Six dilemmas for the digital skills gap from strategist Alex Grech

Technology keeps flinging new shiny tools our way, but our use of them is not necessarily mindful or conducive to private or public good, says Dr Alex Grech, educator and digital strategist

Dr Alex Grech: ‘We urgently need to get some basic digital literacies in place – in the classroom, but also in the boardroom and in the home’
Dr Alex Grech: ‘We urgently need to get some basic digital literacies in place – in the classroom, but also in the boardroom and in the home’

By Dr Alex Grech, Strategyworks diretcor and Rheingold U alumni

Last week I ran a keynote as part of Google’s Growth Engine for Europe initiative. I was meant to talk about digital skills and SMEs. 33 slides and 15 minutes later, I ended up making the same point I made in a TEDx talk from 2011. Which got me worried.

The New Skills Agenda for Europe published last June makes all the right noises about improving the quality and relevance of skills formation; making skills and qualifications more visible and comparable; and improving skills intelligence and information for better career choices. Digital skills are a cornerstone of the EU’s attempts to address a scenario which predicts that all jobs in the future will require digital skills, and that despite continued high levels of unemployment in the EU, there could be 756,000 unfilled jobs for ICT professional by 2020.

I believe there are several unresolved dilemmas before policy makers can start to address skills gaps, irrespective of the amount of funds that the EU will throw at the problem. I highlighted six – there are several others.

1. Digital Skills or Digital Competences? 

What’s in a name? Not much, until you realise that the EU is investing in excellent research from the Joint Research Centre within the Institute for Prospective Studies that has long abandoned the notion of ‘digital skills’ in preference of the more nuanced ‘digital competences’ for teaching institutions and citizens. Digital competence is a more nuanced term in that it addresses several areas and literacies and can evolve rapidly as new technologies emerge. It acknowledges the convergence of multiple fields, and highlights the need to secure an understanding of digital media, how we search for information, and the need to become savvier about what we retrieve online, given the omnipresence of social media – in addition to the need to communicate effectively with others and be aware of safety and privacy issues.

And yet, the New Skills Agenda talks about Digital Skills. In most EU ET2020 workshops in Brussels, confusion abounds on remit and terminologies. Are we focusing on skills, competences, media literacies or some other term? Do member states mean the same thing? And is the EU’s obsesseion with developing ever more-detailed checklists going to contribute to a modernisation of education systems in member states?

2. The ongoing crisis of Education systems

European education hasn’t quite reached the financial crisis epidemic of the US, institutional education still counts for power, and some countries like mine promote free education pathways all the way up to tertiary education (and provide stipends for students). Post-Brexit, you can bet that the institutional crisis in the UK will permeate other jurisdictions. The EU continues to flounder in ying-yang paradigms of education versus vocational education and training (VET).

‘Education’ is quickly becoming associated with pursuing higher education academic pathways (whose success can only be measured in terms of graduate employment) while ‘skills’ are all about VET which is directly related to providing the labour market with what it needs, and getting a job. The silos of interpretation are clearly permeable. The risk, of course, is that discourse is subliminally turning to challenging ‘education’ which does not guarantee young people immediate employment. Expect funding cuts for anything related to social sciences.

The more tangible crisis is the disconnect between the 20th century curricula served in 20th century classrooms to 21st century students who run parallel lives on their personal connected devices – and yet are meant to secure 21st century skills. We are a long way off from promoting peer-learning or connected-learning in our curricula. We pay lip service to 21st century skills, and expect young people to develop these during their lifelong learning journey – but have little time for actual ‘instruction’ or facilitation of these skills during school, college or university.

3. Disruptive technology contributes to your echo-chamber

Most media now is both digital and increasingly social. The Guardian had an excellent article last week which did two things: it deconstructed the Brexit result into the willing or unwilling role mainstream media played in fueling divisive discourse normally associated with social media; it also laid the blame on the echo-chambers of our news feed to the algorithms deployed by the likes of Facebook and Google. Perhaps it was not very elegant to mention this in a Google-sponsored workshop. I’m not alone in finding search less useful than a decade ago; or that big data is being deployed for the good of the big Silicon Valley four.

4. Open Educational Resources are still in the starting blocks

In Europe, there are those of us who bang the drum about open educational resources being tantamount to making all publicly funded education resources open. OER must be free (no cost) for anyone to access and to legally modify (according to the 5R activities: retain, reuse, revise, remix, redistribute).

The trouble is that the OER movement in Europe is still a fledgling bunch of individuals trying to secure the attention of policy-makers, teachers and parents. In the meantime, those who own platforms (Coursera?) continue to strike deals with universities funded by public funds to turn their outputs into profit for the few. Loaded words – open, free, public, public good, public interest. Indeed, how do we secure the skills to determine what is in the public interest, and what is not? Particularly in hyperlocal contexts where walls that used to have ears now have smart phones, blogs and online media commentary spaces? Just read Avil Dash’s Medium post on what is public and you’ll know what I’m mumbling about. More on why knowledge about OER matters here.

5. Copyright will continue to be banded around by those who want to stifle whatever good there is about OER

Copyright is the nemesis of OER. Creative Commons licenses should become the standard way to license content as OER, where licensing is required. However, education has not quite gone down the record company way. Not every educator or school is even aware that we have a copyright problem. We used to photocopy pages of textbooks and share these with our students; in times when we’re supposed to be encouraging peer learning networks, co-learning, connected learning, lifelong learning – just the sheer joy of learning – it’s not difficult to be stopped in your tracks by armies of lawyers working for a handful of publishers. Try and work your way through this five-part series from Education World on copyright issues and you’re bound to give up before you start.

6. Privacy, the public interest and surveillance issues are the domain of those using big data

It’s not in the big four’s interest that you should worry your head about heady issues like social graphs and how big data is being used to track your every interaction online and how native advertising is served as entertainment. The EU tells us we need digital skills to acquire the skills to get the smart jobs – but nobody is helping our kids acquire basic literacy skills. By which I mean having the knowledge and ability to effectively and critically navigate, evaluate and create information using a range of digital technology tools.

We’re stuck in a moment that we cannot get out of. Technology keeps flinging new shiny tools our way, but our use of them is not necessarily mindful or conducive to private or public good. We urgently need to get some basic digital literacies in place – in the classroom, but also in the boardroom and in the home. If we really want to align our education system with the skills the labour market needs, we need to first start to acquire some critical understanding of what is fed to us via our screens, our apps, our ‘free’ social networks – and how to be mindful about the information. If I had my way, I’d ship Howard Rheingold’s Net Smart to every home and make it required reading in primary schools.

Alex’s LinkedIn profile and personal blog. You can also follow Alex on Twitter and contact him at: [email protected]

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