Digital skills for learners and teachers

Susan Easton is the Head of Digital Learning and Skills for the Learning and Work Institute, leading policy and practice on digital learning and skills. Susan shared some interesting European initiatives for boosting the digital skills of adult learning staff and learners.

Susan Easton Working and Learning Institute.

Susan Easton is the Head of Digital Learning and Skills for the Learning and Work Institute, leading policy and practice on digital learning and skills. Susan shared some interesting European initiatives for boosting the digital skills of adult learning staff and learners.


Digital skills are important

Digital skills are now as important to adults as English and Maths. However, 45% of adults in the EU do not have basic digital skills, with a large proportion already excluded, disadvantaged or unintegrated in the labour market. The European Commission recognises that adult education has a critical role in developing digital skills for life, learning and work, but how can we achieve this?

Adults without basic digital skills are less likely to manage their finances, access government services and cheaper products and are more likely to suffer from isolation, have lower incomes, be disenfranchised and have children who underachieve at school. In addition, the EU estimates that 90% of all jobs will need at least basic digital skills, but those who are furthest from the labour market or are in low grade jobs are more likely to lack these skills.

There is no absolute definition of digital skills, but in 2016, the European Commission published DigComp: the European Digital Competence Framework for Citizens. This defines 21 basic digital competences in five areas: information and data literacy, communication and collaboration, digital content creation, safety and problem solving. Most adults can find information, communicate and collaborate with technology to some degree, but fewer can solve problems or create digital content, while the definition of e-safety and data literacy is evolving constantly as the digital environment changes.

Initiatives across Europe

A 2013 study estimated that approximately 250,000 organisations in Europe actively work at national and local levels to help disadvantaged citizens to develop their digital skills. Some are large-scale initiatives. For example, the UK government plans to make basic digital skills free for adults in England, while Estonia has launched “Come along” – a project providing basic and advanced computer training to 100,000 people over three years using traditional and mobile classrooms, an e-bus travelling around Estonia, e-training and public one-stop-shops.

Gaps in digital skills also present a threat to economic growth. Rapid technological innovation is leading to automation of "routine" tasks, while it creates new jobs which require higher level skills. This has a massive impact on the structure of employment. The mismatch between the current skills in the workforce and those demanded by employers results in a digital skills gap with low-skilled workers most at risk and most likely to need the skills to adapt to future needs. In response, the European Commission launched the Digital Skills and Jobs Coalition, encouraging Member States to develop comprehensive national digital skills strategies by mid-2017. So far 15 Member States have formed such national coalitions. Adult education supports this agenda, however, innovative approaches and partnerships are needed to provide continuous progression for disadvantaged people.

The Telecentre Europe network of telecentres, public libraries, community centres, and non-profit organisations around Europe provides non-formal learning alternatives to successfully support digital skills, using different approaches which suit local communities.

Rosemount Lifelong Learning works in one of the poorest areas in Scotland, with high numbers of people who are speakers of other languages. Rosemount has recruited volunteers who speak a range of languages as digital trainers for their own communities. Similarly, as reported by Eurydice, Hungary has successfully engaged 800 local residents as mentors to recruit and motivate adults to register in ICT courses, while at AEWB in Germany, seniors receive training to become “ambassadors” for digital skills and help other people their age.

Learning and Work’s Family Robotics Project took an intergenerational approach, putting parents and children on an equal footing to develop their skills in computing and robotics.



The fast-changing face of the digital world

As educators, we must decide how to develop digital skills at all levels. Europeans now access the internet through multiple devices and platforms, from PCs to laptops, to mobile devices to wearable technology, so we must replace step-by-step instructional approaches with flexible programmes. A paper-based guide to Facebook just does not work any more – the technology changes too rapidly. Learning and Work Institute developed a task-based toolkit for learners and champions in non-formal learning settings, linking to existing resources and online guides through QR codes. The tasks remain the same but the content evolves as the technology evolves, providing some future proofing. But the digital world is undergoing more fundamental changes, and educators have a responsibility to prepare their learners for these.

Growth in social media means that critical skills will be increasingly important if people are to distinguish fake from truth. Meanwhile the exponential growth of the internet of things must affect our definition of digital literacy and influence the delivery of digital skills. By the end of the decade, there will be over 50 billion connected objects keeping us inter-connected with each other, with manufacturers, brands, employers and insurance companies who could have unprecedented access to formerly private information about consumers. More connectivity means more opportunities to use, as well as abuse information, requiring everyone to be more informed about which data we choose to share, how and with whom.

Digital skills for adult educators

It is therefore more important than ever that adult educators develop their own digital and pedagogical skills. To support the European Agenda for Adult Learning, Learning and Work Institute is working with partners from across Europe to develop and deliver a free online course to support the use of technology by adult educators working with under-represented learners. Launched on the 23 February 2017 and hosted on the AE Pro platform Using Technology with Under-Represented Adults will develop educators’ technical and pedagogical skills. We welcome adult educators across Europe, to take part in and contribute to the course.

For further information, contact Susan Easton, Head of Digital Learning and Skills, Learning and Work Institute.


Susan Easton is the Head of Digital Learning and Skills for the Learning and Work Institute, leading policy and practice on digital learning and skills. She has led various national research and development programmes, including portals for adult learning and offender learning, support for e-learning, digital inclusion and digital literacy, online training and assessment, digital capability and blended learning programmes.

Susan worked for over 20 years in the school, further, youth, higher and adult education sectors. This was followed by 13 years’ experience in national organisations, where she developed Scotland’s strategy for the use of learning technologies in adult and community learning.

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