Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

Digital Readiness Gaps

1. The meaning of digital readiness

Technological innovation often unfolds at a pace faster than some people are able to embrace. When household electric service started to be widely available in the 1930s, many Americans, particularly in rural areas, were unsure whether they needed it. This led some providers to embark on extensive home-to-home marketing to urge people to wire their homes.1

More recently, as the internet and smartphones have spread through the population, adoption across population segments has been uneven. Pew Research Center recently reported that some users are unable to make the internet and mobile devices function adequately for key activities like looking for jobs. Communities face similar issues. Though the use of technology in schools has unfolded well in some places, problems have arisen where insufficient planning failed to take into account whether there was acceptance of new technology by all parts of the educational ecosystem.

These examples underscore two points about how new technology works its way through society: First, different people and institutions have varying levels of preparedness for using next-generation technologies. Second, this reality can result in varying levels of usage of new technologies as they diffuse in society. These differences can, in turn, ultimately raise the possibility that uneven adoption and use of technology could have negative consequences for those whose are not facile and comfortable technology users.

Since the late 1990s, inequalities in tech adoption have been characterized as the “digital divide,” and the focus has been mainly on the binary “haves versus have nots.”2 However, there has recently been a pivot in the technology adoption discussion that looks at people’s preparedness, such as their digital skills and their trust in technology, which may influence their use of digital tools, separate and apart from their access to them. The term often used to capture these factors is “digital readiness.”3 When organizations, such as libraries, think about digital readiness, it is usually about whether people have the skills to use information technology, as well as the digital literacy tools to help people determine whether the online information they access is trustworthy.4

This means that an operational definition of digital readiness includes several things:

  • Digital skills, that is, the skills necessary to initiate an online session, surf the internet and share content online.
  • Trust, that is, people’s beliefs about their capacity to determine the trustworthiness of information online and safeguard personal information.
  • These two factors express themselves in the third dimension of digital readiness, namely use – the degree to which people use digital tools in the course of carrying out online tasks.

How we measure digital readiness

Each of the three elements of digital readiness – skills, trust, and use – is measurable. Pew Research Center’s November 2015 survey captured the elements of digital readiness in the specific context of lifelong learning and the extent to which people use digital tools to pursue it. The questions described in this section served as the inputs to the typology that generated the five groups of those more or less “digitally ready” to use technology in personal learning.

For measuring skills, the survey asked:

How confident people are in using computers, smartphones or other electronic devices to do the things they need to do online:

  • 54% of internet and smartphone users said they are “very confident.”
  • 32% said they are “somewhat confident.”
  • 10% said they are “only a little confident.”
  • 4% said they are “not at all confident.”

How well this statement describes them: “When I get a new electronic device, I usually need someone else to set it up or show me how to use it.”

  • 26% said this describes them “very well.”
  • 20% said it describes them “somewhat well.”
  • 11% said the statement describes them “not too well.”
  • 42% said this describes them “not at all well.”

How familiar adults are with specific educational resources or concepts: As it turns out, there is not widespread public awareness of some of the key resources that are becoming available thanks to innovation online. Noteworthy majorities of Americans say they are “not too” or “not at all” aware of these things:

  • Common Core standards – 57% of adults have little or no awareness of Common Core, a set of education standards for English and math that were adopted by the federal government in 2010. States create the curricula for the standards, which establish benchmarks that make it easier to compare how students are doing across state lines. The standards are an effort to try to make sure students across the country are learning the same essentials.
  • Distance learning – 61% of adults have little or no awareness of the concept of learning activities that take place remotely rather than in physical classrooms.
  • The Khan Academy – an online archive of video lessons for students on key concepts in math, science, the humanities and languages. Fully 79% of adults do not have much awareness of it.
  • Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) that are now being offered by universities and companies – 80% of adults do not have much awareness of these.
  • Digital badges that can certify if someone has mastered an idea or a skill – 83% of adults do not have much awareness of these.

Overall, 28% of adults say they are very familiar with at least one of the five “ed tech” terms listed. This turns out to be an important indicator of whether a person has used the internet for personal learning.

On its face, asking people about their familiarity with educational technology terms may not seem to have much to do with digital skills. Yet asking people about their familiarity with tech terms has been shown to be a good proxy for their overall level of digital skills in a specific domain. In addition to seeking people’s perceptions of their skills, some surveys also ask about people’s degree of awareness of fairly challenging tech terms. If respondents are highly aware of these terms, experimental research shows that they are also very likely to be able to use the resources associated with them.5 This line of questioning, then, serves as an indicator of whether someone is inclined to pursue learning in an educational ecosystem that regularly requires the use of digital technology.

Additionally, our inclusion of “Common Core standards” as an “ed tech” term warrants explanation because the term itself is not explicitly tied to technology. However, technology is seen as embedded in the Common Core curriculum as a tool that is important for students to be able to use to master the skills and concepts that the Common Core aims to cultivate.6

For measuring trust, the survey asked people:

How well the following statement describes them: “I find it difficult to know whether the information I find online is trustworthy.”

  • 22% said this describes them “very well.”
  • 38% said the statement describes them “somewhat well.”
  • 16% said it describes them “not too well.”
  • 23% said this describes them “not at all well.”

Finally, in measuring use, the analysis measured the extent to which a person used technology in the course of pursuing a number of personal enrichment activities in the past year. (A previous Pew Research report covered in detail how we defined and measured personal learning.) Overall, some 74% of adults – the “personal learners” – said they had participated in activities we classified as personal learning endeavors in the last year. For the use of technology in personal learning, the survey asked about:

  • Using the internet in personal learning in the past 12 months: 52% of personal learners (or 38% of all adults) had done this.
  • Taking an online course in the past 12 months: 16% of all adults had done this.

Each of these two measures were inputs to the typology.

In addition, the analysis of digital readiness in the context of personal learning also involves questions about people’s general attitudes toward learning. These included asking how well people thought these sentences described them:

  • “I often find myself looking for new opportunities to grow as a person.” Some 58% say this describes them “very well” and 31% say “somewhat well.”
  • “I am really glad I am no longer in school and don’t have to go to classes anymore.” About a third (31%) say this describes them “very well” and 20% say “somewhat well.”
  • “I think of myself as a lifelong learner.” Fully 73% say this describes them “very well” and 20% say “somewhat well.”

Each of these questions were part of the typology’s input.

It is important to note that people’s technology access assets (e.g., home broadband subscriptions or smartphones) are not included as inputs to the typology. Although they are related to personal learning and tech use, the choice to have these tech gadgets is generally not the principle reason people decide to purchase them.

  1. David E. Nye, Electrifying America: Social Meanings of a New Technology. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1990.
  2. Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), “Understanding the Digital Divide,” 2001. Available online at:
  3. D. Frank Smith, “Digital Readiness: The Next Wave of the Digital Divide,” State Tech Magazine, May 7, 2014. Available online at:
  4. Rachel Yoemans, “Are Chicagoans Digitally Ready? With Funding Support from Donors to Library Foundation, CPL Is Making Sure They Are.” Chicago Public Library Foundation, May 26, 2016. Available online at:
  5. Eszter Hargittai, “An Update on Survey Measures of Web-Oriented Digital Literacy.” Social Science Computer Review, Volume 27, no. 1, February 2009, pp. 130–137.
  6. See for instance, “Technology and the Common Core” at the Staff Development for Educators.
Icon for promotion number 1

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Fresh data delivery Saturday mornings

Icon for promotion number 1

Sign up for The Briefing

Weekly updates on the world of news & information