How Nations Can Digitally Skill their Citizens

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Why we need digital skills

We are living amid a digital revolution. More people are connected to the Internet than ever before, using digital devices and services for work and for all aspects of their life.

In part this has been fuelled by the rise of mobile broadband, which every day ensures the participation of more people in developing countries in the digital economy.

Modern technologies have also proliferated over the past decade some even more recently artificial intelligence, big data, blockchain, cloud computing, Internet of Things, machine learning, mobile applications, nanotechnology, and 3D printing, among others.

These will drive profound change in our daily lives over the coming decade, radically altering how we consume, produce and work. And, as with all transformational changes, they present us with wonderful opportunity and significant challenge too.

The challenge is clear. A large skills gap has emerged with tens of millions of jobs opening around the world for those with advanced digital skills and a shortage of qualified people to fill the positions.

Chinese government data highlights the need for 7.5 million ICT specialists while in Europe, estimates point to 500,000 positions for ICT professionals going un-filled by 2020.

The opportunity that accompanies the challenge is immense. Imagine a country where basic digital skills are prized, promoted, and prioritized for all its people integrated as one of the nation’s foundational skills alongside traditional literacy and data numeracy skills.

Imagine a country where all segments of the population can access news and information, communicate with friends and family, make everyday use of services related to e-health, e-government, digital finance, Agro-Tech, smart transportation and benefit fully from immer-sion in a vibrant and global knowledge society.

Imagine a people that has the requisite digital skills to be employable, productive, creative, and successful societies where all our young people can develop basic skills and then progress to acquire intermediate and advanced levels of digital expertise able to participate in emerging industry sectors and to start their own businesses.

Basic and intermediate skills: ensuring everyone has the digital skills needed to succeed in work and life
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National digital skills strategies need to ensure that everyone has the basic digital skills to function in society as well as opportunities to gain intermediate skills that improve employment prospects and enable more meaningful uses of technology.

It includes shared challenges, successful approaches and sets out a range of channels for basic and intermediate skills delivery as well as tools to identify such channels and programmes that may exist already.

Developing opportunities for people to learn basic and intermediate digital skills begins with establishing clear goals and target groups.

Popular goals at this stage include: providing school children with early exposure to digital skills and computational thinking, providing young people with the skills needed to develop successful careers in the digital economy and creating multiple pathways for adults to build skills at different stages of life.

All of these could feed into an even larger national objective linked to fostering the growth of the digital economy or leveraging the digital transition.

In examining how various countries have pursued such goals, let’s look at a number of common challenges and successful approaches for building basic and intermediate skills and how countries have utilized formal channels (e.g. schools) and non-formal educational channels (e.g. NGOs and public libraries) to implement innovative digital skills programmes.

The solutions are provided as examples and options. Countries are encouraged to identify and adopt strategies that fit realistically in their own environments and match their objectives.

Some are more structural, such as those related to education, requiring systemic change that, while potentially more difficult and costly to achieve, would lead to higher impact while other solutions may be simpler to implement,

Common challenges

• Scaling and sustainability.
  • Many training programmes only achieve small-scale results while most citizens receive no or outdated digital skills training.
  • Moreover, gains made in broad based strategies will fade quickly without ongoing efforts to ensure associated programmes and initiatives continue evolving.
  • Where provided commercially, this includes identification of sustainable business models. Long-term viability must be planned for from the outset.
• Affordability of training.

Training programmes need to be provided through models that make training affordable for trainees. Otherwise, the cost of attending can prove prohibitive, particularly for young people and jobless adults.

• Qualified instructors

Teachers and other instructors will likely require training to bolster their technical skills and learn how digital skills can be applied in order to address the skills mismatch between what institutions of learning provide and what employers and citizens need for work and life.

• Infrastructure.

A variety of physical resources will be needed. Most often, digital skills programmes require physical venues with space, electricity, connectivity, and current equipment.

• Relevant curriculum.

Whether curricula are adopted from an existing source or created in-house, training material must be critically assessed to ensure it covers needed and appropriate skills, competencies, and tasks required not only for now but further into the future.

• Adapting and innovating.

Programs and curricula will need to be updated as technology and the workforce change. Plans for updating curriculum need to be developed and implemented.

• Gender divides and inequalities in skills development.

Persistent gender, age, and other divides around ICT usage has led to fewer opportunities for women, persons with disabilities, the elderly, and other marginalized populations. Most digital skills training programmes are not tailored to the needs of these groups.

Successful approaches


To succeed in the digital economy, people will need basic digital skills related to the effective use of technology, as well as soft skills necessary to ensure collaborative and effective work.

Entrepreneurial/business skills are likewise important, as students and trainees with the right knowledge, skills, and entrepreneurial mind-set can find opportunities to start a new business.

By building these skill sets in a complementary way, learners will be more effective when applying their skills in the real world.

• Incorporating basic digital skills, coding and computational thinking into schools.
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Instruction in basic ICT skills, coding and computational thinking can be a part of school curriculum at all grade-levels.

These foundational skills will enable young people not just to use their skills, but also to write the programmes and create the modern technologies that drive change and countries can achieve scale.

• Extending basic, intermediate, and advanced digital skills beyond schools.

Job training programmes and other initiatives that target out-of-school youth and adults allow participants to learn a range of digital skills such as new coding languages to keep up with technological progress as they advance in years or experience.

• Instituting dynamic, peer-learning instruction.

Over the last decade, interactive and peer-driven instructional approaches have gained tremendous momentum across many disciplines, and especially for digital skills training.

This style of instruction fosters confident problem-solving and the creative, collaborative mind-set valued in the digital economy.

For example, instructors can incorporate resources for learning to code that allow learners to create their own games and apps. These models can be used both in school programmes as well as in programmes for out-of-school youth and in lifelong learning programmes for adults.

• Forming cross-sector partnerships.

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Most digital skills strategies involve a range of partners who can leverage their unique strengths in achieving the goals of the national strategy.

For instance, infrastructure can be leveraged through partnerships with libraries, tech hubs, makerspaces, NGOs, and after-school clubs.

Partners often include organizations from the government sector, the private sector, NGOs, academia, and non-formal training providers.

• Develop sustainable, affordable cost structures.

The most effective way to implement this approach is to integrate digital skills into national education programmes that are provided to all students, for free or where employers include upskilling and reskilling as a job benefit, making sure of course to allocate budget for such programmes.

Commercial skills providers can employ strategies such as charging employers a placement fee or can set up systems where students re-pay their training fees over time once they secure a job.

Governments can also consider funding the provision of job-ready digital skills through their unemployment or other government benefits.

They can conduct a cost analysis, for example, on the relative costs of funding job-ready digital skills provision and paying on-going unemployment benefits to determine if it makes financial sense to redirect unemployment funds for such training.

• Upskilling instructors.

Many countries are taking steps to equip teachers, librarians, and other instructors with the requisite skills to use technology and to teach digital skills in new, engaging and hand-on ways that ICTs make possible.

Strategies for doing this include putting teachers through short-term training courses, team teaching, pairing community or private sector experts for example pairing trainers from non-formal training providers with qualified teachers as well as using train-the-trainer models.

To make these strategies more effective, school administrators can include additional measures. These might include ensuring teachers are allowed enough time to learn new skills outside working hours, providing them the support needed during and after the training to ensure a smooth transition, and providing incentives to teachers such as additional pay.

• Use existing infrastructure, upgrading it when necessary.

Where they exist, schools, public libraries, and community centres that are connected to the internet and equipped with computers or other digital devices, can be leveraged to provide digital skills training to a wider audience.

Furthermore, in low bandwidth environments, some cloud-based learning platforms can provide offline access and synchronization.

Public funds often need to be earmarked to fund infrastructure improvements, maintenance, and upgrading when technology needs replacement.

Countries that have not yet invested in connecting and equipping schools, libraries and community centres can also consider doing so to leverage the opportunity to support their citizens to benefit from the digital economy.

• Deploy makerspaces.

As described below makerspaces can play a role in developing advanced digital skills. They can also be used by students of all ages to test the new basic and intermediate skills they learn in school.

Makerspaces don’t have to procure expensive equipment but can also use toys and microcontrollers.

• Adapting programmes to meet changing needs.

Digital skills training programmes of course will need to adapt over time. This requires regular monitoring and refreshing. In the near future, big data is likely to play a role in anticipating new digital skills needs.

• Obtain input from industry and employers.

It is particularly important to close the gap between the needs of the private sector and what students learn either in school or in other skills training programmes.

The private sector can provide critical guidance to enhance the vibrancy and relevancy of digital skills strategies.

For example, programmes can follow the coding bootcamp model of creating industry councils to stay current on which ICT skills are needed both now and into the future.

E-government service providers can similarly provide feedback on whether citizens taking basic digital skills training are well equipped to complete online forms or conduct other e-government activities.

• Leveraging existing education, training curricula and tools.

There are myriad resources that have been created by organizations and collaborations, much of it free or low cost.

Singapore’s Code for Fun Enrichment Program runs in all elementary and secondary schools. It builds both structured and creative thinking by introducing students to visual-based programming using Scratch, while incorporating related concepts using robotic kits (Lego WeDo, MoWay) and microcontrollers (Arduino and Raspberry Pi).

Other approaches to computational thinking are being developed for preschool children, whereby games and videos teach children how to deconstruct problems into small pieces and how to develop step-by-step solutions.

Non-formal education: public libraries, community centres and other lifelong learning channels

Given the rapidity of technology change, non-formal education is a critical part of national strategies because it creates opportunities for learners of any age to acquire new skills throughout their lives.

Non-formal education can be offered at a variety of locations, including public libraries, community technology centres, NGOs, after-school programmes and tech clubs, as well as other community spaces, including as part of national, regional or international campaigns as described below.

This nimbleness, along with the diversity of non-formal models, allows for greater innovation and currency compared with formal educational systems and can be well-suited for testing and introducing dynamic learning models. Public libraries are central channels for learning digital skills in many countries.

There are over 300,000 public libraries globally, with 70% of these in the developing world. In countries that have invested in public libraries, they offer many advantages: community presence, physical infrastructure, qualified information professionals, and a sustainable public funding model.

Community technology centres also play a strong role in many national digital inclusion initiatives, particularly in rural areas.

Like libraries, community technology centres typically have a public mission and are supported in whole or in part with public resources. As such, they can provide free or reduced cost access to computers and training courses.

NGOs and clubs offer numerous opportunities for non-formal learning, often targeted at providing services to job-seekers, marginalized groups, out-of-school youth, seniors, or self-organizing groups of people who meet to develop their skills together.

Advanced skills: supporting initiatives for people to gain
specialized skills

In addition to ensuring adequate opportunities for everyone to develop basic digital skills, national skills strategies must secure their position in the digital economy by providing pathways for some to develop more advanced and specialized digital skills.

The government can play a key role in cultivating talent to fill emerging jobs in the burgeoning tech industry, and in doing so spur future industry growth and job creation.

Reskilling and retraining individuals is a critical piece of this endeavour, to ensure the existing workforce remains abreast of technological changes and does not fall behind with an obsolete skill set.

Learners seeking advanced and specialized technical skills training have traditionally turned to higher education, technical and vocational schools, and employers with apprenticeship programs.

But increasingly, newer models like coding bootcamps and other commercial training programs, as well as makerspaces, have become popular channels for building technical expertise more closely aligned with the needs of industry and in less time.

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Common challenges

• Affordability of training.

The coursework required to obtain advanced diplomas and specialization
certificates is typically expensive and time-consuming.

• Relevant curriculum.

Higher education and vocational programs struggle to keep up with the pace of technological change common in industry.

Digital skills curricula must be forward-facing and revised often so that students can find work and build their careers.

Moreover, higher education and vocational programs typically do not teach problem-solving or collaborative team-based approaches.

• Sustainability.

Specialized and advanced skills programs are often faced with higher costs arising from expert trainers, up-to-date equipment, software licenses, and administrative costs.

Additionally, it can be difficult for countries to retain talent and sustain a critical mass of skilled professionals who can then start businesses and spur innovation.

Moreover, new models of rapid skills training are generally taught to small cohorts, limiting their ability to scale.

• Adapting and innovating.

The needs of industry evolve rapidly as new technologies come to the fore, new businesses emerge, and entrepreneurs start new ventures.

This dynamic environment requires stakeholders to respond proactively with new partnerships, programs, and initiatives that involve innovative approaches for linking learning and workforce opportunities.

An enabling business environment is necessary to promote digital transformation, digital entrepreneurship, and other opportunities arising from new digital technologies.

Successful approaches

• Introduce sustainability models that lower upfront costs for learners.

Instead of relying on student fees up front, explore other models to keep the costs of advanced training more manageable for learners.

For instance, some coding bootcamps have students pay for their program only after they have found work, while some employers motivate and upskill their staff by reimbursing them for the costs of completed coursework.

• Build teams and task-forces.

Multi-sector partnerships enhance any digital skills program but are especially critical to advanced skills training efforts.

Task Forces comprised of IT industries, schools, places of higher education, public sector agencies, and community organizations can be an important bridge between the supply of talent with the right skills and the demands of specialized technical skills by meeting frequently to update curricula, tailor programs, and connect learners with industry mentors and on-the-job opportunities.

Non-formal training providers, such as coding bootcamps, can teach universities how they teach problem-solving and creative, collaborative approaches to learning, also achieving scale by integrating rapid learning methodologies in formal education.

• Incentivize participation from the private sector.

Tech companies, internet service providers, and other private sector organizations can be incentivized for example, through tax incentives and public policies to participate in the development and implementation of digital skills training. Public policies can be extended as appropriate to provide incentives to federations and associations of IT companies where they exist.

Incentives may also apply to small businesses and start-ups, in ways that allow new IT specialists to gain traction as entrepreneurs and even find synergies with other start-ups, as has been the case with tech hubs.

And specifically, at the international level, because certifications in advanced digital skills can be too expensive for talented young people with no resources, tech companies could offer discounts and vouchers that align with the goals of larger campaigns, such as the “Decent Jobs for Youth” global initiative.

• Ensure pathways from training and education programs to the workforce.

Providers of advanced ICT training should offer job-placement services to help their graduates enter the job market (and demonstrate the effectiveness of their programs).

If such services are not an option, programs can still help students market themselves to employers by having them build a portfolio of their digital skills and enhance their presentation skills, or teach the business and entrepreneurship skills needed for graduates to create their own paths.

Pathways for students can be paved by membership in professional associations and networks.

The need for such pathways is especially needed for youth and young adults as they finish upper secondary school, complete undergraduate courses, or graduate from university and needed too for older adults shifting careers.

• Review accreditation requirements.

Given the emergence of new training providers, new skills specializations, instructional methods that are new, dynamic and peer-driven, as well as new online platforms, standard approaches for accreditation may need to be reassessed.

They need to be vigilant enough to monitor quality across disparate providers while remaining adaptable enough to make space for innovative approaches to credentialing.

This may involve increased recognition of credentials obtained in other countries or allowing credits earned in non-formal education (e.g. digital badges and online course completion certificates) to count toward credit in formal education institutions.

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