An exciting and positive development for digital skills

5 October 2016

The government have launched a new policy that seeks to make the UK one of the most digitally-skilled nations, with “publicly-funded basic digital skills training being offered free of charge to adults in England who need it”, which will be paid for by the existing Adult Education Budget.

We have long argued that digital is just as important as literacy and numeracy for life, work and learning and work in the 21st century and have advocated for digital as the third basic skill. From our evidence to Baroness Estelle Moriss’ Independent Review of Digital Skills in 2009, to our input to the UK Digital Skills Taskforce 2014 report and our evidence to the House of Lords Digital Skills Committee 2015 enquiry into digital skills, we have used our research and development to evidence the need for digital skills to support citizenship, social and economic inclusion and to identify successful approaches to address digital exclusion.

While I am concerned that any increase in demand could mean cuts elsewhere and limit the flexibility for devolved areas, I recognise the importance of the digital agenda and the need to develop digital skills in a different way. I am genuinely concerned that the government’s commitment to free basic digital skills for adults without additional finding could negatively impact on other areas of adult learning, but believe that creative and holistic approaches could alleviate negative impact, while truly meeting the needs of digitally excluded people and supporting economic growth.

Success depends on overcoming barriers for digitally excluded people, who are also likely to be those who are socially excluded, including; those with low level qualifications, those furthest from the labour market, those in low skilled jobs, older people, those with physical impairments and those in low paying jobs. We have found that, for these cohorts, digital skills are best learned in the context of other provision.

The availability of user friendly digital tools and interfaces, improvements in internet access and the exponential increase of mobile devices has helped many people develop their digital skills. However, there are still 12.6 million people in the UK who don’t have those skills. Since an estimated 90% of all jobs will require basic ICT skills within the next few years, it is essential that we use alternative approaches to overcome barriers of confidence, low learning skills and motivation.

In 2002, I monitored UK online centres across Scotland. On one occasion, I visited a centre in a deprived area of Edinburgh, closely followed by a visit to the island of Uist. The Edinburgh centre offered European Computer Driving Licence(ECDL)courses, advertised as “a Europe-wide qualification in basic computer skills.”  They were notably unsuccessful in recruiting people from the local area, and their courses had a drop out rate of over 50%. The Uist centre initially offered similar courses to their audience of island crofters, but recruitment rates were low and their drop out rate was even higher. Crofters said “I don’t have any use for computers and don’t have time to learn about them. I’m too busy”. When the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs launched their online Cattle Tracing System (CTS), the centre re-packaged their offer as “A quick and easy method of Cattle Tracing Returns”. Crofters flocked to the centre, gaining digital skills while increasing the accuracy of their returns and saving time. Other successful centres took similar approaches, embedding digital skills in everything from creative writing to cookery. 

Our Citizens’ Curriculum provides an innovative, holistic approach to ensure everyone has the English, maths, digital, civic, health and financial capabilities they need, embedding digital skills within other programmes which motivate adults to learn, by ensuring that digital skills are embedded within other programmes which are relevant to their lives and their work.  With the Citizens’ Curriculum, adult learners have not only improved their digital skills but have also increased their literacy and numeracy skills, enhanced their ability to manage money, are more motivated to seek work and access health and public services online.

As the Adult Education Budget is devolved, local areas should commission a Citizens’ Curriculum approach to design provision that embeds digital skills within their wider learning provision. This would not only address the needs of those most likely to lack digital skills, but would also engage more people to learn, retain and develop those skills by applying them to their real lives. It has the added benefits of flexibility, so that local programmes would reflect local digital skill needs and develop the right digital skills to boost local economies while acknowledging financial constraints.

Using this approach, the digital agenda would not limit Adult Education provision, it would expand and enhance it and sustain their progress in other basic skills while preparing them to use the technology of the future as well as that of today.

Digital exclusion has been described as “one of the great social challenges of our age”. The new policy is an exciting opportunity to address that challenge. We should view the financial constraints as an imperative to build on research and evidence gathered over many years to use innovative approaches which eliminate digital skill silos.  

The government’s announcement is an exciting and positive development which could positively impact on social and economic inclusion. We all recognise the value of digital skills to an inclusive society. Employers and businesses recognise the value of digital skills to economic growth. It is imperative that we “get it right” by adopting creative, inclusive approaches to the development of adults’ digital skills.