Digital Literacy and the “lost generation”

The notion of digital literacy (and its close relation, the digital divide) is really starting to make waves, particularly with the recent stateside launch of the Everyone On campaign and the Go On UK charity (started a year ago). As more and more public services make the online transition, internet access points become faster and more ubiquitous, and technological progress continues it relentless march onwards, the issue of how prepared the general population is for this digital era has become pressing.

Defining digital literacy

The notion of digital literacy is not easily defined. At its very simplest, it’s about giving an individual the skills necessary to live and interact in a digital society. The extent of these skills, however, depends in many cases on the needs of the user. We can, for example, take two employment-orientated definitions. The explosion of the tablet, smartphone and app markets (a few quick statistics: before the end of 2013 there will be more internet-connected devices – such as tablets and smartphones – than people in the world, whilst the app market is expected to be worth $46 billion by 2016) and the various economic crises worldwide have resulted in a huge amount of discussion on how to create the next wave of coders, technicians and developers, to such an extent that the UK ICT curriculum – considered out-dated and ill-suited to the creation of technology-literate individuals – has been discontinued. Computer science and computer engineering are increasingly seen as many stricken economies’ route back into the growth and many young people’s route into employment.

Yet the more technical interpretation of digital literacy is just one of many. Another interpretation is more concerned by the digital literacy of the general public: how many can find information online using a search engine, use a word processor to build their résumé, and use email to stay in contact with their colleagues, relatives and friends? These skills are becoming essential to an individual’s existence in our increasingly digital society. The problem is that far from being universal abilities, there are still huge slices of the population – numbering in the millions – that are completely unable to perform these tasks. The BBC recently reported on concerns regarding the UK government’s “digital by default” plan to digitize the majority of its public services, saying that many fear it will exacerbate the digital divide and engender a “them and us” situation. And Go On UK, a charity set up to make the UK “the most digitally capable nation in the world” (no less) points out that 16 million people in the UK (4.5 million people in the workplace) do not have basic online skills.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the recently launched literacy campaign Everyone On (which has received support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation) continues in a similar vein: 62 million people in the US do not use the internet. It should also be noted that this condition is not limited to the older generation. Indeed, the “digital native” classification is misleading. A recent study produced by the Prince’s Trust in the UK for example revealed that one in ten unemployed young people (often referred to as NEETs – not in education, employment or training) are embarrassed by their lack of computer skills.

The importance of digital literacy in employability

What is clear is that the more technology advances, the more the issue of a general digital literacy becomes necessary.

There were a number of particularly troubling statistics that came out of the Everyone On launch and Prince’s Trust publication. First of all, there is the matter of understanding how technology can help. Karen Hanson’s short blogpost on broadband internet access and promoting digital literacy noted that nearly half of all US households had no internet connection because they did not want it or felt that they did not need it. The gradual digitization of public and private services (and the UK government’s “digital by default” program – estimated to save the country up to £1.8 billion a year in the long-term – is not the only one) and the fact that in the US alone 80% of jobs are now listed online rather than in the newspaper mean that individuals that remain outside the digital bubble are increasingly at risk of being cut off from society.

Any attempts to teach digital literacy therefore has to be more than simply giving these individuals the tools to go digital. It needs to give them an understanding of what digital is and how it can be used. We can no longer allow an individual to think that the digital world is “not for them”. Digital literacy is ultimately about empowerment. The Prince’s Trust report notes for example that 35% of NEETs rarely or never look for jobs online, and 16% do not know where to find job vacancies, while 24% dread filling in online job applications. 1 in 10 admit that they “avoid using computers” and 17% say that they would not apply for a job that requires basic computer skills. With recent OECD figures putting the active youth unemployment rate at one in three in Italy and Portugal and one in two in Greece and Spain, coupled with rates of 13% in the US and 20.5% in the UK, this lack of digital awareness is extremely damaging and a major contributor to the so-called “lost generation” phenomenon, which in Europe alone has been estimated to cost member states €153 billion a year. With projections suggesting that 80% of US jobs in the next decade will require digital skills, this problem is only going to get more acute.

These employment-focused statistics are all the more pertinent due to the current economic crisis, but behind them lies the professional, social and personal marginalization of huge swathes of the general public. Only by empowering people, by providing them with the necessary skills to interact digitally with society can we hope to keep pace with technical developments. As a provider of desktop software training, our target audience remains those billions of users worldwide who want to improve their basic computer skills, such as word processing, spreadsheets, email, social media and the web.

To help them do that, the Vodeclic training solution features a wide variety of tutorials and training courses on the latest desktop software packages (most notably the Microsoft Office, LibreOffice and OpenOffice suites), internet browsers (including Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox and Google Chrome) and Web 2.0 tools, such as Twitter, Facebook and Google Apps. We also offer tailored training solutions for training centers, educational institutions and libraries.

You can find out more about the Everyone On and Go On UK campaigns on their respective websites.

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