Digital skills are associated with a range of benefits, including improved employment prospects, financial capability, access to support services, enhanced health and well-being, and the ability to engage socially and within the community. Research commissioned by the Department for Digital, Culture Media and Sport (2019) found that:
- Roles requiring digital skills pay 29% more than those that do not.
- Digital skills are an essential requirement in at least 82% of online advertised openings in the UK.
- The acquisition of specific digital skills helps avoid the risk of automation: combining digital skills with uniquely human skills such as design, writing or communication makes them difficult to automate.
- The development of advanced digital skills is vital to career progression.
- The digital skills required will change over time, and people must be able to respond to this.
Access and capability
In recent decades children and young adults have been increasingly exposed to digital technology, leading to the pervasive discourse that they are growing up to be ‘digital natives’, defined by Prensky (2001) as “native speakers of the digital language of computers, video games and the Internet.” The implication is that these students have an innate ability to use digital tools and technologies and are naturally more capable than previous generations, known as ‘digital immigrants,’ who were introduced to technologies later in life and have had to learn to use them.
In fact, research has repeatedly revealed this narrative to be both incorrect and problematic.
In their critical review of the evidence on Digital Natives, Bennett et al (2008) argued that the debate amounted to nothing more than an academic form of ‘moral panic’. Helsper and Eynon (2010) found that younger generations did tend to be more likely to have certain characteristics that we would expect if they were ‘digital natives’. However, they also found that education, experience and gender were more significant variables than age in explaining these patterns. Kirshner and De Bruyckere (2017) assert that digital natives do not, in fact, exist, and educational design which assumes the presence of innate digital skills is harmful to learning. Eynon (2020) further argues that the continual reliance on the assumptions of digital native status has led to a widening in digital inequalities. This is an issue that rose to the foreground during the Covid-19 pandemic, when the extent of the gap in young people’s access to and ability to use technology shocked many.
JISC’s digital experience survey 2020 showed that 19% of 20,575 HE students and 32% of 19,137 FE learners did not have access to reliable wifi. Additionally, 83% of HE students regularly use smartphones to access digital learning, indicating a need to adapt to suit students’ learning habits, but also a responsibility to ensure that students are aware of the need to use the additional functionality afforded by a PC or laptop.
The role of education
Students need digital skills now more than ever. Whether they intend to engage in further study, enter employment, or forge an entrepreneurial path for themselves, they will need to use technologies to communicate, collaborate, access and evaluate information, solve problems, be creative and more. In an increasingly digital world, students (and staff) also need to consider their digital wellbeing, that is: “the impact of technologies and digital services on people’s mental health, physical and emotional health” (JISC n.d.).
However, we cannot make the assumption that learners arrive at Brookes digitally enabled and digitally capable. Our role as educators is to ensure that we create the opportunities for students to develop their digital fluency, whilst also being mindful of their current capability and access to technology.