by Tommi Pyykkö

A  growing number of areas in life are influenced by digital development and the rise of new technologies. Whether you are a bee keeper in Skåne, or a PHD student in Split, digital literacy and digital skills are becoming more and more crucial to all kinds of people. When societies are facing such a development, it is vital to tackle the challenges rising from digital illiteracy.

First of all, to understand the problem, one must comprehend what is meant by the term digital literacy. It should not be treated as a synonym to terms such as digital or ICT skills. Digital literacy, as a term, includes a wide range of competencies which are required to fully participate in modern societies in the digital era. Compared to digital skills, digital literacy is a much more comprehensive term. Digital skills refer more to the actual ability and know-how needed to use the actual digital devices. Digital literacy includes those skills, but it goes much further. The focus with digital literacy is more on the ability to act in a digital environment: how to search, understand, interpret and evaluate information on the internet, or how to act in different kinds of online communities etc. These skills should be highly valued in these times when societies are facing growing challenges posed by fake news, trolls and online radicalization.

While these skills are becoming more vital and the pace of change is high, there is a risk of having a growing number of people who cannot keep up. This kind of development can be described as a part of a digital divide. This term can be defined in various ways, whether it is the division between those who have the access to modern technologies and those who do not, or those who possess sufficient skills to participate modern day’s information society and those who do not. One factor can also be individual’s English skills, as most of the material on the web is in English. Or then, the digital divide can include all these things together.

Sometimes, people tend to think that this divide is mainly between different generations, but the reality is not so simplistic. Younger generations may have a better set of digital skills in general, but that alone does not make you digitally literate. Making assumptions that young people, or digital natives, would even have sufficient digital skills, solely based on their age, is highly problematic. In contrast to the general belief, in some countries there has been worrying news that part of the younger generations cannot even handle doing some of the most basic tasks with computers. Despite the digital natives being more likely to acquire such skills, there are many other factors which affects a persons’ likelihood of becoming digitally literate other than age. For example, geographical differences can have a great influence on that as well. Those differences exist not only between different countries, but also inside a country. Internal differences are more likely to exist in larger countries where, for example, the broadband coverage may be much weaker in some of the most rural areas. Similarly, some countries are more developed than others. A good example of a digitally well developed country is Estonia, with the prime example of the E-residency program that was launched in 2014.

The European Union is promoting digital inclusion in various ways. One major problem faced is the digital infrastructure. The EU set up a broadband target in 2010 in its Digital Agenda for Europe, stating that by 2020 there should be universal broadband coverage of speeds above 30 Mbps and that 50% of the broadband coverage should have speeds above 100 MBps. Additionally, for example, all major roads and railways should have uninterrupted 5G wireless broadband coverage in the future. The EU has invested heavily in 5G research and infrastructure, and to boost its efforts for the deployment of 5G infrastructure and services across the EU, the Commission launched a special 5G Action Plan in 2016. Another relatively new concrete measure to improve citizen’s connectivity is also the Wifi4EU initiative which aims to promote free Wi-Fi connectivity in public spaces across the Member States.

Besides infrastructure, one major concern about digital inclusion is the digital skill deficit in Europe. According to some estimates, there will be half a million unfilled vacancies due to the lack of sufficient digital skills in the labor market. To tackle this issue, the European Commission adopted the New Skills Agenda for Europe in June 2016 where 10 action plans have been outlined in order to improve the quality and relevance of training and making these skills more visible and more comparable.

To avoid the risk of digital exclusion in the EU, decisive and strong actions and their implementation are called for. While different actors may have different motives behind the promotion of digital skills and literacy throughout the continent, having digitally literate citizens and leaving no one behind is beneficial to societies, to the labor market and most crucially to the individuals themselves.

17 December 2017
This text was published in Bullseye issue 70