Digital literacy: what is it and how important is it in the future of work?

Digital literacy: what is it and how important is it in the future of work?

Ten years ago the iPhone was just a speck of dust in Apple’s eye. Today there’s an entire industry dedicated developing apps, with over 1,000 ideas submitted to the app store every day. The digital revolution is well and truly here, and according to FYA’s The New Basics report demand for digital skills has already gone up by more than 200% in the past three years.

But what exactly does it mean to be digitally literate? Should we all rush out to a coding workshop to prepare for the future of work?

Strategy and economic advisory business Alphabeta, who worked with FYA to deliver the New Work Order research series, Engagement Manager Tarah Barzanji highlights that digital literacy isn’t just for the Steve Jobs or Marita Chengs of the world.  

“When we think of digital literacy we usually think of complex technical capabilities such as programming and coding –the skills that a digital ‘maker’ requires to build systems. But it’s actually a skillset that is not limited to technological occupations – rather it’s one that all Australians will need to survive in the future of work,” Tarah explains.

“Digital literacy encompasses a range of skills and exists on a spectrum – it’s not binary, there are varying degrees of literacy and the level required will depend on your day-to-day responsibilities at work. Jobs including everything from an art director to a financial broker require some level of digital literacy – it’s just that the level of knowledge and capabilities required will differ.”

There are four levels of digital literacy according to The New Work Order (p30), including:

  1. A digital muggle, requiring no skills;
  2. A digital citizen, who uses technology to communicate, find information and transact;
  3. A digital worker, who configures (such as website design or publication design) and uses digital systems; and
  4. A digital maker, who builds and creates digital technology (for example JavaScript, HTML, Python and other programing tools).   

As the world of work changes, the degree of literacy required for some occupations will shift.

Within the next five years this is anticipated to rapidly increase. 90% of the workforce will require at least basic computer skills, such as using email or company software. Over 50% will need to be able to use, configure and build digital systems in the next 2-3 years.

“Everyone’s working day is changing, and how we are going about our jobs is changing. Automation has a huge role to play in this – technology is increasingly performing the more repetitive, administrative tasks that we once did and is an integral part of how we get the job done,” Tarah said.

“For example we know that a pharmacy assistant is currently quite hands on when it comes to administrative duties such as ordering stock or filling orders. In the future we anticipate that such a role will be more digitally focussed, requiring the ability to update computer systems and potentially build websites. So in this role the level will go from a digital citizen to a digital worker.”

Given the significant number of millennials who’ve had access to technology in some shape or form since an early age, it may seem like young Australians should have this digital literacy thing handled.

But FYA’s research shows that our young people aren’t ready. In recent international testing by PISA around 1 in 4 Australian 15 year-olds (27%) demonstrated low proficiency in digital literacy.

Turning this trend around will require a shift in our approach to building digital skills and ensuring that young people have an appetite for lifelong learning.  

“We don’t need to limit ourselves to standalone classes on digital skills – we need to embed them in the way we teach young people, so that they can learn these alongside other enterprise skills that they’ll require to thrive in the future of work. Efforts like TechHire in the US are already doing this – with the education and industrial sectors taking a joint approach to teach people digital skills in real, meaningful ways that they want to learn.

“Rather than teaching in solution, we can build these skills alongside problem solving, communications and creativity capabilities to ensure we are building future employees with interpersonal and emotional intelligence. These are the skills which will separate us from the robots, and increase our resilience to automation by ensuring we have the capacity to work with  and add value to technology.”

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