A radical approach to digital skills?

By Dr Tom Wilson, Research Executive

In the second blog of this series, we review the definition of ‘digital skills’, and the approach to training currently being taken in the UK.

What do we really mean by digital skills? Does it mean that you can develop a sophisticated app in your sleep, or more simply that you are able to view your high score on Minesweeper? Having ‘digital skills’ is a bafflingly variable thing, and what they constitute depends who you’re talking to.

In our experience, and broadly speaking, individuals with digital skills can be segmented into four levels. At the lowest and least demanding level are those who require only entry level skills: being able to go online with confidence, to check emails, for instance, or to use shopping sites and government portals, while at the same time being safe.

The second level includes most low to medium-skilled workers, for whom the skills required range from the ability to use Cloud software (such as Googledocs) and basic commercial applications (e.g. Word) to being familiar with multi-device capabilities, engaging easily in desktop, tablet and mobile situations.

At the third level are those who work in more technical and technology-centred roles. For them, being able to set up a Powerpoint presentation without any hassle is not enough. Rather, they must be capable of a range of higher-level skills, including the application of specialist software and even basic programming of industrial robots and automated machines.

There is, however, a top level in digital terms, in which are found highly skilled digital technicians who are able to program in different high-level languages, develop sophisticated web applications, undertake advanced big data analysis, and develop and engage in cyber-security systems.

From an educational standpoint, the crucial distinction is between those who use digital tools and those who build them. Using our typology, the former consists of levels one, two and most of three. The latter includes a very small proportion of the third level with all of the fourth.

Such is the importance now of using the Internet that the Government views digital skills as being as essential as numeracy and literacy. Indeed, the UK’s Digital Strategy document, published in March last year, outlines the Government’s proposal to offer full funding for adults to gain basic digital skills from 2020, making this a third essential life-skill alongside reading and writing. By supporting and enabling the population, the aim is to boost national productivity in an increasingly digital society.

At the mid-skills level, and perhaps counterintuitively, it is Millennials (those born between the mid-1980s and 2000) who have been found to struggle most, at least in an office environment. Despite having grown up with technology at their fingertips, these ‘digital natives’ are primarily used to mobile technology, and have more difficulty than the ‘digital immigrants’ of Generation X (those born between the mid-1960s and mid-1980s) when it comes to desktop technology and device interoperability. While younger workers are tech-savvy with consumer technology, the older generation are more self-sufficient problem solvers. The scale of the problem is evidenced by the fact that 47% of employers believe that young people do not have the digital skills required for the workplace.

Furthermore, as highlighted previously, the workforce should no longer be expected to simply pick up digital skills by osmosis, but be provided with regular opportunities for lifelong learning as roles evolve to keep up with changes in technology. While organisations up to now have put a focus on developing technology for their business, there is a growing need to invest more in the workforce and equip them with relevant skills for changing roles.

Following the unveiling of the Government’s Digital Strategy last year, the Digital Skills Partnership, was launched in November, with the aim of bringing public, private and charity sectors together to coordinate digital skills and share best practice, and ultimately provide a more coherent approach at a national level. At a local level, the Government is working with business-led local enterprise partnerships to identify the specific digital skills requirements and trends in the workplace.

And at an educational level, there are also several new initiatives on the table. Coding is being introduced to the national curriculum to promote skills that will be relevant for future careers. Apprenticeships are being reformed to address new digital technologies. T-Levels are being introduced to cover topics such as IT support and software design.

However, the education sector has so far demonstrated itself to be slow off the mark in providing adequate training provision for new technologies. Up to this point, individuals wishing to upskill have had two options: either they have the self-motivation to teach themselves, or they have been lucky enough to be trained on the job. Companies have realised that investing in people is the most sensible way forward if the education sector is not providing work-ready, qualified candidates.

It is one thing for the Government to introduce new training initiatives, it is another entirely to ensure that the training providers are adequately equipped to run quality courses. Having a formal standards is a good start (if very difficult to keep up to date), but it is vitally important to ensure that teachers themselves are completely familiar with the latest trends and technological advances. To adapt a phrase: who shall train the trainers themselves?

But all this might be a moot point if we step back a pace: are traditional education routes the most suitable way to provide digital training? Whether the digital revolution heralds the need for a complete re-think about our approach to education will be the feature of the final blog of this series.

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