials, and complicated enrollment are institutional barriers.

Dispositional barriers refer to barriers within the individual. Learners must overcome lack of self-confidence, poor educational performance, and lack of motivation. 

Key Components of Digital Literacy

Digital literacy is a broader category of skills than computer literacy. The components of digital literacy change over time as well.

The American Library Association defines digital literacy as “the ability to use information and communication technologies to find, evaluate, create, and communicate information, requiring both cognitive and technical skills.” Digital literacy goes beyond being able to read a website or send a text message. It requires knowing how to find what you need to communicate effectively.

Digital Literacy Skills

A few examples of digital literacy skills include knowing the following:

  • How to find information online. Users must know how to use search engines and identify trustworthy resources.
  • What’s dangerous. Users, especially older adults, must know how to identify scams and protect their personal information online.
  • What you can do. Digitally literate people know the best practices for available programs. If they aren’t familiar with a program yet, they also know how to learn more.
  • How to communicate well. Digitally literate people understand available communication tools, social media platforms, and best practices for networking.

Barriers to Digital Literacy

Digital literacy goes beyond computer literacy because it gives individuals the power to connect around the world. Effective use of digital devices allows people to build on ideas from others to create something greater than they could create alone.

While the opportunities offered by digital literacy are greater than those available from computer literacy, the barriers to digital literacy are similar. Situational, institutional, and dispositional barriers apply to digital literacy as well.

Why It Is Important to Understand the Difference Between Computer Literacy and Digital Literacy

It’s important to understand the difference between computer literacy and digital literacy because more jobs now require digital skills. According to a study by Burning Glass Technologies, 82 percent of middle-skill jobs require digital skills. Middle-skill jobs represent around 38 percent of overall job postings and include opportunities in IT networking, customer relationship management software, transportation, and construction. Employers increasingly expect workers to have digital skills, up 4 percent from 2014 to 2017.

Digital skills also provide a foundation for more lucrative jobs. Within the middle-skill job market, jobs that require digital skills pay an average of $20 an hour. Jobs requiring advanced digital skills pay at least $28 an hour. Employees lacking these skills fall increasingly behind and hit a ceiling for professional advancement.

The Digital Divide

Failure to meet the increasing demand for digital skills causes a digital divide where individuals can’t fully participate in society, democracy, or the economy without them. Understanding the difference between computer literacy and digital literacy helps institutions focus on the skills that employees actually need to advance. Rather than teaching basic computer skills, institutions can develop greater information literacy and teach the digital skills necessary to use technology effectively.

While advanced computer literacy is not required for daily activities, digital literacy and basic computer literacy are necessary. It’s important to start a dialogue across the globe to address these challenges and develop a road map for the path forward.

One option for closing the digital divide is to develop programs like the digital literacy intervention. This program taught digital literacy skills using an online module. Despite its origin in the Pacific Islands, it is relevant across the globe and can be applied in other locales.

Another strategy is to spread knowledge through publications. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) is the world’s largest technical professional organization dedicated to advancing technology. With that goal in mind, IEEE’s Tech Focus publication shares information about technologies and systems that connect the world. Sharing this information is important because computer and digital skills are becoming a prerequisite for jobs and advancement.

Examples of Computer Literacy and Digital Literacy

What is the difference between computer literacy and digital literacy? Everyday examples highlight the differences. A person who is computer literate isn’t necessarily digitally literate.

People often struggle to master the digital literacy skill of staying safe online. Images can contain data called exchangeable image file format (EXIF) that reveal information, like when and where a picture was taken. A picture taken in your backyard can reveal your address and the makeup of your family.

People also often lack the digital literacy skill of understanding the extent of what is possible online. A computer literate person may generally understand how to use the internet. However, they don’t necessarily know it’s possible to deposit checks, shop for insurance, purchase flights, and more using a computer. Gone are the days when you needed to drive to an office or pick up the phone to accomplish these tasks.

Once you understand how someone can have computer literacy without digital literacy, you can better use your resources to develop the skills that impact society. There are a number of ways to foster both computer and digital literacy. It’s important to take steps to mitigate the digital divide between people who have digital literacy and people who don’t. Otherwise, individuals can fall increasingly behind due to lack of knowledge or resources.

Access to Technology

Without access to technology, people can’t gain computer literacy or digital literacy. One way to increase technology access is to increase affordability. Another option is to provide high-quality technology in institutions, like schools, for people who don’t have access at home. This first step is critical to facilitate further development of digital skills.

Access to Internet

Without the internet, people don’t have access to many essential services. This need became even more apparent during the COVID-19 pandemic when children attended school remotely. According to an article in the Harvard Business Review, one in five teens ages thirteen to seventeen were affected by unreliable internet access. They responded in a survey saying “often” or “sometimes” they were not able to do their homework as a result.

Increasing affordability and accessibility of reliable internet will help prevent students from falling behind. One area of technology that offers many opportunities for this goal is the fifth-generation cellular network (5G). The 5G network has increased speed, bandwidth, and reliability. It allows the network of devices, referred to as the Internet of Things (IoT), to interact and communicate quickly and effectively.

IoT and 5G integration have the potential to connect everything on smaller, less expensive devices. This kind of integration has the ability to spur innovations in areas like automated manufacturing, cloud computing, and self-driving cars. It also broadens internet access to a wider audience.

Access to Education

Without education, people often don’t know where to begin to start developing digital literacy. According to a Pew Research Center survey, many Americans have a minimal understanding of technology-related topics. The survey tested Americans’ ability to, for example, understand what cookies do and identify examples of two-factor authentication. In the survey, the median number of questions that responders answered correctly was four out of ten.

Investing in education to teach digital skills will impact progress and innovation, especially in developing countries. Additionally, IEEE Future Networks publications offer ongoing learning opportunities and update people on the latest technology.

Monitoring how education improves digital literacy allows institutions and countries to expand and improve their teaching. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization Institute for Statistics (UIS) analyzed forty-four digital literacy assessments in a report published in January 2019.

The UIS recommended five of those assessments to design an instrument to monitor digital literacy indicators across the globe. Using these assessments and focusing on teaching the topics covered in these assessments is a good step toward decreasing the digital divide.

Join the Community

Let’s revisit the original question: What is the difference between computer literacy and digital literacy? The former requires knowledge of the computer itself, and the latter requires knowledge of how to use it well. Understanding the difference allows individuals and institutions to discern what’s needed to close the digital divide and promote equality. Investing in digital infrastructure, like access to technology, internet, and education, helps equip people with necessary digital skills for the future.

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