UK’s digital future

Digital skills in UKResponse to Make or Break: The UK’s Digital Future – a report from the House of Lords Committee on Digital Skills

We reproduce below the text of the letter sent in March 2015 to Baroness Morgan of Huyton, chair of the House of Lords Committee on Digital Skills, in response to the publication of the above report.

The House of Lords Digital Skills Committee published its report “Make or Break: The UK’s Digital Future”  in February 2015. CILIP was one of the many organisations that had submitted evidence to the Committee during the course of the inquiry that led to the report.

InformAll and the CILIP Information Literacy Group and InformAll have been taking a look at its recommendations, and the following is the text of the letter that we jointly wrote to the Chair of the Committee, Baroness Morgan, following the publication of the report. We concluded that whilst this makes an important contribution to the debate about how society may derive most benefit from the ever-evolving nature of the UK’s digital economy, it places too much emphasis on digital skills rather than the underpinning and wider ranging concepts of digital and information literacy.

Defining information and digital literacies

The report is wide-ranging in its consideration of all sectors of society and includes the welcome aspiration “for the vast majority of the population to achieve the level of digital literacy needed to fully participate in society”. It highlights the need for a digital literacy agenda and calls for a dedicated figurehead in Government with responsibility for this area and endorses innovative ideas such as defining the internet as a utility service.

However, the term digital literacy is unfortunately not defined. Instead a definition of digital skills as “the skills needed to interact with digital technologies” is offered. The report references the recently published Go ON UK framework for defining digital skills which although provides a recognisable and versatile definition and a useful way of reflecting on the importance of digital skills. However we would suggest that their approach, and to a large extent, that of the Committee’s report, tends to align digital skills very closely with ICT and know-how associated with the use of technology.

Whilst ICT skills are crucial, too close an identification of these with digital literacy reflects an over-narrow view, one which largely ignores the relevance of information competences for achieving the sort of digital inclusion that the report, and public policy, aspires to.

In its written evidence to the Committee’s inquiry, CILIP stressed the need for recognising the ‘I’ for information in ICT; the submission went on to stress that “if technology is the plumbing, then information (content) is the water”. We regret that the report appears to have largely ignored this view. CILIP defines information literacy as “knowing when and why you need information, where to find it, and how to evaluate, use and communicate it in an ethical manner.” We therefore feel that there is a need for a nationally recognised definition that describes jointly the associated concepts of digital and information literacy, in terms that are understood across society; we strongly advocate for Government, public agencies, educational establishments, enterprises and policy-makers to recognise explicitly the relevance of and need for information literacy as an indispensable corollary of digital literacy.

Information and digital literacies are fundamental to the ambitions of the report, but digital skills are just one aspect of this. They underpin independent learning and provide a scaffold which fosters the necessary critical thinking to make balanced and informed judgements about where to look for and how to determine the quality of information found online or elsewhere and how to use it ethically. If digital skills allow people to find and access information, information and digital literacies enable them to make critical judgements and use the information they find appropriately.

Embedding digital literacy in education

We strongly support the Committee’s proposal that digital literacy be viewed as a core subject in schools and that it should be taught as an embedded subject within the curriculum. Integration of digital literacy within course curricula have been shown to be the most effective way to engender digital literacy (see for example FutureLab’s Digital Literacy Handbook. However, given the close and symbiotic relationship, as we have suggested above, between digital and information literacies, we strongly believe that information literacy should feature in the curriculum in close association with digital literacy. Nurturing an ability, among young people, to interact effectively and intelligently with digital media cannot be separated from an educational underpinning where “the mosaic of information is transformed into deep knowledge and understanding”, and where school students eventually become adept at accessing, integrating and evaluating multiple sources of information presented in different media or formats, analysing and synthesising multiple interpretations and ideas and identifying and addressing conflicting information.

For an existing methodology, the Committee could look to the Welsh Information Literacy Framework which is produced a national accreditation and qualifications framework for information literacy.

We also welcome the conclusion that digital skills could be improved by incorporating a digital element into FE courses and apprenticeships but would advocate that this too goes beyond digital skills and that there be a call for information and digital literacy to become part of the curricula as has been recommended for Schools.

It is also disappointing that the report stopped short of providing a strategic direction for higher education which recognises information and digital literacy as key graduate attributes and instead focused on the already recognised need that courses should be aligned with employer requirements.

Citizens and employers

The report recommends there is a need to address the skills gap by equipping the public with skills to use digital technologies, to meet the digital literacy agenda. Again we would advocate that this needs to further and address information and digital literacy. There are a number of examples where public libraries are already contributing to the information and digital literacies of citizens to great effect such as the Go Digital Newcastle project which has a network of digital ambassadors.  

The report rightly recognises that UK enterprises, and particularly SMEs, require core digital skills if they are to be successful and remain competitive. But as with schools and higher education, information literacy is relevant too – although we know that information literacy as a term and a concept are not usually explicitly recognised in the world of business. Instead, information-related know-how is often regarded as an implicit component of more obvious attributes, such as analytical or problem-solving skills. All businesses use information in one form or other, and alongside the campaign, proposed by the report, to raise awareness of the need to improve digital skills, there is a case for explaining what information literacy means, in order to set out clearly the enterprise-specific skills, competences and capabilities that it relates to; and doing so where appropriate with reference to the distinct needs of different sectors of activity.

Overall we welcome the focus on Digital Skills by the House of Lords Select Committee. However, we believe that the work of library and information professionals in supporting and developing digital and information literacies can contribute significantly towards closing the digital skills gap. We have written to the Committee to urge them to broaden their definition of digital skills to ensure the population as a whole is equipped with the broadest range of competencies that they need to flourish.