Citizen skills for the digital era

How to build standards for skill development

Every time we invent a new form of communication (letters, postcards, telegrams, phone, tv, email, social media), everyone needs to learn new best practices and to avoid common pitfalls. As social platforms and apps are expanding faster and faster, we’re all stretched to our limits in trying to understand them and be productive with them. Therefore, evolving digital media literacy skills are more and more central for all humans, from children to the elderly.

Let’s start by looking at how people in Finland and Europe have been taught to work with computers, and how that’s evolved from Word and Excel operation to higher level skills and competencies.

The story of the International Computer Driver’s License

Most industrialized countries have been teaching computer skills from the 1980s onwards, which mainly focus on successful operation of the office software tools that were in use at that time.

ICDL, or the International Computer Driver’s License, actually originates from Finland. It was developed in 1995 by two non-profit organizations, Tieke and TTL. The Finnish computer driver’s license was so successful that it was adopted into the European license in 1996 by a CEPIS task force, and later the International license (ECDL and ICDL respectively).

What made the original Finnish invention a successful innovation was that it wasn’t a set of technical requirements but rather a broader framework of skills ICT professionals of various levels should have.

When you look at the original exams and training modules for the Finnish computer driver’s license, which are already two decades old, they are of course mostly irrelevant. They mention software that no longer exists, internet protocols that are no longer mainstream, and are generally obsolete. But the higher level skills are still relevant: text processing, spreadsheets, and digital communications are still very much present in office work.

Skills for the digital era

Therefore it is crucial to build any standard requirements so that they talk about broad skill categories. They can then be implemented as exams or training modules that are built around the technologies and practices of that time, and which need to be updated every year or two.

I will introduce four different standards. Three of them are broadly meant for citizens, one for a specific sector of the workforce. I have mapped the three generic ones in Figure 1 so you can see how they correspond to each other.

Figure 1. Approximate correspondences between the European 2016 framework DigComp, the 2006 European Framework 8 key competences, and the Finnish 2016 national curriculum goals.

The European Commission has already in 2006 listed eight key competencies for lifelong learning for European citizens. [1]

  1. Communication in the mother tongue
  2. Communication in foreign languages
  3. Mathematical competence and basic competences in science and technology
  4. Digital competence
  5. Learning to learn
  6. Social and civic competences
  7. Sense of initiative and entrepreneurship
  8. Cultural awareness and expression

The more recent European Digital Competencies framework from 2016 consists of five skill categories. [2]

  • Information and Data Literacy
  • Communication and Collaboration
  • Digital Content Creation
  • Safety
  • Problem Solving

The new Finnish primary school curriculum that is in effect for years 2016–2026 lists the following seven broad competence areas as national goals. They transverse all subject areas and include the development of knowledge, skills, values, attitudes, and will.[3]

  • Thinking and learning to learn
  • Looking after oneself, managing daily activities, safety
  • Cultural competence, interaction and expression
  • Multiliteracy
  • ICT-competence
  • Competence for the world of work, entrepreneurship
  • Participation and influence, building the sustainable future

If you compare the European sets from 2006 and 2016 you can see the evolution. Even though the 8 key competencies were already quite abstract, they still seem quite concrete when compared to the newer DigComp framework. Comparing that to the 7 competence areas from the Finnish curriculum you see many similarities.

The Finnish Information Society Development Center Tieke has lately developed a new “@ level” for their CDL, which is more suited to all citizens, not people who work with computers. With the rapid expansion of mobile devices in everyday life, a more mobile-oriented version of their @-license is becoming necessary.

Skills for each sector

While national standards are a good starting point for citizen skills, each sector of society has its own (possibly unwritten) standards for skills and competencies.

As an example of sector specific frameworks, Finnish teachers were given a framework in 2000, called, which was updated in 2010. The major reform in the 2010 update was to move the focus from individual competencies to advancing the teaching community and the school. This change of focus from individuals to community members working together is telling and reflects the greater change in society, where individuals need to work together to achieve great things.

Through communities do individuals make their mark on this world.

For example, level 1, which every teacher was expected to reach, has the following areas. [4]

  • Advancement of the school community
  • Operating in digital teaching and learning environments
  • Pedagogical competencies
  • Information management and retrieval skills, development of work and expertise
  • ICT basic skills
  • Leading the community, networking skills, digital management
  • Privacy, safety, copyrights

As you can see, the framework’s contents are quite similar to national level frameworks, with sector-specific focus areas. The framework provides level 2 for a significant portion of teachers for them to specialize in certain areas, and level 3 for the few individuals who want to become change leaders and experts.

Digital media literacy

While successful members of society need various skills, one that is maybe changing the fastest is the ability to understand the rapidly changing media technologies. Do you understand how social media platform algorithms restrict and bias what you see? Do you know how the newest popular sharing apps operate and how to use them successfully?

In two decades we’ve moved from print and TV media to online, with its numerous voices vying for your attention, and the various platforms and algorithms trying to maximize effectiveness. Mostly, the platforms are not designed to support an individual’s ability to learn about the world and to get unbiased information, but usually they optimize ad revenue to their advertisers, which leads to them maximize time spent and items clicked on their platform.

Of particular interest in the Finnish curriculum is the multiliteracy competence. It is an expansion of media literacy or critical reading, and refers to the capacity to communicate in various media channels, from text to pictures to video, and to understand the context and use patterns of each channel. Pictures in Snapchat are different from pictures in Instagram, for example.

Each citizen should therefore understand the basic motivations or business models of the communication services they use, so they can more critically evaluate what they see there. They should acquire skills such as critical reading, constructive criticism and dialogue, active listening and empathy, digital communication etiquette, and so on. As transmedia productions are becoming more commonplace, we need to be able to operate in various media channels and to combine and understand them holistically.

One concrete scenario for these skills is avoiding fraud. Criminals are of course very talented in using everything from phone calls and emails to spoofed sites and malware to further their goals. We are all amateurs in comparison to them. But even rudimentary understanding of the basics of persuasion techniques and various scam and fraud methods will make you a harder target.

The code of conduct for each platform is also something we need to learn, if we’re to make use of them. An added obstacle is that in many platforms, individual groups have their own communities with their own organically developed rules and conventions. We all need to learn the techniques of introducing ourselves into new communities and working in them. The traditional skills of relying on physical presence and body language are no longer sufficient.

A call for deep work skills

The constant information flow from our apps is enticing, even addicting. And since it’s not a game but real people, it seems like you’re doing productive networking. For most of us, though, time spent on social media is as productive as time previously spent on tabloids and gossiping: a nice pastime, but not producing much of actual value. A part of multiliteracy is being aware of each media channel’s capabilities, uses, and dangers.

An increasingly rare capability in humans is the capacity for boredom, or relaxation, or being task negative. Just letting your mind wander. Recent studies seem to indicate that relaxation is actually required to achieve top performance in short sprints, which are crucial for really valuable knowledge work. James Hewitt explains it well:

If you wish to become a valued knowledge worker, you need the ability perform at a top level. That means you need to be able to concentrate and really push your mind. If you’re prone to distractions from your phone, you need to improve. A very good manual and step by step guidelines to get you there is Deep Work — Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport [5]. The basic message is that if you find yourself grabbing your phone any time you have nothing to do, you’re already in trouble.


National standards for competences are an important framework to orient people and training institutes, but they must not be too prescriptive or detailed. Even high level competence standards will need updating every 5–10 years. And any training modules, exams, and other implementations of those competences need constant upgrading.


  1. European Commission (2006). Lifelong learning — key competences.
  2. European Commission (2016). The Digital Competence Framework.
  3. National Board of Education (2016). General aspects of basic education curriculum reform 2016 Finland.
  4. National Board of Education (2010). I-taso.
  5. Newport, Cal (2016). Deep Work — Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.

About the Author

Tarmo Toikkanen is Chief Learning Scientist at LifeLearn Platform. He has over a decade of research experience in the fields of learning environments, participatory design, and educational psychology. His passion is to save the world by helping people learn and teach in better ways. This article is part of a series to explain LifeLearn Platform’s ideas on learning.