From education to employment

Further Education’s role in tackling Digital Poverty through skills

Tom Lowe

Digital Poverty remains a pressing issue with millions in the UK being left behind as technological advances storm ahead. It’s more important than ever for further education to play its part in tackling this social issue.

We are in midst of a period of accelerated technological change characterised by rapid advancements in areas including artificial intelligence, the metaverse and quantum computing. This brave new world has many opportunities, but evidently a range of risks too. Among these is the ever-present concern that individuals may find themselves ill-prepared to navigate and thrive in the rapidly evolving digital landscape.

Access to essential digital skills is becoming paramount for individuals to participate fully in society and the economy, however, a concerning reality persists in the United Kingdom whereby a significant number of individuals lack the basic digital skills that are essential to everyday life.

According to reports, approximately 10 million adults in the UK lack essential digital skills, severely limiting their access to education, employment opportunities, and crucial services.

The National Delivery Plan, recently launched by the Digital Poverty Alliance, highlights the need for collaborative efforts to tackle this multifaceted issue. In this context, Further Education (FE) colleges will be key partners to help individuals to acquire essential digital skills both now and, in the future.  

Closing the Skills Gap

In recent years, the demand for digital skills across all sectors of society has increased significantly, leading to a rapid expansion of educational programmes focussed on higher level digital skills. While advanced digital skills are undoubtedly important, we must equally focus on ensuring that people without basic digital capability are given the support they need.

It is welcome that in England the Government has introduced fully funded courses for adults lacking essential digital skills and the upcoming functional digital skills qualification will provide much needed support to close the essential digital skills gap. There is clearly a massive role that schools, colleges and universities will continue to play to build essential digital skills among learners, within the education workforce and across local communities.

However, the reality is that despite these initiatives the need for essential digital skills far outweighs the numbers of people who have accessed training. From 2020-2022 only 13,580 people achieved essential digital skills qualifications, which represents a fraction of the 10 million adults across the UK with limited digital capability.

The core challenge is that the people who could benefit most from essential digital skills training may also be those who have had negative experiences with formal education. Many of the people who are digitally excluded aren’t necessarily interested in a formal qualification. They are much more interested in accomplishing practical tasks which access to the internet can facilitate; this includes tasks like keeping in touch with family and friends, looking for a new job or accessing and booking GP appointments online.

As such, we argue that there needs to be a greater focus on providing informal forms of digital skills support alongside more formal qualification-based routes. On both counts, we would argue further education colleges are uniquely well positioned to help.  

Local Solutions to Digital Poverty

Ending digital exclusion relies to a large extent on ensuring that support is available to people at a local level and meets them at the point of need.

An area where further education colleges can be particularly impactful is in relation to the support they provide to local employers.

Even where individuals may have foundational essential digital skills, they may not have the capability to use digital skills effectively in the workplace. There are great opportunities to raise awareness about the benefits of digital skills for improving productivity for employers and boosting income for employees. Models such as digital champions programmes, in which a staff member acts as an advocate to cascade digital skills throughout an organisation can be a powerful tool to help drive digital and cultural transformation. Here, further education colleges can play a key role in working to build and develop training programmes for digital champions to provide a sustainable platform for digital inclusion across organisations.

Several key initiatives such as Local Skills Improvement Plans and the recently released Local Skills Improvement Fund could also provide much needed support to upskill teachers and target digital literacy and skills provision to meet the needs of local employers.

Furthermore, FE colleges can act as central hubs for information and resources, connecting individuals to various initiatives aimed at alleviating digital poverty. For example, they can play a crucial role in signposting learners to initiatives centred around data and device donation, ensuring that the wider college community is enabled to stay connected.

Calls to Action

The recently released National Delivery Plan sets out a range of actions where stakeholders across public, private and third sectors can come together to end digital poverty. It is divided into six mission areas, and mission four focuses specifically on ensuring that everyone has the support to acquire essential digital skills.

We invite you to check out the plan and find out more about how to get involved, including pledging to help take an action forward. Otherwise, if you would like to discuss the plan, or the work of the Digital Poverty Alliance, do feel free to get in touch. Together, we can end digital poverty once and for all.

By Tom Lowe, Head of Policy and Communications at the Digital Poverty Alliance

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