A dynamic approach to digital skills: Chris Coward’s remarks at Mobile Learning Week

Tuesday morning, TASCHA Director Chris Coward spoke at the “Defining and mainstreaming digital skills” plenary at Mobile Learning Week. You can read his remarks below and see Twitter reactions from the remarks. Learn more about TASCHA’s participation in Mobile Learning Week on our blog.

A dynamic approach to digital skills

Mobile Learning Week

March 27, 2018

Good morning. I’m honored to be here and to share my thoughts on the topic of digital skills, something that my center, the Technology & Social Change Group at the University of Washington Information School, has been working on for over a decade. For this talk I’m going to discuss a dynamic approach to digital skills. Something I believe is critical for ensuring that the policies and programs for digital skills remain relevant over time.

Let’s start by taking a trip back to 2006. The significance of this year will become clear shortly.

In 2006, Facebook was 2 years old. It only had 12 million active users. YouTube was only 1 year old. Twitter was just being born. In fact, it was on March 21 when the Twitter co-founder sent out the world’s first tweet.

How about mobiles? It was a communications-centric mobile environment. Apple’s first iPhone was still a year away, and the first Android wouldn’t appear until late 2008.

So back in 2006, what digital skills did people need? At my center we studied the curriculum and training programs that NGOs were delivering around the world, especially as it related to employability.

At the risk of over generalizing, I can rather safely say that the types of digital skills being taught were pretty similar. To be sure, there were unique and innovative pedagogical approaches, but the skills themselves were largely the same. For beginners you’d start with the keyboard and mouse. This led to basic computer operations, such as file management and printing. Then the dominant software applications – word processing, spreadsheets — and basic internet operations, such as searching for information, and using email.

So in 2006, the basket of skills was relatively straightforward. There was a general consensus on what went into the basket of skills at different levels, and the basket wasn’t terribly large, especially when looked at from today’s perspective.

Now let’s travel up to the present day. I don’t need to describe the digital landscape because we live it every day. For purposes of this discussion I want to focus on how digital skills have changed over these 12 years.

First, there’s expansion. We’ve witnessed a huge expansion in the types of skills one needs to become digitally proficient. The basket of skills we talked about a moment ago is now much larger. Employers expect people to have a much broader range of skills than the ones being taught in digital skills courses in 2006. A major part of the expansion is the transition to individuals as creators of information, not just consumers.

Second is specialization. As ICTs have become mainstreamed into every aspect of the economy, we’ve seen increasing demand for people who specialize in using ICTs for specific purposes. And this specialization is not just occurring at the advanced levels. It’s in the intermediate and even beginning levels too.

diagram showing digital literacies expansion across web, data, mobile, and information

Now let’s look at how these dynamic forces play out in practice.

I’m a huge fan of DigComp, which we just learned about. It is research-based, and a tremendous digital skills framework. I congratulate the European Commission. In particular, I want to call out how they’ve wrestled with the forces of expansion and specialization. When they released DigComp 1 in 2013 the first competence area was titled “Information literacy.” For DigComp 2, released in 2016, this is now “Information and data literacy.” Similarly, “communication” is now “communication and collaboration.” This is expansion. The framework also notes the specialization of skills, and in a 2017 update they increased the number of proficiency levels from 3 to 8. So in the short period of time since 2013 we see a number of visible examples of how digital skills have changed.

In addition to expansion and specialization we should also add a third dynamic – context. I’d like to use the example of mobile phones to illustrate. Most digital skills curricula, probably because they’ve been developed in the West, assume that people will acquire their skills and cognitive understanding of the internet in a PC environment, and then transfer those skills to their smartphone usage.

In many parts of the world, however, people’s first internet experience is with a smartphone. This entry point has important implications, not just for the skills they need, but also for how people think about and use the internet.

Take a look at these survey results from a multi-country study in Asia. Across many countries, LIRNEasia found larger proportions of people saying they use Facebook than use the Internet. At first they thought this was an error, but context helps explain this. In our work in Myanmar, when we ask people to conduct an internet search, many performed their search within Facebook rather than using a browser. While this was anecdotal, I would suspect that many smartphone-first users have a more app-based view of the internet, as opposed to a browser-based view that would have been cultivated in a PC environment.

At TASCHA, we co-created a mobile literacy curriculum with our Burmese partners, for the Myanmar context, and we’re doing the same in Kenya. Mozilla has a similar project in Kenya. And GSMA has taken the same grounded approach in India and Rwanda. Given that a huge proportion of the next billion will join digital society through a smartphone we believe this is important work. And in fact, there’s an afternoon session on mobile literacy that I hope you’ll join.

So, why did I pick 2006? Probably many of you have already guessed it. That was 12 years ago. 12 years from now is 2030, the end point of the Sustainable Development Goals.

What digital skills will be needed in 2030? Who knows!? Just as in 2006 it would have been impossible to predict the skills that would be needed today, it will be equally impossible to know what the digital landscape will look like 12 years from now. We know some technological trends will have an impact – artificial intelligence for instance. Perhaps there will be a set of skills associated with AI that every citizen should master, perhaps even at the beginning level? What we can be certain of is that there will be new technologies, new industries, as well as new threats.

The point of this exercise has been to underscore the necessity of developing digital skills strategies that are dynamic. That take into account the forces of expansion and specialization, and are grounded in the realities of local contexts.

This leads me to the second part of my talk. Some thoughts about a way forward.

I’m often in conversations where the question is, what digital skills should be included in a national digital skills strategy? As should be obvious by now, I’m hesitant to answer this question outright. And that’s because I’m concerned that a country will settle on a particular program or curriculum and then it will remain unchanged for too long. I’m disheartened by how many programs continue to focus on skills that are more relevant to 2006 than to today.

Thus, my response is always that the most important digital skills strategy is to institute a process for continuously updating the strategy.

This brings me to a project that we have been working on with the ITU. Called the “Digital Skills Toolkit,” its focus is on the process, or roadmap, for developing and then continuously renewing a digital skills strategy. It covers such topics as: engaging the right stakeholders, inventorying and assessing existing policies, developing strategies for different proficiency levels, developing strategies for under-represented groups such as women and persons with disabilities, organizing campaigns and joining regional or international initiatives, and monitoring and updating the strategy.

The toolkit also includes numerous examples of concrete programs and frameworks from around the world, to serve as models and inspiration without being prescriptive, knowing that local context should determine national targets and choices.

For instance, in the section on developing the channels for digital skills delivery we explore a full range of options – schools of course, but also several non-formal options such as community-based organizations, IT clubs, makerspaces, coding bootcamps, and public libraries.

I’d like to make a few remarks on public libraries, as this is something that doesn’t get the attention it deserves. In many parts of the world, public libraries are at the forefront of offering new digital skills learning experiences — coding camps for girls, entrepreneurship training, makerspaces – leveraging their trusted community presence, social spaces, trained knowledge workers, and digital infrastructure. There are over 300,000 public libraries worldwide, and it may come as a surprise that some 70% are located in the developing world. While not all public libraries are equally equipped or exist in all places, it’s a huge untapped opportunity. At TASCHA we have a major program dedicated to public library innovation.

slide: public libraries as center for digital skills learning.

Lastly, I’d like to touch on the assessment question. This is the final section of the ITU toolkit and a very important one. If we don’t similarly update what we are assessing, we run the very real risk of locking in the teaching of digital skills that are no longer relevant. We need an assessment system that is similarly dynamic.

I’d like to see more work on a dynamic basket approach, similar to how the Consumer Price Index works, or the standard of living calculation. By this I mean, we determine the most relevant skills, across different levels. This constitutes the basket at year T0. Then, we re-evaluate the basket after, let’s say 2 or 3 years, and come up with a new basket. Many of the skills will be the same, but there will be some that we take out, and others that we add in. We’d also adjust the weights. For instance, skills that were important in 2006 – such as word processing and email – may still show up in the basket today, but their weights would be much lower to make room for other skills. Now we’re at year T1, and the process repeats. This would not be easy, but the tools for constructing such a measurement system exist and I think it would be a very worthwhile endeavor.

Thank you very much for your attention.