Critical information literacy has never been as important as in today’s world affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and the infodemic that comes with it. This was one of the messages we heard during the interviews with educational experts described in the first ySKILLS report. While the report is based on in-depth interviews with 34 experts in education and the labour market, here we only highlight the opinions of the educational experts.
Twenty experienced professionals working in different institutions providing or influencing education programmes from Estonia, Finland, Germany, Italy, Poland and Portugal were interviewed, representing a great variety of practical and academic experiences in education. The interviews were about the digital skills of today’s young people as well as the experts’ perspectives on the future in this regard. One of the interviews’ foci was on the perceived quality of the current educational measures implemented to support the development of such digital skills and the needs for future improvements.
Beyond technical skills
The vast majority of our experts opted for a broad understanding of digital skills and refused to limit them to operating particular hardware or software only. A telling example is presented below:
The experts underscored that being digitally skilled entails the ability to adequately cope with a series of societal challenges in times of digital transformation. “Collaborating” and “interacting” through digital technologies, “managing a digital identity” and “engaging in citizenship through digital technologies” were considered the five most important digital competences that children should master.
Digital skills as important as traditional literacy
The experts see digital skills as some kind of modern literacy, whose significance will only increase in the future. At the same time there will be new challenges brought by technological advances (such as virtual reality and artificial intelligence) that will need new understandings of digital skill requirements. Artificial intelligence will completely revolutionise how educational systems and labour markets will be organised. Actually, digital reality is so incorporated in our lives that it will be less and less possible to differentiate between online and offline contexts.
An educational expert from Poland stated: “We are living in some kind of media augmented reality where we no longer have the possibility of not using digital skills. Maybe we should call it ‘competences of the future’ or ‘competences of continuous learning’ rather than digital skills.”
Our experts agreed that young people are far from being digital natives, as they do not master digital skills naturally and intuitively.
How to help young people in their skills development?
According to the experts interviewed, schools play an important role in supporting the development of children’s digital skills. Some interviewees claimed that schools provide children with a basic digital skill set only, while further progress will depend on the children themselves. This may particularly be difficult due to existing digital inequalities. Children with special educational needs, those with lower SES or migrant children may fall behind, given the lack of access to equipment and, more importantly, less support in the family and the peer environment. This raises important questions as to who should be responsible for the provision of digital literacy after children leave schools.
The development of digital skills is conditioned by a number of factors. The government is responsible for appropriate actions in this regard, such as defining a regulatory framework and set the conditions for implementation. Particularly the acute COVID-19 crisis and the subsequent lockdown brought a different perspective to those issues. This was also highlighted in the interviews held during that period. On the one hand, the crisis provides unprecedented opportunities for a smart digitisation of education. On the other hand, it acts (or should act) as a wake-up call for governments to re-assess digital needs and inequalities, and start investing more in digital education for all.
Actors such as families and parents, higher education institutions and their educational departments, private companies running digital workshops, and NGOs are involved in the digital education process. The development of digital skills and the promotion of digital literacy are not tasks that only concern the formal educational system. On the contrary, several educational experts stressed the importance of working collaboratively across different sectors to ensure coordinated and coherent policies and measures to promote the effective development of the increasingly needed digital skills.
The role of the children themselves cannot be forgotten. They are often self-learners who also learn from each other or through the very use of digital media. Adults and educational decision-makers cannot focus solely on the risks or the technical aspects of using digital media. The key here will be to accompany the natural digital development of children, and show them various valuable paths, always taking into account their wellbeing.
The experts pointed out that digital skills are increasingly becoming an integral part of people’s lives. This became especially true during the COVID-19 pandemic, when all of a sudden learning and working have become essentially digital. It is worth mentioning that access to the necessary tools, resources and education in this field vary greatly, not only across countries, but also within. The experts also stressed that it is crucial to develop a strategy to reduce existing inequalities, which have only been exacerbated by digitisation.
An important challenge for governments today is to ensure that all citizens have access to effective and meaningful digital skills training and education. A systematic approach, effective collaboration and coordination between different stakeholders, policy makers, academics, educational organisations, practitioners, the private sector and civil society are needed to support the development of digital skills and thus equip young people with the skills needed for the 21st century.