Did you know that 95 % of the global population lives in an area covered by at least a 2G mobile network? The rapid growth of Internet access and connectivity has paved the way for the development of a digital economy across the world. However, there are major inequalities due to lack of digital skills in both developed and developing countries.

From 26 to 30 March 2018, Mobile Learning Week – UNESCO’s yearly flagship ICT in education event – will examine the types of skills needed in today’s connected economy and society, with an emphasis on digital skills and competencies. It will also focus on the challenges and strategies to offer digital skills development opportunities for all.

What are digital skills?

Digital skills are defined as a range of abilities to use digital devices, communication applications, and networks to access and manage information. They enable people to create and share digital content, communicate and collaborate, and solve problems for effective and creative self-fulfillment in life, learning, work, and social activities at large.

Entry-level digital skills, meaning basic functional skills required to make basic use of digital devices and online applications, are widely considered a critical component of a new set of literacy skills in the digital era, with traditional reading, writing, and numeracy skills.

At the advanced spectrum of digital skills are the higher-level abilities that allow users to make use of digital technologies in empowering and transformative ways such as professions in ICT. Major digital transformations such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), machine learning, big data analytics, change skills requirements and, in turn, impact capacity building and skills development for the 21st century digital economy.

To thrive in the connected economy and society, digital skills must also function together with other abilities such as strong literacy and numeracy skills, critical and innovative thinking, complex problem solving, an ability to collaborate, and socio-emotional skills.

Innovating skills for a digital economy

To realize opportunities presented by digitalization, governments need to understand how jobs—and the skill sets demanded by these jobs—are changing. Digital skills have moved from ‘optional’ to ‘critical’ and need to be complemented with transversal ‘soft skills’ such as the ability to communicate effectively in both online and offline mediums. In developing countries, digital skills are also in high demand and greatly improve prospects for decent employment. They are linked to higher earning potential, and experts have predicted a growing number of jobs for people with advanced digital skills. Not only are there new jobs available, some of them are actually going unfilled, making the provision of advanced digital skills part of a solution to unemployment.

Tackling inequalities and gender divide

There are major inequalities in digital skills in both developing and developed countries along a number of lines, notably socio-economic status, race, gender, geography, age and educational background. Gender divides in digital skills are severe: women are 1.6 times more likely than men to report lack of skills as a factor impeding their use of the internet. The proportion of women using the Internet is 12% lower than the proportion of men using the Internet, and the gender gap in Internet usage has widened between 2013 and 2017, in particular in least developed countries.

Without policy interventions, ongoing technological developments threaten to exacerbate the inequalities between those with and without digital skills. Integrated and comprehensive responses are urgently needed. Government and state actors need to play a pivotal role in setting up the fundamental principles for inclusive and equitable digital skills development, providing programmes and capacity development initiatives for disadvantaged groups, and re-skilling adults at risk for job displacement.

Ensuring that everyone has relevant digital skills helps promote inclusive and equitable education and lifelong learning for all.

What’s next?

Major technology breakthroughs in next ten years will impact forms of work and the structure of labour markets as well as other aspects of life such as education, health, and agriculture. From a skills development perspective, the implications of technological change are expected profound, both for the re- and up-skilling of adults and for the education of youth and children. In this context, developing capacities for anticipating the changing needs for digital skills for work and life is crucial for all countries. Policy-makers and other actors need to forecast future developments in order to orient and prioritise policy actions.