In 2012 shutdown or restart published by the royal society, recommended that UK schools have 3 parts to computing. No longer the single amorphous blob that was ICT. (Some things from ICT, would no longer be taught.) These 3 parts should be Computer Science, IT, and Digital Literacy (that paper says that its meaning for IT, is not the same as others have used it).

enter image description here

I have no problem understanding what Computer Science is and what it includes, however I continue to struggle with understanding what IT and Digital literacy are.

“Digital literacy is not a ‘subject’ in itself – neither are reading and writing – but is an essential skill for all in the modern age.” … “‘Office’ applications such as word processing,” — So learning learning to use office applications at a high level, is it IT or Digital Literacy or both?

I also think a lot of other teachers struggle with this. I have heard teachers saying “We don't do that any more. No we don't do ICT any more.” or “Isn't it a shame that we don't do that any more, now that there is no ICT.”. In a lot of instances I think that what they are talking about would be IT or Digital literacy, under the new scheme.

There are other cases, where I see teachers planning to teach computer art, and wonder is this not art? (A lot of this could be leftover from the ICT days.)

So the question is what is the difference between Computer Science, IT, and Digital Literacy? with examples.

E.g. Where do these fit in?


  • Computer art.
  • Computer animation.
  • Typing training.
  • Unix operating system[Linux foundation certification].(https://training.linuxfoundation.org/certification).
  • Systems admin.
  • Computer Maintenance.
  • Network admin.
  • Basic training: opening files and programs, saving, loading, file system structure, …
  • Use of a work processor.
  • Computational thinking.

Note I have intentionally included some examples that may not fit in ether, and some that an arguably do.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ It's a fair criticism that the English curriculum focussed much more on computer science than software engineering. This might be because most of those involved were computer scientists rather than software engineers, or it might be because our focus was on what all should learn as part of a general education, rather than what some should study as vocational training. By analogy, we teach all children physics, we teach few if any, e.g., mechanical engineering. $\endgroup$
    – Miles
    Commented Oct 14, 2017 at 19:03
  • $\begingroup$ This is an excellent article: computingatschool.org.uk/data/uploads/ComputingCurric.pdf (I/somenoe should add a summary as an answer). $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 1, 2020 at 12:05

4 Answers 4


So the question is what is the difference between Computer Science,
IT, and Digital Literacy?

The way I understand the report and especially the bit you pasted in your own answer, the key to IT is in the T.

It's IT if it has a clearly technological approach (and by necessity the treatment is at theoretical level rather than practical).

  • Computer architecture? Mostly IT.
  • Computer networks? Also IT.
  • Operating systems? IT.
  • Using operating system XYZ's shell at a basic level? Digital literacy.
  • Using a web browser or email client? Digital literacy.
  • Netiquette? Digital literacy.

Rule of thumb: if your aunt (who is a stereotypical aunt), knows about it, it's digital literacy, otherwise it's IT.

If it's on Slashdot, it's IT.

As for CS, in your original question you say that you "have no problem understanding what Computer Science is and what it includes", but let's talk about CS as well.

The definition from the report you pasted in your own answer is good enough for me:

The scientific discipline of Computer Science, covering principles such as algorithms, data structures, programming, systems architecture design, problem solving...

In my opinion the report correctly characterizes it as having longevity and being wholly technology-independent.

Further rule of thumb: if there is a big $O$ somewhere, or a proof by induction, or a graph, or an inductively generated structure, it's probably CS.

If kids who are good at the IT and DL parts fail miserably at it, there you have the conclusive proof.

Where do these fit in?

  • Computer art: art class...

    • ... assuming pupils already know how to use a raster editor. If they don't and it's part of the class, digital literacy.
    • If it also involves understanding representation of images, compression, etc: IT.
    • If it involves turtle graphics and programmatically generated drawings, maybe there's a sprinkle of CS as well, bonus points if recursion is involved.
  • Computer animation: see above

  • Typing training: clearly digital literacy.
  • Unix operating system: IT. "Operating systems" as in MOS is IT and CS.
  • Systems admin: IT.
  • Computer Maintenance: arts and crafts class?
  • Network admin: IT
  • Basic training: Digital literacy
  • Use of a work processor: Digital literacy
  • Computational thinking: CS!

Let me add some more examples for CS:

  • Algorithms, data structures and complexity thereof: CS
  • Theory of computation and computability: CS
  • Formal automata: CS
  • $\begingroup$ I think that this answer mixes up CS and IT. What is the distinction between them? However it is the 1st answer to notice that I asked for examples. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 19, 2017 at 16:59
  • $\begingroup$ @ctrl-alt-delor I think that this answer mixes up CS and IT. Why do you think so? I strongly feel that's not the case. What is the distinction between them? In your original question you say: I have no problem understanding what Computer Science is and what it includes. So, is "what is CS" part of the question or not? $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 19, 2017 at 17:01
  • $\begingroup$ @ctrl-alt-delor I edited the answer to include CS. You should probably edit your question as well, if it is a legitimate part of the question. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 19, 2017 at 17:14
  • $\begingroup$ We have a winner. There are some good examples here. I agree that most of the Computer Maintenance classes that I have observed are arts and craft, however is it possible that if taught properly could be at least DL, and Maybe IT? $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 19, 2017 at 17:33
  • $\begingroup$ @ctrl-alt-delor Hardware maintenance is probably none of the three. "Software maintenance" (as in "running Windows Update every now and then" or something like that?) might be DL? $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 19, 2017 at 18:04

When we were drafting the English national curriculum, we found it easier to think in terms of the foundations, applications and implications of computing, all three of which really should be included in any broad and balanced approach to the subject. You can map these to computer science, IT and digital literacy if you wish, although you would need to accept a rather broader definition of digital literacy than that used by the Royal Society

Foundations would be about the underpinning principles of computer science (logic, algorithms, data representation, abstraction), as well as their practical expression through programming and more generally in computational thinking.

Applications is about skills in using digital technology to get useful work done, including collecting, managing, analysing and communicating data and information and creative work in a range of digital media.

Implications is about a critical understanding of the impact of digital technology on individuals and society as well safe, responsible and ethical use. I'd include intellectual property, privacy and security here too.

I've an illustration of all three in response to the question 'How does Google work?'

Foundations: big data, Page Rank, Big Table / the Google File System (GFS) etc

Applications: type your query, click the button (well, these days it starts searching as you type), but also filtering results, advanced queries etc

Implications: profile, filter bubbles, advertising, smart creatives, separating costs and revenues for accounting purposes etc

  • $\begingroup$ this gives another point of view “Foundations/Applications/Implecations” as opposed to the view in the question “CompSci/IT/Digital Literacy”. I think I have a pretty good idea of what should be in and out. But I would like to know for the examples, in the question, where they fit in (or not). $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 14, 2017 at 8:51
  • $\begingroup$ I would argue that none of “big data, Page Rank, Big Table / GFS” are “underpinning principles of computer science”. But exploring them could lead to exploring the “underpinning principles of computer science”. (What is GFS?) $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 14, 2017 at 8:54

Here is an example of a curriculum overview that I came across recently, referred to in another question:

USA K-12 Computer Science Framework Statements by Grade Band

It explains what is meant by the terms in your question. Seems quite comprehensive, I didn't have much of that knowledge until the early 90's, when I had been programming professionally for a few years, after getting a BS in Engineering. I suppose that wiser people than I am can pull something like this off.

  • $\begingroup$ Interesting, but this is for USA. I am asking about UK. Also you say you got the knowledge in early 1990s, but I am asking about a definitions from a paper written in 2012. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 13, 2017 at 15:24
  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to Computer Science Educators! Whilst this may theoretically answer the question, it would be preferable to include the essential parts of the answer here, and provide the link for reference. $\endgroup$
    – ItamarG3
    Commented Oct 13, 2017 at 18:39
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ The CSTA Standards provide a reference implementation of the Framework. They're worth a look. $\endgroup$
    – Miles
    Commented Oct 14, 2017 at 7:14

Excerpt from the report (shutdown or restart)

So not the answer I am looking for, as it is just one big quote, and not the examples I am looking for.

Definitions of terms used in this report

Computer Science should be interpreted as referring to the scientific discipline of Computer Science, covering principles such as

algorithms, data structures, programming, systems architecture design, problem solving etc.

Information Technology should be understood to mean the assembly, deployment, and configuration of digital systems to meet user needs

for particular purposes. We elaborate this definition in Chapter 2, section 2.5.

Often we use the phrase Computer Science and Information Technology to indicate the union of the two, as this report reflects issues in both areas. We avoid using the term ‘ICT’, except when referring to existing curricula or qualifications that are labelled as such. We elaborate on this definition in Chapter 2, section 2.4.

Digital literacy should be understood to mean the basic skill or ability to use a computer confidently, safely and effectively,

including: the ability to use office software such as word processors, email and presentation software, the ability to create and edit images, audio and video, and the ability to use a web browser and internet search engines. These are the skills that teachers of other subjects at secondary school should be able to assume that their pupils have, as an analogue of being able to read and write. We elaborate on this definition in Chapter 2, section 2.6.

Inevitably there will be topics that test the extent to which the three areas above can be effectively disaggregated – there will always be some blurring at the boundaries. Nevertheless, we maintain that it is useful to make these distinctions as an aid to effective communication between stakeholders.

2.4 The Nature of Computer Science It is the firm belief of the Advisory Group to this project that Computer Science is a rigorous

subject discipline, in the same way that Mathematics or Physics are. The ‘Computing at School’ group8 characterises a ‘discipline’ as a subject that has9:

  • A body of knowledge, including widely applicable ideas and concepts, and a theoretical framework into which these ideas and concepts fit.
  • A set of rigorous techniques and methods that may be applied in the solution of problems, and in the advancement of knowledge.
  • A way of thinking and working that provides a perspective on the world that is distinct from other disciplines.
  • A stable set of concepts: a discipline does not ‘date’ quickly. Although the subject advances, the underlying concepts and processes remain relevant and enlightening.
  • An existence that is independent from specific technologies especially those that have a short shelf-life.

Computer Science is a discipline with all of these characteristics 10. It encompasses foundational principles (such as the theory of computation) and widely applicable ideas and concepts (such as the use of relational models to capture structure in data). It incorporates techniques and methods for solving problems and advancing knowledge (such as abstraction and logical reasoning), and a distinct way of thinking (computational thinking) and working that sets it apart from other disciplines. It has longevity (most of the ideas and concepts that were current 50 or more years ago are still applicable today), and every core principle can be taught or illustrated without relying on the use of a specific technology.

Concepts include:

  • Programs: these tell a computer exactly what to do. Every program is written in some programming language, each with different strengths. Good languages embody many abstraction mechanisms that allow a piece of code to be written once, and reused repeatedly. This abstraction is the key to controlling the enormous complexity of real programs (e.g. a web browser), which consists of dozens of layers of such abstractions.
  • Algorithms: re-usable procedures (often a sequence of steps) for getting something done. For example, plan the shortest delivery route for a lorry, given the required stops on the route.
  • Data structures: ways to organise data so that a program can operate quickly on it. For example, there are many different ways to represent numbers (twos-complement, floating point, arbitrary precision, etc) with different trade-offs. Another example: a lookup table might be organised as a sorted array or as a hash table, depending on the size of the table and key distribution.
  • Architecture: this is the term used to describe the large scale structure of computer systems. At the bottom is real physical hardware. On top of that are layered virtual machines. Compilers translate from a high level programming language to the low-level binary that the hardware or virtual machine executes. Operating systems manage the resources of the machine.
  • Communication: almost all computer systems consist of a collection of sub-computers, each running one or more programs, and communicating with the others by sending messages or modifying shared memory. The internet itself is a large-scale example of such a collection.

Alongside these concepts are a set of Computer Science ‘methods’ or ways of thinking, including:

  • Modelling: representing chosen aspects of a real-world situation in a computer.
  • Decomposing problems into sub-problems, and decomposing data into its components.
  • Generalising particular cases of algorithm or data into a more general-purpose, re-useable version.
  • Designing, writing, testing, explaining, and debugging programs.

These ways of thinking have much in common with other sciences and mathematics.

Moreover, Computer Science is an ‘underpinning’ subject, in the sense that its concepts are useful to many other science and engineering disciplines, particularly physics, and in some cases they are relied upon to such an extent that they can be considered to be part of that subject too. For example, algorithms are sometimes considered to be an element of discrete mathematics, and the logical and rigorous approach of Computer Science has much in common with mathematics in general 11. Indeed, the use of digital technologies in the teaching of mathematics (given the overlap in areas such as algorithms, and the need for technology to teach mathematical modelling in particular) is the subject of a report from the Joint Mathematical Council of the UK released in November 2011.

Establishing territorial boundaries between subjects is problematic, and in common with other fundamental disciplines, Computer Science can sometimes suffer from being assumed to be primarily a ‘tool’ for other sciences rather than a subject in its own right. It is both of these, and in particular it is a science and an engineering discipline. However most STEM initiatives do not explicitly refer to Computer Science as a STEM discipline.

2.5 The Nature of Information Technology Information Technology is the application of computer systems and the use of pre-existing

software to meet user needs. It is the assembly, deployment and configuration of digital systems to meet user needs for specific purposes. Information Technology involves:

  • Using software for storing and manipulating data (sorting, searching and reordering), file systems (naming, categorising and organising), and the effective application of databases and spreadsheets for particular tasks.
  • Creating and presenting information within a variety of contexts with a sense of audience, fitness for purpose and drafting and redrafting as key considerations.
  • Designing and configuring systems for others to use including spreadsheets, databases, web- based interfaces such as quizzes, forum, wiki and profile pages.
  • Project planning and management including the identification of need, writing specifications, designing and creating products, evaluating their effectiveness and so identifying the further development to meets the needs of the user.
  • Security, safety, and etiquette online, in particular when using email, forums, virtual worlds and social networks.
  • The social, economic, ethical, moral, legal and political issues raised by the pervasive use of technology in the home, at work and for leisure.

Technology has evolved rapidly in recent years with the emergence of multimedia computers, the internet and worldwide web, mobile Computing and web 2.0 applications, and will continue to evolve in the future. Despite these changes, the critical elements of Information Technology as a subject will remain:

  • handling and communicating information,
  • designing and creating resources,
  • evaluating and sensing fitness for purpose, and
  • being aware of the implications of the pervasive use of technology in society.

2.6 The nature of digital literacy Digital literacy is the analogue of being able to read and write – a fundamental skill which it is

necessary to possess in order to access all subjects across the curriculum, including Computer Science and Information Technology. Digital literacy is not a ‘subject’ in itself – neither are reading and writing – but is an essential skill for all in the modern age.

Digital literacy is the ability to use computer systems confidently and effectively, including:

  • ‘Office’ applications such as word processing, presentations and spreadsheets
  • The use of the Internet, including browsing, searching and creating content for the Web and communication and collaboration via e-mail, social networks, collaborative workspace and discussion forums
  • Creative applications such as digital photography, video editing, audio editing.

We intend “digital literacy” to connote those skills that (say) a history teacher can assume his / her students have, just as s/he assumes they can spell (literacy) and do simple mental arithmetic (numeracy). Higher level information handling skills are part of Information Technology.

Digital literacy does need to be taught: young people have usually acquired some knowledge of computer systems, but their knowledge is patchy. The idea that teaching this is unnecessary because of the sheer ubiquity of technology that surrounds young people as they are growing up – the ‘digital native’ – should be treated with great caution.

In terms of delivery, digital literacy can be treated much like literacy and numeracy are dealt with at school:

  • Discrete lessons and teaching embedded within the broader curriculum throughout primary education and in the early part of secondary education.
  • Opportunities for pupils to apply and develop these skills through authentic, purposeful and collaborative projects in most or all subject areas throughout primary and secondary education.

Whilst digital literacy skills can be taught and assessed using online systems, at the pupil’s own pace, teacher- led lessons and project work allow the teacher to focus on developing pupils’ knowledge and understanding of the systems pupils use, and provide opportunity for collaborative work.

Conclusion Information Technology and Computer Science are distinct subjects, with different purposes, although they have areas of

synergy. Computer Science is an academic discipline, in the same way that mathematics and physics are.

Digital literacy is a core skill for accessing subjects across the curriculum, including Computer Science and Information Technology themselves.


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.