Who needs digital skills?

Everyone, that’s who.

A central premise of opening knowledge practices (OKP) is that everyone benefits when people augment their literacies, skills, identities and communities with digital practices. I’ll say it again: everyone benefits — not just practicing individuals, but society as a whole. Just like everyone benefits when people learn to read and write.

So OKP is more than yet another call for technology education or job training, it’s a call to open knowledge practices as widely as possible, for people of all ages, in all stages of life or lines of work, whatever their existing literacies, skills, identities and communities.

It is with this in mind that I read the new Digital Skills for Life and Work, published by the UNESCO Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development’s Working Group on Education, a substantial document outlining serious thinking about digital skills worldwide: what they are, why we need them, how to help people get them, and more.

There’s a lot to say about this worthy document, but first, I want to review where it recommends we should focus efforts to build digital skills:

  1. Digital literacy for all or basic digital skills for low-level users of ICT.
  2. Computer programming and coding skills for children and young people.
  3. Specialized digital skills for professionals with ICT-related jobs.
  4. ‘Soft’ and ‘complementary’ skills, including ‘twenty-first century skills’.

All four are certainly worthy, but this list limits our focus to specific activities and groups when we really need to broaden our thinking. Augmenting digital skills should be an ongoing process, integrated into everyone’s “life and work”, not limited to a few efforts like ensuring everyone has some basic digital skills, youth get exposure to the very specific skills of coding, and ICT workers develop professionally.

An analogy: if these recommendations were for book literacy rather than digital skills, the list might look something like this, at once too specific (1, 2 and 3) and too general (4):

  1. Make sure everyone at least knows the alphabet.
  2. Teach young people how to set type.
  3. Teach people who are going to be authors, editors or publishers how to write, print, bind, and distribute books.
  4. Help everyone learn how to work together better.

Where in this list do we help everyone use books effectively to augment their “life and work”? Even if the UNESCO report’s list are just starting points for a larger project, I’m not convinced that they are necessarily the right starting points.

Let’s not make a list of digital skills and deliver them to specific folks. Let’s look at what people are already doing in their “life and work” and figure out how we can enable them to do those things better by empowering them to augment their digital skills in service to the real activities in which they are already engaged.

So, we could and should shift our thinking to this more general view, but that would be a huge project to take on everywhere, all at once. To be as pragmatic as the UNESCO report and outline specific areas for intervention: where should we focus to actually empower real people?

House activity in public institutions

OKP focuses on knowledge practices as a strategic choice: not because activities like teaching, learning, research, scholarship and “librarying” are the only arenas where literacies, skills, identities and communities matter or can be augmented, but because there’s ripe opportunity to enable people when they are already coming together to acquire, create and spread knowledge.

And here’s where there’s strong alignment between OKP and the UNESCO report, both of which emphasize the necessity for public organizations to lead and house digital skills efforts. While the report says multistakeholder partnerships including public and private organizations are necessary for effective digital skills development, it emphasizes that government and nonprofit/neutral organizational stewardship is essential to ensure digital skills programs maintain capacity and continuity and do not reinforce existing social inequalities.

This is another one of OKP’s central strategic choices: House activity in public institutions. Public, nonprofit institutions like schools, colleges, universities and libraries are uniquely able to bring people together for the common good and provide persistent structure to support crosscutting efforts. Private and commercial organizations and services are not focused on building and stewarding common, civic infrastructure.

There’s a lot more material in the UNESCO report, including a rich catalog of case studies from various worldwide programs working to develop digital skills. I expect to make more connections between the report and OKP in future posts.

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