One of my former managers was fond of saying, “We don’t know what we don’t know,” a rough paraphrasing of a quote from Aristotle (and stated many times prior to Donald Rumsfeld being given credit for it). This statement is especially true for digital skills in the 21st century. Rapid technological change, along with the changing nature of work, requires even the most technologically savvy individual to become a persistent, lifelong learner. In October 2019, the Pew Research Center reported that about 78% of U.S. adults are not as knowledgeable about a range of digital technology topics as we tend to believe (“Americans and Digital Knowledge”; pewresearch.org/internet/2019/10/09/americans-and-digital-knowledge). While younger adults had a somewhat higher average score than older adults, the median for that group was still only five out of 10 questions answered correctly. Generally, young adults treat technology, especially smartphones and tablets, as utilities. However, deftness with social media and other popular web-based tools does not necessarily translate into workplace capabilities or lead to continuous learning.
To be a successful, contributing member of society within the new world of work requires combining what SRI calls 21st-century skills (archive.sri.com/research-development/21st-century-skills) with digital capabilities. In addition to digital competences, one must have, or learn, skills in the areas of collaboration, communication, critical thinking, and problem-solving, as well as exhibit creativity and display cultural/social competence. Yet, digital skills, also referred to as ICT (information and communications technology) skills, are the core around which all of the other capabilities revolve. The current skills gap emphasizes the fact that many individuals of all ages are not prepared to deal with the evolving world of employment and learning. As has been reported by many different research projects in the last several years 1, too few Americans have the appropriate digital skills to fill jobs in this changing work environment. The result has been characterized as the skills gap and described in popular media as a crisis.
DEVELOPING DIGITAL RESILIANCE
Presently, it is nearly impossible to acquire any job, even a minimum-wage position, without some level of digital skill, as both postings and applications have become online processes. While unemployment figures are low, many low-level jobs are either disappearing or are morphing into something very different. This fact applies to all types and levels of jobs, from senior management positions to hourly workers. Each of these new occupational categories requires some degree of digital resilience and often incorporates completely new or different skills.
For many individuals, training is one of the most critical issues associated with the skills gap. These workers either do not have access to or have no knowledge of the training required to perform these new jobs. Further, opportunities for training or retraining are often not avail able, accessible, or even known to these workers. Libraries are among the community-based organizations that provide the information and sometimes the direct training that these workers require.
Information professionals, and especially those in libraries, have traditionally played a key role in skill building. From providing information and digital literacy training and assisting customers with resume creation and job searches to developing information-related skills so people can cope with life in general, information professionals and the institutions they are a part of provide needed services to the communities that they support; they are a significant factor in the overall l earning network. Library organizations are especially important in expanding information literacy, one of the many digitally related skills.
A generally accepted definition of information literacy is “one’s ability to evaluate and use information effective ly.” Similarly, a common definition of digital literacy is “the ability to use information and communication technologies to find, evaluate, create, and communicate information, requiring both cognitive and technical skills” (literacy.ala.org/digital-literacy). When combined, these two concepts form a key part of the core set of skills needed to close the skills gap and allow individuals to function in today’s work, civic, educational, and life environments.
Digital US (digitalus.org) is a movement that is address ing the digital skills crisis in a new way. A collaborative effort led by World Education, Inc., Digital US is bringing together stakeholders of all types in business/industry, education, government, and the nonprofit sector to create an ecosystem that supports digital skills growth and development across the entire U.S. population of learners. This effort places a major emphasis on individuals with lesser skills, especially learners whose income and educational levels are low. At the same time, this collaboration will ultimately support all learners at all skill levels by making learning and the expansion of one’s skills more easily accessible and attainable for all.
With more than two dozen partner organizations (and growing), Digital US is addressing a range of issues in the digital learning world. It will link employers to educators and service providers so that teaching and learning reflect the needs of businesses and other organizations that provide employment. It will help learners identify and acquire the information, tools, and opportunities that they need to thrive in the world. It supports the concept of digital equity and inclusion.
These objectives will be accomplished through creating i mproved data on student learning and making it more accessible to both the learners themselves and the organizations they interact with. The enterprise will help to expand learning opportunities by identifying available resources for both learners and teacher/trainers and fostering cooperative ventures among collaborating organizations. It will promote increased sharing of information among employers, providers, policymakers, and the learners themselves. Finally, it will advance the notion of lifelong learning and knowledge expansion.
For more information about Digital US, please visit the website.
1. The Atlantic , “America Has a Digital Skills Gap. Libraries Can Help Fix It” (theatlantic.com/sponsored/grow-google-2019/america-has-digital-skills-gap-libraries-can-help/3091); World Economic Forum, “The Digital Skills Gap Is Widening Fast. Here’s How to Bridge It” (www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/03/the-digital-skills-gap-is-widening-fast-heres-how-to-bridge-it); Burning Glass, “Digital Skills Gap: Middle-Skill Jobs, Digital Literacy and Future of Work” (burning-glass.com/research-project/digital-skills-gap); and many more.