Image Credit: Annalise Huynh

Hello, world! Working in a digital era

By Andrew Do and Annalise Huynh
April 10, 2017

Digital technologies are becoming more and more prevalent. Mobile devices and services have become ubiquitous, governments are working to become digital by default, and have you heard? It is now possible to digitally send someone a glass of lemonade.

As our recent report Future-proof: Preparing young Canadians for the future of work outlines, we may not know exactly what the future of work looks like. However, we do know that digital literacy is going to be a central part of preparing for it. Digital literacy is not only needed in the workplace, but is also critical to full economic participation in what the World Economic Forum has dubbed the Fourth Industrial Revolution. To test this thinking, the Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship, along with a number of private and not-for-profit partners, is in the process of developing a Digital Literacy + Coding Pilot to explore a scalable approach to training youth in digital skills. Concurrently, we are conducting a broader exploration of the different skills that comprise digital literacy and their relative importance from a labour market perspective.

The 2017 federal budget makes it clear that the Government of Canada is prioritizing investments into skills to drive an innovation economy. A key pillar of this agenda involves augmenting the digital literacy of Canadians, including through an investment of up to $50 million in digital skills development for K-12 students, with a particular focus on coding, as well as another investment of up to $29.5 million into a Digital Literacy Exchange program to help non-profits teach basic digital skills to groups that often lack access to such training.

Despite widespread understanding of the need to train a digitally literate population, there is not a shared understanding of what this means. At this juncture, coding skills have attracted the most attention. This is a necessary piece of the puzzle, and we are thrilled to see the programmatic and policy responses from provinces like British Columbia and Nova Scotia, and from nationwide initiatives like the recently launched Canada Learning Code, in which BII+E is a proud community partner.

What is digital literacy?

So what do we mean when say digital literacy? A review of existing literature suggests that the term has been used to describe capabilities ranging from technical skills (such as those used in coding), to digital citizenship, to the ability to identify fake news. We have focused on the components of digital literacy that are the most relevant from a labour market perspective, including those involved in using technological tools, understanding how they work, and creating new technological tools and services.

Digital literacy therefore describes skills and competencies that are very different. For instance, how can we distinguish between the skills involved in sending an email versus building a web app?

Drawing on research from the UK, digital literacy can be understood to exist on a spectrum of proficiency:

  1. Baseline digital skills: the skills needed by everyone to participate in an increasingly digital society.
  2. Workforce digital skills: the skills needed by a rapidly growing proportion of the workforce for the jobs of the future.
  3. Professional digital skills: the skills needed to develop new digital technologies, products and services.

And underpinning all three of these levels of digital skill are:

  • Technical digital skills, including everything on the spectrum of using digital technologies to creating content.
  • Cognitive abilities, reflecting the ability to understand digital technologies – this would include computational thinking.
  • Critical thinking skills, including the ability to situate digital practices and technologies within sociocultural contexts.

Computational Thinking

Within this framework of digital literacy skills, coding would be situated between workforce and professional skills, relative to specific tasks. However, there is a risk that an exclusive focus coding could end up missing the bigger picture. After all, does anyone remember when experts called for mandatory lessons on coding, in the now seldom used language LOGO, in the 1970s? While the importance of coding does lie in the ability to actively participate in creating and using technological tools, it also belies a broader mindset that is critical to the conversation: computational thinking.

“A way that humans, not computers, think. Computational thinking is a way humans solve problems; it is not trying to get humans to think like computers. Computers are dull and boring; humans are clever and imaginative. “
Jeannette Wing, Corporate Vice President, Microsoft Research


This is a problem-solving mindset that draws on computer science-centred concepts including abstraction, algorithms, decomposition, and pattern recognition. But computational thinking is broader than just digital -– while a number of coding languages can be used to teach this mindset, it can also be learned and practiced without technological tools. This can be demonstrated through unplugged activities like knitting that draw on computational thinking concepts. We have looked to places like Finland to see this in action. Computational thinking undergirds many elements of coding and digital literacy, and as such must be a part of the conversation.

Solving 21st-Century Problems

Digital literacy fits within a broader basket of skill sets that may be needed to thrive in the 21st century. After all, as our recent report Future-proof: Preparing young Canadians for the future of work indicates, it is those who possess a broad suite of technical skills and soft skills that are best positioned to succeed as the nature of work changes. Skills such as communication, entrepreneurial thinking, creativity, and collaboration will be needed as technology reshapes jobs across sectors – decreasing demand for some skills, while increasing the value of those that complement technology. And they will be needed in both technical and non-technical environments – any software developer can appreciate soft skills when it comes to well-written software documentation on Github, or working in teams to design new products. These tasks are not just about working with digital technologies – they are also about translating ideas, working with people, and being able to adapt to new problems and situations.

We need to understand the digital skills required by a quickly changing labour market so that we can get moving on making sure that both youth and older workers, from across communities and demographic groups, have them. If the world is going digital, then we need to involve as many people as possible in this transition.

The Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship is aiming to understand the state of digital literacy in Canada. To this end, we are conducting research to map the Canadian digital literacy policy and program landscapes, the digital skills that are in demand in the Canadian labour market, and the extent to which talent supply is meeting demand.

To learn more about this work, please contact Andrew Do or Annalise Huynh.

For more information, read The State of Digital Literacy in Canada: A Literature Review.

For media enquiries, please contact Coralie D’Souza, Director of Communications, Events + Community Relations at the Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship.

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