Upskilling us all: digital skills for a digital world

Digital World 2021 Highlights November

Digital skills are necessary to survive and thrive in the digital world, but who should be responsible for delivering and funding training, and how can we create an inclusive, meaningful roadmap to the digital future? asked moderator Paul Conneally, Head of Global Communications, Livetiles, as he set the scene for a fascinating panel discussion on upskilling us all in the digital era.

Rapid digitalization

“Rapid digitalization resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic means we are at an inflection point today when it comes to digital skills training. The digital skills gap is widening,” and if our current efforts in providing digital skills training were on track, this would not be the case, warned Dorothy Gordon, Chair, Information for all Programme, United Nations Educational; Scientific and Cultural Organization, in her opening keynote.

She addressed some very real practical concerns in providing appropriate digital training to the next billion to come online; people already being forced to use e government services rolled out quickly due in response to the pandemic; university students being trained on obsolete technology; or corporate employees where training is the responsibility of a line manager unequipped to assess training supplier. Additionally, many of us have experienced poorly designed, dull or irrelevant digital skills training, and without tracking the impact of current training programmes, we will continue to waste resources. How can we improve the situation?

“We need to create networks and working methodologies, feedback loops that allow potential employers to communicate the skill sets they need, and how well the people who have come through training fit those needs,” she said. Despite the difficulties in establishing strong public-private sector relationships, “we need strong links with business and the public sector so we can understand and establish current and future needs”, she continued, pointing out that countries have adopted national competency frameworks to track digital skills aligned to goals. This allows for the coordination and establishment of clear evaluation metrics and guidelines for training, including non-traditional pathways into the tech industry.

Gordon outlined a number of further measures to deliver meaningful digital skills, including bringing on board universities, education professionals and law schools to upgrade content and curricula to meet the needs of digital transformation; rolling out open source solutions to large number of students, so that they are familiar with relevant software before joining the workplace; setting up registers of experienced training providers; focusing on quality content and design; exploring audio visual content and micro learning in local languages; and establishing clear return on investment criteria for training programmes and trainers.

The situation urgently calls for a different approach favouring rapid, iterative testing and continuous feedback to understand whether training is impactful or not, and where or how it may need to be tweaked. “These are very complex problems, and if we want to have the scale and impact we are looking for, we need people to think systematically about this, taking digital skills from the margins of the development agenda to being central to our development agenda,” she concluded.

A developmental priority

Underscoring the importance of government in driving digital skills development, Ursula Ekuful-Owusu, Minister of Communications and Digitalization, Ghana, explained how ICT development policies are inextricably linked with economic policies, as technology is key to economic growth and national relevance in the 4th industrial revolution. “There is no disconnect between digitalization and economic development,” she stated.

The Ghana Digital Economy Policy sets out the use of digital tools in economic development, and addresses regulatory and legal frameworks, digital skills, infrastructure, different technologies and affordability issues. E government tools including data acquisition and analytics are improving government efficiency and increasingly used for policy formulation and implementation, outlined the Minister. Providing digital skills to young people especially is key for them attract and retain the digital jobs increasingly being created.

“It is a developmental and security imperative, as, if we provide young people in Africa with the digital skills they need today, they can thrive tomorrow. They can be the human resource pool for running digital installations around the globe,” she said, citing the comparison between Africa’s demographic dividend and the aging populations of Asia and Europe. Policy makers must ensure they are delivering young people with the tools they need to thrive – rather than being forced into illegal immigration.

Ekuful-Owusu gave the example of a young girl on a recent digital training course in Ghana who felt ill at being asked to use a mouse, as she thought it was a rodent – but after just one week’s basic education was able to build and present her own website. “So what can our young people not do if given in depth instruction in the digital skills they require?” she asked.

Knowledge is power, but accessing knowledge in the digital era means moving beyond books to the new world of digital literacy, stated Alfie Hamid, Corporate Affairs Senior Manager for Global Partnerships, Cisco Systems. He explained how ITU and Cisco are working together through Digital Transformation Centres designed to empower people everywhere with digital skills, focusing on sectors of the community in developing countries largely ignored to date – such as local farmers or housekeepers unaware of the existence or relevance of the internet to their daily lives in a changing world, “this sector and population of the globe, millions who have been left behind by others.” No one should be left behind in the digital era.

The 4th industrial revolution impacts on cognitive as well as physical labour. Equipping everyone with digital skills to benefit is imperative to protect and boost livelihoods. Beyond simple digital skills, basic training includes cybersecurity so that no one loses money or information online, and the ability to filter news to separate misinformation from true, useful and relevant data.

Media and information training is an important part of UNESCO’s Information for All Programme, agreed Gordon. The aim is to build strong partnerships between the private sector, government and civil society to track what is happening currently in digital skills training, illustrate best practice and demonstrate true, inclusive knowledge sharing. Some major challenges remain, such as fully developing the metrics for assessing training, evaluation frameworks and feedback loops between different partners.

Every country should put digital skills at the centre of its development agenda, she added, urging the international community to look beyond “donor darlings” – countries with relatively high levels of security, which are safe and pleasant to visit and invest in. It is precisely the smaller and more vulnerable countries with difficult security situations which need investment in digital skills training from donors to provide young people with hope, assurance and opportunity. “In a spirit of pan-Africanism, let me urge us to give more attention to those countries where no one seems to want to go,” she said, calling for mapping of donor and development activity around the world to track gaps in digital skills provision amongst vulnerable groups such as women and those living in poverty.

The private sector’s role

Upskilling matters to Microsoft and its mission to empower everyone and every organization to achieve more, stated Naria Santa Lucia, General Manager of Digital Inclusion and US Community Engagement, Microsoft, speaking of the need for the private sector to take a role in driving digital literacy around the world. It is important to think about providing digital skills in an equitable way, particularly given the catalysing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on digital transformation around the world. We will soon reach a point where every job will be a tech-enabled job, so it is critical to close the gap in skills now.

Providing opportunity to as many people in as many places as possible, she continued, is both a moral imperative and a business need. The private sector must work in partnership with the public sector, NGOs and agencies to provide innovative digital skills solutions at scale, leveraging community trust and engineering expertise.  Sharing data on the level of digital literacy in different states in the USA allows public and private sectors alike to see where dollars and resources should be concentrated, as well as creating better solutions to bring people online and build the skills for the future workforce.

She outlined Microsoft’s holistic approach to leveraging data from different segments and social media such as LinkedIn to see what key growth areas and main goals and skills are needed for a specific role, providing relevant learning content and associated certificates. “We need to keep learning and go deeper, this is such a growth sector that we need to do targeted skilling and really bridge the gap,” she said, calling on the private sector to act together, innovate and take good ideas to scale through government and NGO partners.

For Christopher Patnoe, Head of Accessibility and Disability Inclusion, Google Inc., incorporating digital skills and technologies in traditional education is important – but non-traditional education is equally critical in providing the opportunity to develop passions and drive new ideas.

We need to ask people what works and what does not work in education, with a view to fixing what is wrong, he said.  Are we speaking the right language, both literally and figuratively –  do learning initiatives resonate, is material accessible, can people find the materials to learn what they want in the way they want to? Reinventing education in the video age of TikTok and YouTube will reach young people in a way that traditional systems cannot. Given the changing nature of work and school, digital skills are increasingly important, and “schools should be able to teach people to use the tools of today,” so that they are equipped and educated to be employable in the jobs of tomorrow.

Providing meaningful skills means fixing underlying issues and local contexts, he added. Technology designed for people with no physical constraints or with no restrictions on electricity or WiFi access, for example, will not work in other conditions. Technology companies need to work with researchers, government and local start up communities to explore what is broken and how to fix it, depending on the target user and who they are trying to serve, talking to the people on the ground and collaborating across sectors to provide solutions.

Upskilling young people, women and girls

Youth capacity development, particularly in STEM skills, is critical to the economic growth of least developed countries, highlighted Shergaun Roserie, Digital Youth Envoy of Generation Connect Americas Youth Group and Founder, Orbtronics. “It is important for young people to be productive when they are energetic, healthy and imaginative so that they are not left without opportunities for personal success,” he stressed, outlining the youth programmes he has developed as part of his business in Santa Lucia.

Ensuring a feedback loop between programmes and making sure participants actually benefit from what they are taught is key; this data can then inform further education programmes targeting the areas young people need and are interested in. The mode of delivery is also important, so that young people are more receptive to the information they are being taught. Adapting both traditional educational methods and curricula will enable young people to learn better – and to develop the critical thinking skills essential for innovation. “These positive effects will extend throughout society,” he added, “and will maintain low levels of crime, increase government tax revenue, and also reduce expenses on judicial, penal and welfare systems.”

The key constraints preventing greater adoption of digital learning in educational systems are the lack of an established tech-based curriculum, the lack of teaching staff trained to deliver tech content effectively and, in many developing countries in particular, the absence of facilities such as computer labs or innovative training centres. In addition, institutions in many least developed countries do not offer technical training as there is a lack of demand for technical staff in the workforce.

Young people are not represented adequately at national or administrative levels, said Roserie, calling for greater inclusion of youth leaders and champions in the digital sector. Collaboration is the driving force behind the tech industry, and young people must take the opportunity to tap into open source resources to access valuable information. A network of mentors and experts should support academic and training opportunities for all. “Youth must see technology for what it is: a tool. What really matters is creativity and innovation to make a difference,” through the application of digital skills, he concluded.

Valerie Waswa, Digital Youth Envoy of Generation Connect Africa Youth Group and Program Director at Village Pillars Empowerment Project, outlined her experience starting up several NGO grassroots initiatives aimed at empowering young women with skills to enter the digital economy in Kenya. Delivering digital skills effectively means looking pragmatically at the unique challenges many women face – and providing practical solutions. Many young women in rural communities are responsible for several children, so a formal educational environment would not work: a digital learning hub needs to include child care facilities of some sort. Equally, students affected by period pain may miss several critical days of training per month, so it is important to factor in updates and provide regular recaps to prevent loss of momentum.

Positive discrimination, or affirmative action focusing solely on women, is the only way to ensure as many young girls and women in rural areas as possible are reached and provided with access to digital literacy skills, explained Waswa. Those digital skills are critical to enabling women to earn an income and access opportunities. Often, her skills training programmes have to start with the basics of learning English, learning to type or simply learning how to turn on a computer. But skills learnt through these courses have transformed lives, she said, giving the example of small business owners selling products online, reaching new markets and increasing business, students working in cyber cafes – or even starting their own in the communities.

Responding to an audience question on the role of mobile phones in facilitating digital skills training, Hamid urged that any training should be mobile first and provide content at a pace defined by the user, following the streaming model. Waswa added that access to digital training may be more affordable on mobile, and more relevant to daily life, as it is the device most likely to be used in developing countries.

Streaming on mobile fits with the open education resources approach, where content is sliced so people can share and consume at their own pace and in any location, agreed Gordon. But given that not all content is suited to this approach – super computer programming, for example, is not effective on mobile devices – she argued for a blended approach on multiple platforms seen through the lens of lifelong learning.

It is also important, Santa Lucia pointed out, to partner learners on mobile devices or other online modes with a pathway guide or sponsor to ensure they keep on track, are held accountable and can be supported to complete the course.

Levelling up: opportunities for all

Digital skills are paramount for nations and economies to play a meaningful role in the 4th industrial revolution, stated Roserie, as well as to improve the quality of life of people beyond the workplace.  The jobs of the future are not necessarily those of today, so what we learn today matters more in the long term, agreed Patnoe.

The time to act is now, said Santa Lucia, as otherwise inequality in talent and opportunity will accelerate.

“Digital skills is a concept that does not exist in a vacuum,” said Waswa, calling for underrepresented groups such as women to be provided with digital hubs and training centres to equip them with skills – and enable them to continue putting those skills into practice.

We need to clarify the paths to the actual learning goals we want to achieve and put in place a framework to track our progress towards these goals, and evaluate whether these approaches actually work or not, highlighted Gordon.

“We are in this together, but working together we can really make a difference in giving us all the skills that we need to thrive in the 4th industrial revolution. We need to focus on it and pool our resources to get it done,” summed up Ekuful-Owusu.

“Talent is everywhere, but opportunity is not,” concluded Conneally. Digital skills are imperative to creating an inclusive, dynamic and fully participative digital economy; digital education should be based on open resources, localised and relevant content, digital skills be seen as a lifelong learning process. Measuring the impact of digital skills training is critical, including some form of visualization of current and future training through global mapping. Digital skills and education services should be fit for purpose for young people, the leaders and entrepreneurs of tomorrow; and in additional to technological innovation, innovation in critical thinking must be encouraged to enable as many people as possible to have access to digital skills training and the social and economic benefits that ensue.


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