Digital technology provides widespread access to an information-rich environment. While this environment facilitates the free exploration of non-linear information, it also challenges some people in important ways, as a vast amount of information from multiple sources must be quickly processed: “the uncertain quality and sheer abundance of information pose large challenges for society” (Association of Colleges and Research Libraries, 2000, p. 2). Findings of a study conducted to assess reading behaviours in the digital environment indicated that: “with an increasing amount of time spent reading electronic documents, a screen-based reading behavior is emerging. The screen-based reading behavior is characterized by more time spent on browsing and scanning, keyword spotting, one-time reading, non-linear reading, and reading more selectively, while less time is spent on in-depth reading, and concentrated reading” (Liu, 2005, p. 700). The ability to plan the order in which the various chunks of information should be read, to maintain coherence between these chunks of information, and to structure the information being processed in an interconnected mental representation, is also of critical importance (Amadieu, Tricot, & Mariné, 2008, p. 1). Therefore to be successful in processing information in a digital technology environment, a person must be able to effectively and efficiently determine what information is needed, to access, organize, integrate, assess, and apply that information to create new knowledge. Much of these tasks are governed by the proper control and regulation of information reading.
While this abundant source of complex and nonlinear information is facilitating to some people, it can also be debilitating to others who do not possess strong self-regulatory and metacognitive skills to help them navigate and process information in the digital environment (Lee & Baylor, 2006). The nonlinearity of digital information is often disorienting to these individuals (Begoray, 1990), and causes them to lose all sense of direction and location in space (Conklin, 1987). This hampers their ability to make strategic navigational choices and wise selection of information sources (Jacobson, Maouri, Mishra, & Kolar, 1996). A key difference in processing information in a digital environment as compared to other more traditional ones is the need to understand how “different visually-organized semantic units relate to each other” (Lee & Baylor, 2006, p. 344) in order to make wise navigational decisions. The information processing demands imposed by the digital environment can become a cause of disorientation to people who lack the necessary cognitive skills to construct their reading sequence and establish coherence of unstructured information captured from various sources (Amadieu, Tricot, & Mariné, 2008). Scheele (Scheele, 1993) provided a strong metaphorical illustration of this problem, as encountered by some people: “in this age of information overload, it is easy to feel like a starving person with a can of soup but no can opener” (p. 13). Some people are challenged and overwhelmed by the need to evaluate and integrate information (OECD, 2009a). Eshet-Alkalai argued that “digital literacy involves more than the mere ability to use software or operate a digital device; it includes a large variety of complex cognitive skills…which users need in order to function effectively in digital environments” (Eshet-Alkalai Y. , 2004, p. 93). Recent observations made by OECD accurately summarize the issues discussed above:
Now, as information-based economies are succeeding industrial-based economies, literacy is again being transformed. A new form of text, digital text, makes increased demands on readers, and changes the ways in which text is used. The amount of information available and its uncensored nature emphasizes the abilities needed to connect, evaluate and interpret information. In addition, computer technologies have added new dimensions related to the nonlinear, recursive, and interactive nature of these environments. Because individuals now often move through the material in their own ways when searching for information, they very often create their own “texts” in the sense that the total set of information that each individual encounters is unique. Collectively, the skills required to effectively use digital information are less well understood than traditional print skills but suggest that we will need to expand our definition of what it means to be literate (OECD, 2009b, p. 5).
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. These skills will become as important as the ability to drive a car (Bawden, 2001) and are fast becoming part of the new literacies of the 21st century. The prevalence of digital technology, which gave people access to a vast amount of largely unfiltered information, created a need for a set of skills to access, manage, integrate and evaluate information. The increasing use of digital technology to perform routine cognitive and manual tasks caused a fundamental shift in workers’ roles in the production of goods and services to tasks requiring more complex information processing, critical thinking, and decision making that cannot be attributed to computers (Levy & Murnane, 2004). In this restructured economic and industrial environment, knowledge has therefore become intellectual capital. Information and knowledge that are quickly accessed, properly adapted, and broadly shared are key drivers of economic growth and social prosperity. Consequently, workers’ ability to acquire, store, process, use, and share information with the assistance of digital technology is becoming increasingly important. Verdonschot and Keursten (2006) have used the term knowledge productivity to describe the process of: “identifying, gathering and interpreting relevant information, using this information to develop new skills and to apply these skills to improve and radically innovate operating procedures, products and services” (p. 1). Canadian workers need a set of digital skills over and above the HRSDC “Computer Use” essential skill to function effectively and efficiently in digital environments.