Towards Digital Literacy?

Paul Gilster, in his 1997 book “Digital Literacydescribed digital literacy as the use and comprehension of information in the digital age. He also emphasised the importance of digital technologies as an “essential life skill”. Digital literacy is one of the core elements of digital citizenship. Digital literacy includes knowledge, skills, and behaviours involving the effective use of digital devices such as smartphones, tablets, laptops and desktop PCs for purposes of communication, expression, collaboration and advocacy.

The growth in digital literacy needs to keep pace with the rapid acceleration in the population’s access to digital media. Recent research from Hootsuite and We Are Social tracks the explosive growth in Internet access and uptake to January 2017:

In “Headline” terms, the most startling findings of this collaborative, global research are that:

  • More than half the world’s population now uses a smartphone.
  • Almost two-thirds of the world’s population now has a mobile phone.
  • More than half of the world’s web traffic now comes from mobile phones.
  • More than half of all mobile connections around the world are now ‘broadband’.
  • More than one in five of the world’s population shopped online in the past 30 days

Internet use in Asia is poised to overtake the rest of the world. Asia has an estimated population of 4,148,177,672: 55.2% of the world’s population based on 2017 mid-year estimates[1]. Internet use data from  CNNIC[2], ITU[3], Facebook, and other trustworthy sources indicates that 1,938,075,631 Asians (or 46.7% of the population of Asia) were users at the end of June 2017.

It is no longer the case that the poorest countries will necessarily have populations without access to the Internet. If we take a deeper dive into the available data for just one country in Asia we can see the phenomenal rise in Internet access by comparison with other indicators. The nation of Cambodia was recently ranked[4] 106th in the world by reference to Gross Domestic Product. It is one of the poorest countries in Asia and long-term economic development remains a daunting challenge, inhibited by endemic corruption, limited human resources, high levels of income inequality, and poor job prospects. In 2012, approximately 2.66 million people lived on less than $1.20 per day, and 37% of Cambodian children under the age of 5 suffer from chronic malnutrition. More than 50% of the population is less than 25 years old. The population lacks education and productive skills, particularly in the impoverished countryside, which also lacks basic infrastructure. However, notwithstanding all these challenges, 25.6% of the population of Cambodia have Internet access[5] and one quarter of the population of the country’s population are Facebook subscribers[6]. However,such figures serve only to obscure widespread variations in access: in the capital city, Phnom Penh, Internet upload speeds are commonly faster than those available in most of the UK whilst in much of rural Cambodia, by comparison, Internet access is simply an unmet aspiration. The danger of Cambodia remaining a country with deep digital access chasms is clear.

Whilst digital technologies have spread rapidly in much of the world, “digital dividends”— that is, the broader development benefits obtained from using these technologies — have lagged behind[7]. In many instances, digital technologies have boosted growth, expanded opportunities, and improved service delivery. Yet their aggregate impact has fallen short and is unevenly distributed. For digital technologies to benefit everyone everywhere requires closing the remaining digital divide, especially in Internet access. But greater digital adoption will not be enough. To get the most out of the digital revolution, countries also need to work on the “analogue complements”. One of the three most important of these complements concerns adapting workers’ skills to the demands of the new economy.

The non-profit sector was, arguably, first in the field of digital literacy education. The ECDL Foundation is a well-established[8] international, non-profit organisation dedicated to raising digital competence standards in the workforce, education and society. The Foundation’s Certification programmes, delivered through an active network in more than 100 countries, enable individuals and organisations to assess, build and certify their competence in the use of computers and digital tools to the globally recognised European Computer Driving Licence standard, known as the International Computer Driving Licence outside Europe. The ICDL is the world’s leading computer skills certification. To date more than 15 million people have engaged with the programme, about 2.5 million ICDL tests are taken annually in over 100 countries, in more than 40 languages worldwide, through a network of over 24,000 ECDL Accredited Test Centres (ATCs). The Foundation’s certification programmes are designed, validated, and approved by academics and industry experts from around the world. There is a continual development programme in place to ensure that the range of certification programmes remain in line with market needs and technological advancements. An Online Essentials Base Module[9] sets out essential concepts and skills relating to web browsing, effective information search, online communication and e-mail.

ECDL Foundation has also endorsed 14 targeted programmes[10], which are designed and created by other organisations for specific groups. These programmes often address specific digital literacy requirements or demands in a particular country, while still adhering to the high standard of quality in content and operation set by the Foundation. The Foundation also encourages and supports their national partners to provide digital literacy education to meet humanitarian and social needs. Here are two examples:

  • In autumn 2016, the Austrian Computer Society (OCG) realised that the refugee crisis demanded quick and un-bureaucratic action to help refugees and asylum seekers. Therefore, it launched the project, ‘OCG Cares’, aiming at providing those who had to leave their homes with ICT and language skills. After a strategic meeting of all stakeholders in December 2015, 22 refugees started their crossover courses in IT & German, with the aim to prepare for the ECDL Base certification tests by summer.
  • The Dzikwa Trust Fund, or simply Dzikwa for short, was established as a legal entity and began operations in Zimbabwe in September 2002. The underlying purpose of the society is to empower Zimbabwean orphans and give them a chance to lead a fulfilling life. It seeks to give the children long-term help, in their own community, in order to guarantee their basic education and general welfare. The ICDL project started in April 2015 and in August 2015, the first ICDL lessons and exams were taken.

The Mozilla Foundation, a Californian not-for-profit enterprise, is also committed to developing the ability of all to make use of the Internet. To that end they have developed and published, in English, a range of free learning activities[11] created by teachers, educators and technologists for individuals and groups of adults and teenagers. These include short, activity based, off line teaching and learning resources covering topics such as Internet Health, Web Literacy Basics, Privacy Basics: Protect Your Data at beginner level.

The importance of digital literacy is, of course, increasingly recognised by national governments. As Nagy K Hanna has written[12]: “Digital technologies have been transforming the global economy. Yet many countries have yet to experience the full developmental benefits of digital technologies, such as inclusive and sustainable growth, improved governance, and responsive service delivery. Given the magnitude of change in competitive advantage that digital technologies can confer on adopters, the risks of slow or poor adoption of these innovations can be dire for industries, governments, individuals, and nations.” Drawing on his significant humanitarian development experience, Hanna argues that one of the most important “analogue support mechanisms” that must be put in place to secure the benefits of digital transformation is “substantial investment in organisational capabilities, process innovation, and institutional learning. Best practice suggests that every dollar invested in ICT should be matched with a $4 or $5 investment in process improvement, training, change management, etc.”

In research undertaken for the Indian government, KPMG found that the number of Indian net surfers would rise by at least 50 million annually from 2014 to 2019. This equates to almost the entire population of South Africa gaining Internet access in each of these six years. On this basis KPMG confidently predict that India will have at least 560 million Internet users by the end of 2019. Without suitable training there is little likelihood that new users will be able to gain most benefit from access to the digital age so the government is funding specialist educational programmes through gram panchayats[13] (local elder councils).

The private sector is also active in education for digital literacy. Google’s “Digital Skills Programme for Africa” offers 89 courses through an online portal, and Google works with 14 training partners covering more than 20 African countries to offer face-to-face training. In March 2017, Google disclosed that it had trained one million Africans in digital skills in just eleven months. Recognising that digital literacy can drive economic development; Google has set itself new targets in 2017 including the provision of offline versions of its online training materials, increasingly in Hausa, Swahili and IsiZulu, to better reach individuals and businesses in low access areas where it is unable to hold physical training sessions.

The private sector is, of course, keenly aware that the growth in Internet access creates multiple potential markets. Microsoft’s digital literacy programme[14] aims to help the learner develop a fundamental understanding of computers. The courses equip the new user with the essential skills needed to begin computing with confidence, be more productive at home and at work, stay safe online, use technology to complement their lifestyle, and consider careers where they can put their skills to work. The five courses within the programme use examples and simulations from Windows 8 and Microsoft Office 2013.

Microsoft provides an Instructor’s Manual including ideas for adapting the digital literacy programme to different learning environments and for different learner needs. It includes sample syllabi, practice problems and exercises, and information to guide classroom discussions. It also covers classroom setup details including hardware, software, and Internet connection requirements and recommendations. The programme is certificated[15] on “an honour basis”, but without verification.

References

[1] Using figures from the United Nations – Population Division and local official sources.

[2] China Internet Network Information Center

[3] International Telecommunication Union

[4] CIA’s “World Factbook”

[5] According to the ITU (June 2017)

[6] Facebook

[7] According to the World Bank’s “World Development Report 2016: Digital Dividends” published in May 2016. See: http://www.worldbank.org/en/publication/wdr2016

[8] In 1995, the Council of European Professional Informatics Societies (CEPIS) created a task force, supported by the European Commission through the ESPRIT research programme, to examine how to raise the levels of digital literacy throughout Europe. The new certification programme was launched as the European Computer Driving Licence (ECDL) in Sweden in August 1996.

[9] See: http://ecdl.org/about-ecdl/online-essentials

[10] See: http://ecdl.org/about-ecdl/endorsed-programmes

[11] See: https://learning.mozilla.org/en-US/activities

[12] See: http://blogs.worldbank.org/ic4d/how-can-developing-countries-make-most-digital-revolution and “Mastering Digital Transformation” (Emerald, 2016)

[13] Gram panchayats are the cornerstone of local self-government organisation in India.

[14] https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/DigitalLiteracy This is available currently in 13 languages including Arabic, English, French, German, Hindi, Japanese, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Simplified Chinese and Vietnamese.

[15] There is a 30-question multiple-choice assessment for each course that provides students with a personalised Learning Plan. Certification is intended for the learner alone and not as a verified attestation of competence for employment selection purposes.