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Alexander is currently running the following projects:

During the 1990s, researchers began discussing the presence of the ‘digital divide,’ a distinction of people who do and do not have Internet access. The digital divide concept stems from a comparative perspective of social and information inequality and depends on the idea that there are benefits associated with Internet access. In this respect, concepts such as ‘digital divide’ promote dreams of an internet-utopia in which everybody participates and where deepest aspirations are fulfilled. From a scholarly point of view, technological deterministic ideas that suggest that internet triggers important benefits in a causal connection, are heavily criticized. Theoretical arguments even suggest that relative differences between social categories, that were already unequal in terms of traditional resources, are ampliļ¬ed (van Dijk, 2006; Witte & Mannon, 2010).

Digital divide research has shifted from a binary distinction of access to digital skills and usage. Skills and usage are now central in policies that aim at narrowing social exclusion. The question of who actually benefits from being online certain ways, however, suffers heavily from a lack of theoretical development. Understanding how Internet use is linked to offline (dis)advantage is one of the most complex aspects of digital inequality research. Two important problems are:

Research assumes potential outcomes of Internet use by measuring digital skills or online activities (e.g., Hargittai & Hinnant, 2008; Helsper & Eynon, 2013; van Deursen & van Dijk, 2011, 2014, 2015). These measurements suggest a Matthew effect; capital-enhancing activities are more likely than less beneficial activities when it comes to facilitating opportunities for users (van Deursen & van Dijk, 2014). However, while a link between online activities and outcomes is assumed, there is little empirical evidence that variations in skills and usage result in different outcomes in several areas of society (van Deursen & Helsper, 2015). Those emphasizing the importance of the digital divide insufficiently distinguish supposed kind of new inequality from old inequalities. The result is that the causes and effects of differential access to the Internet is not articulated nor clarified.

2.   Criticism on a technological deterministic perspective of the digital divide mainly derives from a lack of emphasis on the social context in which the internet functions. In spite of calls for theoretical works that explore the mechanisms that shape digital inequality, attempts to study these mechanisms are very scarce. Most of the research has remained at a descriptive level, emphasizing the demographics of gender, age, income, and education. Scholars agree that we should start by studying digital divides in context (Tsatsou, 2012), a position influenced by socio-constructivist and critical theses on society and technology. The role of social actors in the shaping, development and spread of the Internet should be the focus. Society's ideas, values, dispositions, practices, and processes matter for how the internet is used, adopted and integrated in particular socio-cultural milieus.

The proposed project is highly innovative in two ways. (1) It fully integrates traditional and digital inequality by studying the Internet using field experiments in a natural social context (hereby departing from the common survey approaches that are typical in digital inequality research). (2). Innovative human-media interaction developments at our University enable us to automatically model behaviour and interaction when Internet technology is used. Both characteristics combined provide a unique and highly necessary approach to study the links between traditional and digital inequality. In the project, we will use human-media interaction technology as a method of data collection to investigate inequality among families from different socio-economic backgrounds. The detailed behavioural models that will be derived will provide us with explanations for why some are better able to turn internet use into offline benefits than others. This approach places the study of the drivers of digital inequalities in concrete socio-spatial contexts in order to assess the role of socio-cultural factors, hereby basically touching the core idea behind the university’s Tech4people initiatives.

Taking part in the project are communication scientists, sociologists and human-media interaction researchers internationally renowned for their work on digital inequality and analysing (observable and measurable) patterns in human-media interactions. The integration of disciplines enables the use of computers, tablets and smartphones as tools in a methodology for conducting digital inequality research. This way, the ‘big data’ gathered allow us to draft patterns of technology use that increase our understanding of how people fail or succeed in employing technologies in daily life and how this affects their social position.

eskills teamThis project (website concerns e-skills in the creative industry and is supervised by Alexander. In project prof dr. Jan van Dijk and prof. de Jos de Haan are taking part. Furthermore several consortiumpartners (CA-ICT, ECDL and ECP) are involved. Two PhD students are hired to complete the project. A project website will appear soon.

Project description
The main goal of the Human Capital Call is to make the Dutch creative sector an international leader by strengthening human capital among the Dutch workforce. In this regard, human capital can be considered an umbrella term covering digital literacy, creativity, critical thinking, problem solving, communicating and collaborating (OECD, 2013). Together, they create a strong base for innovative and competitive power. Our goal is to contribute to the main goal by focusing specifically on eskills of which the importance is fundamental to the wider human capital challenge. Over the last few decades, information and communication technologies (ICT) have developed as a central contributor to economic growth. However, without the required eskills, the benefits that ICT offer will not be fully realized. eSkills should be considered a requirement that is at play at all human capital components, for example by supporting critical thinking, problem solving, communication or collaboration. Thus, eskills contain both technological and higher order instances, a distinction that should be considered a critical factor in successful eskill building (Olaya Fonstad & Lanvin, 2010). eSkills should be considered the entry ticket to employment and to innovation. After all, innovation starts with people, making the level of eskills that resides within the workforce decisive. In order to create and maintain competitive advantage around eskills across its human resources, the creative sector should start with identifying and quantifying current and expected needs in eskills. Often, labor markets and educational curricula compete with one another in defining the requirements for individual workers and organizations. There is no precise operational framework available in the creative sector that can be used to provide more detailed information about actual levels of eskills among workers, or to define policy recommendations to achieve the ambitions set out by the Human Capital Agenda. As a result, it is unclear what eskills are, why workers in the creative sector would need them, how eskills will evolve, or whether eskills can be built or developed. Therefore, we do not yet know how the ambitions of the Human Capital Call can be achieved. Addressing these critical shortcomings requires a genuine consortium with partners among universities and businesses (Olaya Fonstad & Lanvin, 2010).


Problem definition and objectives
The envisioned project has four objectives. The first objective is creating an operational eskills framework. The concept of eskills is just one of many concepts that resulted from the rapid diffusion of digital technologies into society and in the work environment. Several scholars argue that in most cases, the exact nature of such concepts is not adequately defined (Bawden, 2008; Livingstone, 2008; van Deursen, 2010). Often, people seem to believe that the definition of a term used is self-explanatory. Although most concepts lack synthesized and structured knowledge about how and why specific skills play a role, there is a widely shared sense that they are essential for successful participation in society and in the workforce. The eskill frameworks that have been developed help organizations in identifying potential problem areas, although actual measurements of these skills are very rare. Popular European frameworks are that of 21st century skills, introduced by the OECD, which refers to digital literacy, creativity, critical thinking, problem solving, collaborating and communicating (OECD, 2013). Earlier, the European eSkills Forum put forward definitions for three different types of eskills: ICT user skills, ICT practitioner skills and e-business skills (European Commission, 2004). Academic contributions suggest that the following eskills appear in some form: technical skills (that range from being comfortable with technology to reaching the level of an IT practitioner), information handling (from being able to locate and evaluate information to being able to create and synthesize information), communication (email, social networking tools, profiling and collaborating), work-related skills (depending on the industry in which the person works and the level of seniority of the person in the organization), and personal attributes (often a large variety of complex cognitive, motor, sociological, and emotional skills) (Leahy & Wilson, 2014; van Dijk & van Deursen, 2014). In most contexts, eskills are treated as part of a broader strategy toward building the knowledge economy by promoting employment, growth, competitiveness, social inclusion, education and lifelong training (Lanvin & Passman, 2008). Since the concern of eskills is growing in policy discussions and improving these skills has the power to improve the competitiveness of the creative sector, there is a strong need for a definition that can guide actual measurements among the workforce in the creative sector, focusing on both technical and higher order skills. Such a definition requires both a review of existing frameworks, but also an overview of the different types of jobs in the creative sector and the skills these jobs require. The ways workers interact with ICT vary considerably, depending on the job and context of a particular employer.

The second objective of the envisioned project is testing the level of eskills among workers in the creative sector. To promote employability and workforce development, and to take in a better position around global competitive challenges, the creative sector needs to gain more insight in the actual levels of eskills among its workers. Until now, the development of eskill assessments among the workforce has been hampered particularly by the lack of consensus on what constitutes measurable dimensions of eskills. Recent studies of digital skills among the general population (including higher order skills of information, communication and strategy) have shown that there is much room for improvement (Helsper & Eynon, 2010; van Deursen & van Dijk, 2011; van Dijk & van Deursen, 2014). While the basic skills required to use technologies are overall sufficient (with exceptions mainly in the categories of elderly and those with lower socio-economic status), higher order skills need attention urgently. However, workers in the creative sector need higher technical skills than general citizens, since there are many functions that require media-related skills. So here, the whole range of eskills, from technical to higher order is important and needs a thorough investigation. Indirect measures revealed that in work settings much time is lost due to eskill insufficiencies (van Deursen & van Dijk, 2012, 2013, 2014). The results of the eskill tests will provide information on the actual level of these skills when performed.

The third objective is determining the role of individual labor conditions and organizational functions and tasks on the level of eskills. Recent studies indicate that the importance of eskills is not acknowledged enough in organizations (Kling, 2007; van Deursen & van Dijk, 2012, 2013, 2014). One of the reasons is that people tend to rate their own skill levels higher than can be justified from scientific studies (e.g., Hargittai, 2002; Talja, 2005; van Deursen & van Dijk, 2010). People link the concept of eskills to basic technical skills, and not to higher order skills of, for example eskills required for job related collaboration. The unwelcome result is that the management of organizations does very little to improve their employees’ eskills, which causes a lot of potential productivity not being harvested (van Deursen & van Dijk, 2012, 2014). Although the importance of eskills is filtering through in policy debates, many organizations are not aware of the recent developments in the field of eskills and underestimate the need for adaptation of their human capital skills in line with both national and international economies. When the observed eskills are insufficiently developed, more effort is needed to succeed and stay competitive. However, for each individual worker, the labor situation is different and will require more or less of each of the identified eskills. In the Netherlands, van Damme et al. (2005) developed a general model to test determinants related to the labor condition. Identified determinants were the social context including home environment, indicial or collective work, autonomy of work, educational opportunities, and intensity, diversity and complexity of ICT-use. Yet, the level of eskills was not explicitly investigated. Other studies identified single factors contributing to differences in eskills. For example, the importance of so-called proxy users is pointed out; people who have someone who does things for them when it concerns the use of ICT (Reisdorf, 2011). A variety of studies on ICT’s have highlighted the importance of informal social networks (DiMaggio, Hargittai, Celeste & Shafer, 2004; Stewart & Hyysalo, 2008; van Deursen, Courtois & van Dijk, 2014), that can exist both within and outside the official professional workplace. A lack of a supporting working environment might be corrected by more formal methods that help in developing eskills. However, it is also not clear what role educational backgrounds and accomplishments play. Participation in guided training, for example, can be an important method to develop eskills, although the effectiveness of training varies significantly depending on the instructional strategies employed (Cahoon, 1998; van Dijk & van Deursen, 2014). Recent research among populations at large indicates that higher order skills leave considerable room for improvement and require formal education for improvement (van Deursen & van Dijk, 2011). These higher order skills might not necessarily automatically improve through intense use of ICT’s that the working environment requires (van Deursen & van Dijk, 2011; van Deursen, van Dijk & Peters, 2011). To make things worse, concerns have been growing steadily about the ability of educational systems to provide the eskills needed by the growing share of knowledge activities. A lack of appropriate education and training seems to be an important reason why eskills are not fully being developed. There is a gap between the ability of existing educational curricula to provide skilled workers, and the requirements of the creative sector. Adjustments are needed to adapt educational systems to address eskill needs (not only in schools, but also through training at work). The identified mechanisms will help us to understand how eskills can best be learned and lead to better improved functions, productivity, creativity etc. In order to accomplish this task a general model of causes and consequences will be specified for the creative sector.

The fourth and final objective of the project is defining and testing detailed policy recommendations on how organizations can improve eskill levels of their workers. A thorough eskill framework with measureable dimensions, actual measured levels of the identified eskills, and knowing how eskills are acquired in relation to the working environment provide a solid base for direct practical recommendations that HRM- and ICT-managers can apply. Guidelines will be provided on how managers can start improving the levels of eskills among their workers. After all, the prior objectives will result in knowing which eskills need most attention and what labor conditions support required improvements. The provided recommendations will furthermore be evaluated on effectiveness. Besides advising HRM- and ICT-managers, we will be able to provide detailed recommendations to managers that are responsible for defining educational policies related to both courses in school and training at work. Furthermore, both education and the industry can be supported in matching eskill supply and demand. The developed policies will address the need to improve cooperation on a long-term basis, in order to link eskills training, education and professional development.





From digital skills to tangible outcomes

Project website:

In the UK and Europe where this project originated policies have been developed to improve individuals' Internet access and skills to ensure they can fully participate in all aspects of the information society. Other regions show similar initiatives aimed at tackling inequalities in people’s abilities to use Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) in ways that help achieve tangible, high-quality outcomes in everyday life. At the same time, a great deal of academic work has been conducted which has led to detailed knowledge about who is and who is not digitally included.

As the Internet becomes an increasingly embedded part of everyday life for many people, research on digital inclusion has been criticized. There are concerns about the lack of strong theoretical developments within the field and the limitations of the survey measures typically used in research and evaluations of initiatives. In this project, we aim to address these criticisms through developing theoretically informed survey measures of people's digital skills, engagement with the Internet, and the tangible outcomes this Internet use has in their lives.

In parallel to the development of #DiSTOsurvey measures, collaborations with government, third sector and academic institutions have been put into place using the DiSTO framework as a guide to visualise the links between digital and social exclusion in the #DiSTOmap projects.

This combination of large scale national survey research and mapping of inequalities at the smaller local level makes cross-national, community and individual level comparisons possible, allowing us to answer questions about the processes that drive socio-digital inequalities at the micro, meso and macro level.

We continue to look for partners for both the #DiSTOsurvey and the #DiSTOmap projects.

Running projects: 
Digital skills to Outcomes
Skils uses outcomes238x194

21st-century Digital Skills

Digital Inequality @ home

Internet-of-Things inequality

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