GUEST POST: Digital Literacy – the importance of providing useful and accessible services

Our latest guest post is by Karen Dorrat, a blogger and library resource assistant interested in literacy and digital literacy. She tweets @kd_writing.

Communicating digitally is becoming more prevalent every day and the speed at which technology is changing leaves many people and businesses behind.

Digital literacy is about firstly providing information and secondly making this information useful and accessible. If we can achieve this in areas such as education and public services, this will be a great step forward in terms of empowering people.

The rapid expansion of digital services is creating vast opportunities, however just this week Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google expressed his concern that advances in IT were threatening employment within industries in which jobs could become automated. Speaking at a meeting at the World Economic Forum at Davos he said that governments needed to invest in education systems to improve skill levels. “It is pretty clear that work is changing and the classic nine to five job is going to have to be redefined,” he said. “Without significant encouragement, this will get worse and worse.”

John Doody, Cyber Lead for BCS Security explains: “36 million of us used the internet every day in 2013; it is our channel of choice to communicate, make financial transactions and access services, and it provides us with many benefits.” However, 7 million adults have never used the internet and of that 7 million, 6.1 million are aged 55 years and over. (ONS Internet Access Quarterly Update, Q3 2013)

A total of 11 million people are estimated to have poor ‘basic online skills’ meaning they can’t send an email or search the web. (BBC Media Literacy: Understanding Digital Capabilities follow-up September 2013)

Being online is a key enabler for jobs and training, education, welfare reform, poverty, health, well-being and consumer choice and the advent of Universal Credit means that 80% of benefit applications will have to be completed online after 2017. Last week Labour discussed the possibility of forcing benefits claimants to sit a test showing they can read, write and do maths in order to claim benefits. Anyone who does not show basic competency in literacy, numeracy and IT would be sent on training programmes. Labour believes that around 300,000 people could be sent on courses every year.

The implications of the widespread digitizing of services and facilities will require more than a basic course in IT and literacy, it will require a cultural shift towards opening up access, investment in education and training programmes, support for educators and of course an army of volunteers. Having recently spent a year volunteering as a tutor in an Adult Basic Education unit with a local council I saw the difficulties members of the public had when it came to accessing computers, the internet and opportunities to learn. The barriers to learning are still huge to many people and much of the spreading of digital literacy is currently being done by volunteers championing the digital cause.

And finally, digital literacy is not just an issue for the older generation. Students of today may be seen as digital natives and social media provides opportunity for the student voice to be heard louder than ever. Assumptions cannot be made however that all students have the same access or support network to show them the ropes. This may disadvantage some when they enter the competitive business world. Education itself must incorporate digital citizenship to its curriculum and invest accordingly if we are to harness all the wonderful opportunities that digital literacy can bring.

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