Digital skills and readiness: the real story
The global pandemic of the past two years has thrown into sharp relief the extent to which digital skills are increasingly essential to 21st century life.
From teachers and students across the spectrum of education institutions – from vocational training schools to universities – to employers and start-up companies struggling to do business in a world of lockdowns, social distancing, and working from home over platforms that include Zoom, distance learning software, mobile phone apps and other means, the digital skills and readiness of ordinary people has become a hot topic.
As part of its communication campaign, dedicated in January 2022 to “Digital Skills for Inclusion”, the European Training Foundation offered a close-up view on the “real story” of digital skills and readiness across the EU and partner countries.
In a conversation as part of the ETF’s Learning Connects series (streamed across Facebook Youtube and LinkedIn) three European experts dug down into what it means in practice to an individual to be digitally skilled, and society to be ready for what is dubbed “the digital transition.” Kicking off the discussion with an audience from Europe and around the world, Alessandro Brolpito, Senior Human Capital Development Expert in Digital Skills and Learning at the ETF, observed that there was nothing new in living through a technological transition.
“Technology has always affected human evolution – from the invention of the printing press, that enabled the dissemination of information swiftly and accurately – to the late 20th century when, in the third industrial revolution, we have already had a major shift from mechanical and analogue technology to digital technology,” he said.
This shift was the “very first time when there was a large demand for digital skills and specialists,” with the invention 30 years ago of the Worldwide Web – the predecessor to today’s familiar Internet – being another major milestone.
“Definitely we are now facing a digital transition,” he added,” but the real story is that we have already faced that.”
The difference today, he suggested was the ubiquity of the demand for digital skills and the fact that “we now have more intelligent instruments, frameworks and tools to move ahead.”
Change is happening very fast today – changes in mindset, values and attitudes, as well as skills and people now have to “update skills on a regular basis,” treating digital skills acquisition as part of lifelong learning.
“The success of this digital transition will be measured as the extent to which we manage to be inclusive; the benchmark for success now must be digital inclusion,” Mr. Brolpito asserted.
Addressing the extent to which vocational educational and training schools – and other educational institutions – are ready for the digital transition, Nikoleta Yiannoutsou, Scientific Officer in Human Capital and Employment, at the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre, noted that “digital technology in many cases is like a moving target.”
“We are learning to be digitally ready. We are posing good questions – which is a first step to getting good answers,” she said, noting that in countries across Europe education policymakers were devising digital strategies.
One issue that emerged from pandemic closures of schools was not the lack of technology, she said, but that “teachers were overwhelmed” by choice.
“We need to step back and start thinking how to integrate technologies into school practice. Not following trends or what others are doing, but to think about your needs and priorities, and then take informed decisions and follow your progress.”
Another lesson of the pandemic has been the importance of recognising the “digital divide” – some students have easy access to devices, many do not – and the mental and emotional aspects of digital technology in learning.
“When schools were faced with closures, they started trying to address this digital divide. They started to see things more holistically; how technology can help connect students instead of being isolated in their homes,” Ms. Yiannoutsou added.
Offering a regional perspective, Pranvera Kastrati, Senior Expert on Economic and Digital Connectivity at the Regional Cooperation Council for the Western Balkans, cited figures that suggest that although – according to a World Bank report - two-thirds of people in her part of Europe lack basic digital skills, the EU also have a challenge, with 42% of its citizens lacking basic digital skills, including 37% of those in the workforce.
“In the Western Balkans we are trying to see digital skills both holistically – trying to put together all actors and end users and trying to address their needs – and seeing digital skills as market-driven needs and policies that governments should be addressing,” Ms. Kastrati said. “In the Western Balkans we have a national and regional approach – combining actions at the national level and those at a local level.”
There was no one-size fits all when it came to digital skills, training and readiness, she suggested. The digital transition is putting us under pressure to learn new technologies and skills...the needs of different target groups vary, which is why the approach must be tailor-made, and adjusted to the best way to address this from the target group’s perspective.”
The best way to do this was through education, she added. A 2020 study by Austria’s Graz University of showed that “the major shift in the digital area was in education.” New tools had been introduced, both easing and complicating the lives of teachers, the study found.
Nonetheless, teachers must address the digital transition and upskill or reskill to ensure their students are sufficiently prepared to meet the challenges ahead.
“UNESCO estimates that 24 million students from primary to university [around the world] are at risk of not returning to education because of the pandemic,” says Mr. Brolpito. But there is evidence in many partners countries of the EU that we have tools in place that can really support policy, schools and communities in order to support digital inclusion.
Schools could also use a European Commission designed tool to improve: SELFIE is a tool that supports the development of the digital capacity of schools to create a digital strategy. Based on a questionnaire arranged around eight areas – including school organisation, infrastructure, digital competence and practices – it enables users to aggregate information (without revealing personal details) drawn from school heads, teachers, trainers and students. The result is a clear diagnostic picture upon which a development plan can be based.
It is something that could also be adapted for business use. As Ms. Kastrati noted in a regional survey in 2021, 77% of businesses in the Western Balkans said that digital skills were very important for their company, but they have not created actions to improve the digital skills of employees