More devices, insufficient skills: Digital literacy gap adds to educational inequity in Germany

The Covid-19-related switch to online learning in German schools could exacerbate existing educational inequalities, due to wide variations in access and digital literacy at home. Julia Gerick (TU Braunschweig) argues that teachers need better tools and training to develop new didactic approaches.

This article is part of our dossier "Digital classrooms - Transatlantic perspectives on lessons from the pandemic".

Digitalisierung Schule

During the pandemic-related school closures in Germany in spring 2020 and in early 2021, the relevance of the family home for student success has come under renewed scrutiny. According to the study "School at a Distance" (Schule auf Distanz), more than half of all teachers surveyed – in particular nearly two thirds of elementary school teachers – feared that the impact of family situations on students’ academic performance had grown as a result of shifting instruction to the home, which could potentially exacerbate social inequalities. “German School Barometer Special on the Coronavirus Crisis” (Deutsches Schulbarometer Spezial zur Corona-Krise) said that the effects of social inequality would increase due to differences in support parents could provide. Nevertheless, only 36% – a good third – thought school closures could lead to significant learning delays overall.

The role of digital media in children's and young people's lives has grown consistently over the past years and has peaked in the pandemic year of 2020, according to the most recent annual report by media and education research group Medienpädagogischer Forschungsverbund Südwest (mpfs) (Media Education Research Group Southwest). However, the International Computer and Information Literacy Study (ICILS), which is compiled every five years, has found that merely having or using digital media does not mean children and young people use these new technologies competently.

In 2018, the second ICILS international comparative school performance study examined the computer- and information skills of young people based on representative data. The findings are sobering in two respects. On the one hand, the average computer and information competencies of German eighth graders are middling in international comparison. One third have reached only the bottom two skills levels: These students can do little more than click on a link and copy and paste content from one place to another. This means they do not have the necessary skills to participate successfully in an increasingly digitalized society.

In addition, the average competence level in Germany has not changed significantly since the first ICILS survey in 2013. Over a period of five years, the German education system has not managed to establish support for developing students' digital skills broadly enough for this to be reflected in the 2018 study. 

Close link between social background and digital inclusion

This raises the question of educational inclusion and equity in a digitalized world. It also highlights the importance of schools in this context. The Education Report 2020 (Bildungsbericht 2020) states: “And finally, [...] it is in the interest of social participation and equal opportunity that educational institutions counteract possible disadvantages in the access to, adoption of, and interaction with digitalization.” (Education Report 2020, p. 231).

The situation is even more acute when digital skills are differentiated according to students’ social backgrounds. Birgit Eickelmann made this clear as early as 2015 in her expert report “Educational Equity 4.0(Bildungsgerechtigkeit 4.0) for the Heinrich Böll Foundation, based on in-depth findings from ICILS 2013.

Previous school performance research has also shown that the educational success of children and young people is closely linked to their social background and is thus a central factor in achieving educational inclusion and equity. However, other dimensions such as migration backgrounds or gender should not be ignored.

Taking into account various concepts of social inequality, there are four apparent dimensions of the digital divide (ICILS, 2019, p. 303).


  1. Material and physical access: This refers to the possession of and access to digital devices (such as desktop computers, laptops, tablets and smartphones), but also to software and an internet connection.
  2. Motivation: This includes attitudes and values toward digital media as well as motives for using them, such as entertainment, information, learning/working or social exchange.
  3. Use: This aspect focuses on the frequency and duration of digital media usage and the variety of applications (e.g., office programs, internet browsers, e-mail, chats and forums).
  4. Digital competencies: This refers to the competent use of digital media, as measured, for example, the computer- and information-related skills outlined in the ICILS 2018 study.


Based on these four dimensions, we present findings from the ICILS 2018 study for Germany. To measure social background, we use the stock of books available at home as an indicator of students’ and families’ cultural capital. Although this may seem illogical in times of almost unlimited access to electronic texts and books, it is still a highly effective indicator, as it allows for differentiated analyses of the linkages and effects of social backgrounds. ICILS 2018 differentiates between students who have a maximum of 100 books at home (defined as low cultural capital) and those who have more than 100 books (defined as high cultural capital).

1 Access to technology

Regarding access to digital media, the ICILS 2018 study shows no differences related to social background. The study looks at so-called optimal access, which includes desktop computers or laptops, but also at tablet devices and home internet connections. The share of eighth graders who have such access is 68% in families with high cultural capital. The result for young people from families with low cultural capital is only four percentage points lower, at 64%, and is not statistically significantly different. The picture is thus more favorable for Germany than the international average, with a difference of ten percentage points to the disadvantage of young people with low cultural capital.

2 Attitudes toward digitalization

This section looks at possible differences in attitudes and views toward digitalization based on social backgrounds, particularly those with a possible influence on career choice (see Fig. 1). The key finding for Germany is that there are no significant differences between students with high and low cultural capital in the agreement values for either the first or the second statement that they were asked to assess.


Figure 1: Students‘ attitudes toward ICT

Figure 1: table chart

Source: ICILS (2018 Report), p. 322, Table 10.2

3 Frequency of digital media use

Three types of ICT are evaluated for frequency of use (see Fig. 2): The frequency of digital media use in school for school-related purposes, outside school for school-related purposes and outside school for other purposes. While there are no significant differences in the frequency of use for school-related purposes either inside or outside school, there are differences linked to social background in how students use digital media outside school for other purposes, which favors those with high cultural capital (95.5% vs. 89.2%).


Figure 2: Frequency of ICT use

Figure 2: table chart

Source: ICILS (2018 Report), p. 318, Table 10.1. Percentages of the summarized category “At least once a week.”

4 Computer and information-related competencies

The ICILS 2018 study shows systematic disparities related to social background in the computer and information-related competencies of eighth graders, to the detriment of those from families with a low level of cultural capital (see Fig. 3). The difference between the two groups in Germany is considerable, and on an international scale is greater only in Uruguay. It is also concerning that there have been no changes in Germany since 2013 that would indicate a reduction in this massive skills gap.


Figure 3: Student achievement in relation to cultural capital

Bar Chart Student achievement in relation to cultural capital

Source: ICILS (2018 Report), p. 312, Figure 10.1., slightly modified


In addition to the average skills level, a differentiated look at the distribution of students across proficiency levels is revealing (see Fig. 4). In the 2018 survey, clear differences due to social background are evident: At each of the two lower levels, the share of eighth graders from families with low cultural capital is more than twice that of students from families with high cultural capital. The share of those who achieve a maximum of competency level II is 43% for the group of students with low cultural capital. This means they have mainly receptive skills and (very) simple application skills in their use of digital media, in addition to basic knowledge and skills for processing documents and identifying information. For the group with high cultural capital, on the other hand, the share of students who only reach the lower two levels of competence is less than half that of the other group, at just under 19%.


Figure 4: Student competency level in relation to cultural capital

Chart Student competency level in relation to cultural capital

Source: ICILS (2018 Report), p. 314, Figure 10.2., slightly modified


ICILS 2018 reveals very few disparities, if any, in terms of technology, digitalization-related attitudes and frequency of digital media use. However, the differences related to social background are all the more striking when it comes to computer and information skills that are vital for successful participation in a digitalized world.

How to achieve participation in education

It has become clear that the digital divide is about more than the availability of digital hardware. In their 2018 essay, “Issues and Challenges Related to Digital Equity,” Paul Resta and coauthors discuss digital equity in education, outlining five dimensions.

Five dimensions of digital equity in education

  1. Infrastructure: Access to hardware, software and the internet
  2. Content: Access to meaningful, high-quality and culturally relevant content
  3. Processing: Access to the creation, distribution and exchange of digital content
  4. Support: Access to educators who know how to use digital tools and resources
  5. Research: Access to high-quality research on how to use digital technologies to improve learning

The following are some current views on how to achieve educational inclusion and equity in a digitalized world in Germany, against the backdrop of this model.

1 Infrastructure

Investments in future-proof digital education infrastructure in schools are urgently needed. But they cannot be built on an ad hoc basis, even with heavily funded programs.

In terms of access to hardware, software and the internet, school closures during the pandemic have highlighted existing problems: This was true both for the (non-)existence of IT infrastructure in students' homes and even more concretely in terms of education technology (e.g., laptops or tablets with keyboards instead of smartphones with small displays). Teachers surveyed as part of the German School Barometer Special on the Corona Crisis said the lack of digital equipment for students was the biggest challenge during the pandemic-related school closures in spring 2020. Differences in access to IT equipment and the internet meant that not all students could be reached digitally at home. The experience of spring 2020 revealed that not all children and young people in Germany have the technology at home to participate in digital learning.

This realization was reflected in education policy in the adoption of Corona Aid II: Immediate Program for Remote Devices (Corona-Hilfe II: Sofortprogramm Endgeräte“). Thus, as part of the School Digital Pact (“DigitalPakt Schule”) in July 2020, an additional 500 million euros were made available for students who could not access a mobile device at home. In terms of the immediate applicability of these funds for supporting schools locally, however, desire and reality are currently still quite far apart. The potential of mobile devices (e.g., tablets) from the perspective of education theory and didactics lies in combining school and non-school learning spaces and supporting individualized learning settings.

2 Content

No less important than infrastructure are teaching and learning materials – ideally license-free – that enable individualized learning. However, there is still a lack of didactic approaches on how to compensate for and reduce socially related inequalities in digital skills.

There have been various activities and initiatives in Germany in recent years regarding access to meaningful, high-quality and culturally relevant content. As digital media offers access not only to entertainment but also to educational content, providing appropriate content for all children and young people appears to be a key challenge. This includes activities related to the development and provision of digital educational media, for example in the form of digital textbooks or educational media libraries at the state or federal level (e.g.

Open Educational Resources (OER), i.e., teaching and learning materials that are made available free of charge or under a free license, are of particular importance. School closures in spring 2020 made it particularly apparent that access to digitized learning content is a  challenge in German. The German School Barometer Special shows that the second biggest issue related to the school closures was the creation and provision of appropriate digital teaching content. This is particularly the case in providing differentiated materials in order to make learning processes available to all students access and support them according to their needs. Education policymakers also recognized that access to digital content is highly a significant factor. Thus, in May 2020, the Corona Aid I: Support for Content package was made available for the duration of school closures.

Education professionals repeatedly emphasize the high potential of digital media to individualize learning so all students can be supported in the best possible way. However, concrete didactic approaches to reduce social inequalities in digital competency have not yet been developed.

3 Processing

Opportunities for access and participation depend not least on suitable school and learning platforms, such as those developed in many German states during the pandemic. These not only open up opportunities for sharing digital content among teachers and between teachers and students, but they also allow for new forms of parental involvement.

In terms of access to the creation, dissemination and sharing of digital content, there are a number of digital learning and work platforms or learning management systems in Germany that have gained importance in schools in recent years – despite various hurdles and failures. Such digital platforms offer the possibility – for teachers as well as students – to make materials and content available, to exchange them with each other, and in some cases to create them together. Several German states now offer their schools digital platforms (e.g., Bavaria: Mebis; Hamburg: eduPort; North Rhine-Westphalia: LOGINEO NRW LMS; Saxony: LernSax). In addition, several state-owned digital school platforms are currently being tested (e.g., Lower Saxony: Niedersächsische Bildungscloud; Rhineland-Palatinate: Schulcampus RLP). In addition, there are some external solutions, depending on the region (e.g. IServ, SchulCommSy or itslearning), some of which are running in parallel.

The school closures in spring 2020 provided an important boost in terms of access to learning and schoolwork platforms, and also brought to light the importance of digital content sharing. Such platforms can offer access and opportunitites for participation at different levels. During the closures, many schools also saw that platforms help to reach not only students but also their parents, opening up broader possibilities for participation.

4 Support

Teachers play a decisive role in determining for what purposes and in what way digital media is integrated into lessons and the amount of emphasis placed on promoting digital skills. Their importance cannot be overestimated for student participation in a digital world. In the digital equity model, the professionalization of teachers in the area of digitalization plays a key role.

However, it should be noted that teaching activities must always be considered in the context of the pedagogical and technical conditions of each individual school. This means that other school staff, especially school management, also play a key role in enabling digital education.

Teachers first need the appropriate skills to use digital media in everyday activities. The importance of teachers' skills is currently reflected in the "Education in the Digital World" strategy of the German federal states’ Conference of the Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs (KMK). This strategy aims to develop teachers’ competencies across all phases of teacher training. The KMK's revised standards for teacher training in the educational sciences also set forth corresponding competencies for using digital media in teaching and learning processes. Supporting educational inclusion in a digital world is also explicitly defined as an area of competence for (prospective) teachers, as can be seen, for example, in the orientation framework for initial and in-service teacher training in North Rhine-Westphalia. The section "Promoting learning and achievement" explicitly lists a competence related to educational opportunities. This states: "Recognize and reflect on the special relevance of media competence for educational processes and lifelong learning, and responsibly shape this for schools and lessons with regard to the best possible educational opportunities for all students."

5 Research

Access to high-quality research on how digital technologies can improve learning is the fifth pillar of digital equity. In recent years, few areas of empirical educational research in Germany have received as much attention as the field of digitalization. Between September 2018 and the start of December 2020 alone, 49 research projects on digitalization in education were funded by a Ministry of Education research program. These projects focus on very different levels of the education system, including childhood, youth and family education, school learning, and vocational and teacher training.

The UneS-ICILS project (Unexpectedly Successful Schools in Digital Transition) at the University of Paderborn is worth a mention in regard to inclusion and educational equity. This project will examine ICILS 2018 schools that simultaneously exhibit two supposedly contradictory conditions: A particularly high share of students with a low socioeconomic status, along with above-average scores in computer- and information-related competencies. The aim of this study is to investigate how educational processes are designed at these schools in order to gain knowledge for guiding decisions in the future.

Although much has been achieved in Germany in recent years with regard to the digitalization of education and strengthening of student skills, it is also clear that we are still at the beginning of this development. Fortunately, ICILS will conduct a third study in 2023. New representative data on students’ computer and information skills and on the corresponding conditions will show whether and to what extent newly established measures, activities and strategies actually help to enable all children and young people in Germany to participate in a digitalized world.

This article is part of our dossier "Digital classrooms - Transatlantic perspectives on lessons from the pandemic".

Translated from German by Ellen Thalmann.


The national ICILS 2018 report is available for download:

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