Dr Sue Pember CBE, Policy Director for Holex, considers the increased importance of digital skills for adult learners as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the challenges that must be overcome, including how and by whom they can be most effectively taught.
Some 17 million adults in the UK do not have the digital skills needed for work (Lloyds UK Digital Consumer Index report 2020) and it is timely that government has brought in an entitlement to the essential digital skills qualification. It has been recognised for a number of years that digital skills are a passport to a job and are going to be needed for future employment. However, because of Covid-19 and the large scale move to home working and learning, this requirement has been accelerated. It is now essential to have these skills and those without have been disadvantaged over the past year. Digital skills are becoming ever more important in today’s economy, and employers indicate that about one-third of the vacancies they find difficult to fill are, to some degree, attributable to a lack of appropriate digital skills amongst applicants. Research demonstrates that digital skills are required in at least 82% of online advertised openings across the UK, so it is incumbent on adult educators to ensure their programmes help support adults with poor digital skills.
The term ‘digital skills’ covers a wide array of competencies, knowledge and skills, which makes it difficult to design interventions to address digital skills needs and so the new entitlement and Essential Digital Skills (EDS) standards at Entry Level 3 and Level 1 are welcomed by the adult education sector.
To ensure implementation, it is helpful that the ESFA funding system has been adapted to cover the funding entitlement. What is less helpful to delivery is that the funding envelope has remained the same and providers are having to make choices over what to deliver. For instance, if a provider is already meeting their funding agreement and mainly doing English, maths and ESOL with employability courses, they will have to cut something to bring in this digital entitlement.
Flexibility and responsiveness
The five areas covered in the national standards – using devices and handling information, creating and editing, communicating, transactions and being safe and responsible online, are appropriate but already feel dated and so development of the standards needs be agile and allow for local flexibility.
Learners who lack basic and foundation digital skills are very frequently also challenged in other fundamental skills areas, for example, communication, confidence, personal skills, literacy and numeracy. This means that their digital ‘need’ should form part of a holistic programme of learning.
To benefit from the new entitlement, providers need to think how best to support the learner, and the programme offered should try and develop these other skills as well as digital.
Providers and tutors should be sensitive about these other needs of learners. This also means that the most effective teachers of this learner cohort may be those who have experience and empathy towards very low level/ disadvantaged/ previously disengaged and excluded learners, rather than those tutors who are ‘IT experts’. This does not mean that it is not possible to combine the two, but the most effective approach may be to ensure that the Key Skills/Basic Skills/Skills for Life/Employability team is upskilled in the EDS curriculum, rather than it being taught by the ‘ICT tutor team’ borrowed from higher curricular levels.
The implication is that to be effective, EDS delivery is likely to be part of a combined basic skills delivery rather than ‘standalone’. For example, in the national standards for EDS, Skills Statement 1 at Entry Level introduces desired understanding of a range of concepts and terminology that are not just likely to be challenging at a technical level but also at a more plain ‘understanding language’ level. In other words, the language used in the assessment is likely to be a barrier to learners gaining the qualifications.
It is also likely that many of the EDS learners may exhibit other support needs, such as job seeking, counselling, learner financial support, etc, and so providers need to be aware of this in order to maximise the recruitment, retention, progress and achievement of this learner cohort. This need is likely to be exacerbated in current times, just as the EDS delivery curriculum gets underway, with the burgeoning detrimental economic impact of Covid-19 and post Brexit and this may extend into such basic need areas as accommodation, finding support and food packages. It is just something for providers to be aware of in the current climate.
Digital anxieties and tailoring to a learner’s life
EDS learners may have digital anxieties. This is not a new phenomenon but may be currently exacerbated by newly exerted economic pressures for digital proficiency, such as completing Universal Credit applications and being required to register and interact with online jobseeker sites. For this reason, the teaching may be more effective if it is also contextualised within the learners’ digital needs.
For learners with learning difficulties and/ or disabilities, the EDS qualification may not be a suitable target qualification. Several providers are now working to see how they can use the EDS framework to inform the curriculum and have EDS embedded as a regular practice across courses. And, to support this group of learners with the digital technology required to exist in the modern world, there is a need to ensure their carers and support workers are upskilled in the first instance. A further factor linked to this is the impact of digital and data poverty for this group of learners.
Impact of the pandemic
In the last year, because of Covid-19, the shape of adult education has changed and much of it has gone online. This has highlighted two issues – the lack of digital devices and the lack of skills to be able to take up an online offer – and therefore many cannot take up their EDS entitlement. Providers are commenting that, although they have moved much of their provision online, this does not work well for all learners. There are many low-skilled adult learners without digital devices and/or basic digital skills and this has become a barrier to many.
Recent research from Learning and Work Institute showed that, during the first lockdown, two in five adults (42%) – an estimated 22 million people across the UK – embraced the opportunity to engage in some form of learning or training, with most of this taking place completely (60%) or partially (30%) online.
While many lockdown learners said they were learning for work-related reasons, others were learning for their own personal development, or to pursue an interest or hobby. Around one in ten said the reduced time and work pressures of lockdown meant that they were now able to commit to learning, when this had previously not been possible.
However, this type of informal learning did not translate into more adults completing courses that led to qualifications or acquiring new skills that would help them retrain or move into a new job. One in five found that previously planned learning had to be postponed or cancelled. Others struggled to balance their learning with work pressures, childcare or home schooling, or get access to the technology.
Providers have worked hard to keep these learners engaged, but worries about safety and putting their children first have led to a marked drop in learners aged over 25 compared to those aged 19–25. Providers are seeing adults needing digital skills who are quite bewildered at the moment. They are not long-term unemployed, but they are unemployed currently – having held a single workplace job for a very long time which has now disappeared. They need a range of skills to move forwards in their lives. Some may have used workplace computer systems, but these are often bespoke and limited to a specific range of repetitive functions which had their own processes and terminologies. Therefore, this puts even more pressure on tutors and teachers, not just to offer a digital skills qualification as a standalone activity but as part of a rounded curriculum offer that covers confidence building and job search.
About the author: Dr Sue Pember CBE started her career as a teacher and is one of the few people in the FE sector who has had senior leadership roles in colleges, local authorities and government. Dr Pember is now the Policy Director for HOLEX, the professional body for adult education services, centres and institutions. Her work concentrates on ensuring the voice of adult learners is heard and she is a keen advocate of lifelong learning.
About this blog: This is the sixth in a series of Essential Digital Skills ‘Thought Pieces’ intended to stimulate discussion and dialogue around the development of effective practice in the delivery of digital skills to those who are digitally excluded. They are part of the ETF’s CPD programme for those delivering and preparing to deliver the new Essential Digital Skills Qualifications (EDSQs). You can access all of the pieces via the Essential Digital Skills CPD programme page.
Contributors come from a range of backgrounds including current practitioners and those with responsibility for supporting teachers’ CPD, as well as advocates of adult education in different contexts, both formal and informal.
These pieces aim to explore how practitioners in a range of settings are helping to inform quality standards by working collaboratively to test out new pedagogical strategies and digital resources.
Thinking around digital skills delivery has been very significantly affected by the impact of Covid-19, and contributors address the challenge there has been for teachers to upskill rapidly for remote delivery. Currently, there is no established framework setting out the features of ‘effective’ delivery of digital skills online, but these pieces help us to go some way in understanding what works in different contexts.
Comments on this, and the other pieces in the series, are welcomed on Twitter using the hashtag #EDSThoughts.
The ETF does not necessarily endorse any of the strategies, tools or approaches mentioned in these pieces.