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?