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"Mastering digital skills is vital but digital literacy education is often deficient and unequal"

Learning and working are increasingly becoming more digitised. However, European experts on Education and Labour Market consider the quality and effectiveness of initiatives to foster digital skills as often deficient and their provision unequal. The experts, interviewed in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, agreed that this worldwide crisis acted as a “wake-up call” for governments to re-assess their digital needs and invest more in digital literacy education for all.

Access to the necessary tools, resources and education to master digital skills varies greatly among individuals across and within countries. According to the European experts interviewed in a recent ySKILLS report, the development of strategies for reducing existing inequalities that have been reinforced by digitisation is crucial. The experts further reflected on what makes a person ‘digitally skilled’, the role of digital skills in the future, and how digital skills are fostered in their respective countries, namely, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Italy, Poland and Portugal.

Interviewed in May 2020, when the COVID-19 crisis had already impacted Europe and the whole world in unprecedented ways, the experts agreed that the situation could act as a “wake-up call” for governments to re-assess their digital needs and start investing more in digital literacy education for all. Another shared idea was that the development of digital skills and the promotion of digital literacy do not only concern the formal educational system and that strategies to support the development of digital literacy among the elderly, the unemployed and citizens in general are a priority in times when increasingly more everyday activities are becoming digital. Against this background, the experts from education and labour market alike underline the need for collaborative work across different sectors (academia, the private sector, civil society, governments, policy makers, etc.) to ensure coordinated and coherent policies and measures to promote the effective development of the increasingly needed digital skills.

Formal education is only the beginning

Life-long learning, upskilling and reskilling of existent competences are key to keep up with the rapid evolution of digital media and technologies. As noted in the report, these views are in line with the European Skills Agenda for Sustainable Competitiveness, Social Fairness and Resilience, launched by the European Commission in 2020: “education at a young age remains fundamental but is only the beginning of a life full of learning”.

Although the focus of the interviews conducted for the project ySKILLS was to reflect on the importance of digital skills for youth, many experts highlighted the current lack of adequate programs to continue developing the digital skills of adults, especially the elderly. This was considered as highly problematic, particularly because of the assumption that in the near future more digital technologies will be used for work, but also to perform a wider range of everyday activities, such as communication, online shopping, e-government, e-health, leisure and so forth.

Leen d’Haenens (Institute for Media Studies – KU Leuven), project coordinator of the ySKILLS project underlines the contribution of this report for the deeper knowledge on the digital skills needed in the 21st century and for the role of digital skills in formal and informal learning environments: “Media literacy and our ability to have a critical understanding of and be responsible in dealing with the media have never been more important than in the current world hit by the COVID-19 pandemic and the 'infodemic' that accompanies it. The experts interviewed concluded that we now need to step up and improve media literacy and critical thinking, raise public awareness of their importance and support the development and sharing of media literacy teaching and training materials. Emphasis should be on developing a lifelong approach to media literacy for all ages.” 

Improving digital competences

The report includes recommendations targeted to different groups:

  • Policymakers and regulators: Coherent educational policies in regard to digital skills; fine-tuning the national school curricula with young people’s lives and the expectations for the future labour market; more opportunities for all citizens to develop or enhance their digital skills; investment in technical equipment as well as more initiatives to help families to be able to offer the guidance their children require.
  • Educators: Recognition of the key role of the formal educational sector; a focus on both technical and non-technical aspects of digital education; the need for schools and teachers to stay up-to-date with technological innovations and trends regarding young people’s digital uses; a closer coordination between the educational sector and the labour market.
  • Families: Parents should be well equipped to guide their children’s online activities; they should also be aware that they are role models for their children while children and young people should learn to take on a more active role in their own digital literacy education.

About the project

Youth Skills (ySKILLS) is a large international research project funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research & Innovation programme. The project’s aim is to understand what kinds of skills are needed among children and youth so that the long-term positive impact of the digital environment can be maximised. The project will provide recommendations for strategies that can be used by children, parents, schools, and people working with and for children to develop skills that will maximise positive opportunities and minimise the risk of harm.

Led by KU Leuven (Belgium), the project includes 14 universities from 13 countries (Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Italy, Norway, Poland, Portugal, The Netherlands and United Kingdom) and European Schoolnet, a network of 34 Ministries of Education, who will actively engage in meeting the objectives of the project.

Research findings

For accessing the full Report on Interviews with Experts on Digital Skills in Schools and on the Labour Market, visit the project website at www.yskills.eu.

prof.dr.ing. A.J.A.M. van Deursen (Alexander)
Professor