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What Can We Learn from the UK’s Push for Digital Skill-Building?

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UK Digital SkillsThe graphic above is used in the UK’s small business digital skills survey

Vermont’s Digital Skills Roundtable was formed last year to discuss our readiness to fully utilize the power of the Internet not just at the basic level, but also at the highest levels. The third meeting took place last month and the diverse team -- with interests ranging from adult literacy to educating young people in advanced technologies -- asked important questions such as: Does Vermont need to dedicate/access more resources in order to fulfill the need for digital/Internet skills? What kind of resources would address these needs? And, should we survey constituents?

These questions got me thinking about news reports that I had seen out of the UK late last year with an update on a significant push by the UK to drive governmental services online.  The movement has seen its share of critics in the UK over the past 5 years, such as these thoughts from Wired.CO.UK and Tech Week Europe. However, I figured they certainly couldn’t make such a commitment without having programs in place to make sure that people had the digital skills to enable it….Could they? And, if my theory was correct, perhaps these programs might shed light on digital skill-building models that could accelerate the work of Vermont’s Roundtable.

It was easy to find out what they’re up to in the UK, because they put all of the information in one place. Also, the government recently released its updated digital strategy. Sure, the UK’s move to bring services online is about cost savings as much as it is about consumer expectations, but I’m still impressed that the strategy document expressly states that they “will not leave anyone behind” in the process. I wanted to know how, exactly they were hoping to achieve that.

This part of the UK plan is called Assisted Digital, which states that, in order to not leave people behind in the shift toward more e-government services, “departments will recognize and understand the needs of people who can’t use digital services” and “will provide appropriate support for these people to use digital services and other ways to access services for people who need them.”

You can find the action plan for Assisted Digital here.  It requires government workers and others to understand the needs of their digital user and to develop digital support that meets these needs. They may have mixed results in staying true to this mission as noted by The Guardian in this article about the UK’s healthcare digital divide. But, at least they’re asking government agencies to focus on end-consumer needs and digital training prior to launching new e-gov services. This idea of building digital inclusion from the outset is something we’ve discussed previously in this article.

Perhaps even more pertinent to the work of the Vermont team is the parallel initiative in the UK to build the digital skills of Britons. Our project provides internet interns to two dozen Vermont libraries to make a difference on a relatively small scale. Is there something we can learn from the UK about not only how to scale programs like ours but also to expand the scope from digital literacy to also include technology development?

Across the pond, the work in this area is conducted by a nonprofit called Go On UK, a self-described as “a small charity with a big aim: making the UK the world’s most digitally skilled nation.” Linked to the Go On UK website is Digtalskills.com, the online repository for best practices, resources, and initiatives for teaching digital skills.

It contains everything from advice on how to start a business online and information about Internet security to tips on improving basic online skills and links to teach others about digital skills. In short, it’s a treasure trove for both digital skill building and using online services in the UK. For example, one company that supports the digital skills project alone, Capita, had over 1,400 employees volunteer to be digital champions to help others get online.

Results from a recent survey reveal that the UK has made gains in teaching folks fundamental digital skills and providing more people access to the Internet. At the same time, a recent article in The Telegraph explains how the country has done a good job in attracting digital clusters in several different locations. However, there is acknowledgement that much more needs to be done. In fact, Go On UK and the Tinder Foundation recently issued a joint report on the cost and scope of what it would take for the UK to be a leading digital nation by the year 2020.

It will probably take us quite a bit more time to fully digest all of the projects, materials, goals, and results so far of the UK’s efforts to become a leading digital nation. One thing’s for sure, our Vermont Digital Skills Roundtable can certainly leverage many of these ideas as we map out our own mission and focus for the next ten years.

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