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Are digital skills as vital as literacy and numeracy skills?

Jayne Salford, Novus Digital Project Manager, reflects on what we mean by digital skills.

Last year, Lloyds Bank reported that 11.5m people (21 per cent of the population) lack basic digital skills. Around 84 per cent of men and 74 per cent of women have such basic skills, and the age profile is broadly as you would expect, younger people have higher digital skills and those that are older do not, although the Nominet Trust have also highlighted that there are around 300,000 15-24 year olds who have no basic skills.

Yet what do we mean by ‘digital skills’? The Basic Digital Skills framework (2015) has suggested that such skills are based around managing information, communicating, transacting, problem solving and creating. A simpler way of putting this is to say that such skills allow people to communicate, find information or purchase goods/services. In this way such skills are as critical as reading and writing to enable people to engage with the world around them.

For us there is a need to add a further distinction: between social digital skills and economic digital skills. While the Basic Digital Skills framework captures both, the importance of being able to distinguish between the impacts of the two is critical to ensuring that our practical responses to the digital agenda have the greatest impact. The reason is simple, associating digital skills with jobs assumes that the demand for those skills is present in relation to the workplace. It isn’t, technology and digital literacy are changing the nature of peoples access to society and also public goods. We can argue that the framework easily applies to both, but a set of social digital skills is about access, and maintaining access.

As a provider of prison education, this distinction is also useful for exploring the ways of aligning digital provision within the realistic confines of the prison establishment. We have to see technology as a means of ensuring that prisoners can maintain contact with their families, but also to build a network of support as part of their ongoing rehabilitation. Creating support for prisoners to develop digital skills means giving them the opportunity to use their skills to arrange housing, welfare, and enabling them to access support networks and engage with potential workplaces.

Yet there are challenges around all of this. Those that have committed crimes and are incarcerated necessarily lose a portion of their freedom and liberty to compensate society and their victims. This is right, but we have to address the need for punishment with rehabilitation. In the same way we teach literacy and numeracy to break the cycle of crime, there is an argument that we teach digital skills in the same way to support inclusion and ongoing relevance in a changing labour market. The development of automation is unlikely to happen overnight, but keeping our teaching skills relevant requires us to look at what we can do to ensure that learners have the skills needed to maximise their employability.

At Novus we are working on this issue - we believe that balancing the need for rehabilitation with new ways of engaging digitally is critical to ensuring reoffending falls. The pace of change due to technology is a challenge and one that is additional to the challenges faced by offenders reintegrating into our communities.

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