Wednesday, 13 June 2018

The need to know

In our second of a series of explorations on what it means to be a digital citizen, Stephanie Jesper and Alison Kaye assert their inalienable right to WiFi.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs, underpinned by the need for WiFi
Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs (revised)

For many of us, internet access has become ubiquitous. As the meme above illustrates, over the course of a single generation we have become profoundly reliant upon our connection to the net.

It’s hard to imagine how those of us who were alive in the early 1990s managed to cope without the world’s knowledge at our fingertips everywhere we went. Arguments over matters of trivia would last for days until Wikipedia became but a few thumb-swipes away. If you’ve ever been to a conference with inadequate WiFi, or taken a holiday in the middle of nowhere, with no network access, you’ve a flavour of what it must be like to live in information poverty.

We're being flippant, of course, but with so much of modern life being online, including job applications and government paperwork, those of us who are not online are at quite a considerable disadvantage. Over half of the world’s population (about 52% as of the end of 2017) do not have an internet connection. Even in the UK, the figure is about 7% — c.5m people (that's more people than watch Gogglebox). These people lack what for many of us has become a basic necessity.

This is why countries such as Costa Rica, Finland, France and Greece have enshrined some form of internet access rights in law, and why in 2011 the UN Special Rapporteur recommended that:

Given that the Internet has become an indispensable tool for realizing a range of human rights, combating inequality, and accelerating development and human progress, ensuring universal access to the Internet should be a priority for all States.

A snail bridges a gap
Bridging the skills gap

The skills gap

But even for those of us who can get online, we still need the skills required to effectively engage in the modern workforce and our digital society. In 2015 the UK Select Committee on Digital Skills, appointed by the House of Lords “to consider and report on information and communications technology, competitiveness and skills in the United Kingdom”, raised alarm bells in their Make or break report. They referred to work by the UK Forum for Computing Education (UKForCE) into the skills required for different occupations. UKForCE outline 4 categories of skill levels required for the population of the labour market:

Digital muggle

“… no digital skills required—digital technology may as well be magic”.

Digital citizen

“… the ability to use digital technology purposefully and confidently to communicate, find information and purchase goods/services”.

Digital worker

“… at the higher end, the ability to evaluate, configure and use complex digital systems. Elementary programming skills such as scripting are often required for these tasks”.

Digital maker

“… skills sufficient to build digital technology (typically software development)”.

They used this framework to analyse the 361 Standard Occupation Codes, a common classification system used to map all occupations in the UK according to their skill level and skill content, to show the following:

Percentage of the UK workforce in each category

Digital muggle: 2.2m (7%); Digital citizen: 10.8m (37%); Digital worker: 13.6m (46%); Digital maker: 2.9m (10%)

According to these figures, 93% of UK jobs require at least some digital skills — skills that 12 million of us in the UK lack. And with automation estimated to threaten 35% of UK jobs, the need for digital skills becomes all the greater.

Libraries can have a role in bridging this skills gap, offering access to digital technologies, fostering the literacies required to navigate the world of digital information, and thereby enabling digital citizenship and participation in digital society (Explore York, for instance, have drop-ins for tablets and e-readers, one-to-one sessions on computer basics, and an introductory course on using the internet).

And here at the University of York there've been a number of projects to develop digital skills for both students and staff. Library & IT staff have been working with departments to incorporate digital literacy across all courses, and we’ve also put together a new programme of digital skills training sessions. Alongside all of this there's our online Skills Guides which are open for anybody to access and use, and we're currently working on an IT Essentials site to help people escape their muggledom and exercise some digital wizardry.

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