The Catch-22 of Digital Literacy


8.30.12 | As part of its report on “Educating the Workforce of Tomorrow,” The Atlantic recently featured a look at the “Catch-22 of digital literacy”—a conundrum that’s holding back millions of people from gaining computer skills and digital fluency.

According to the Federal Communications Commission, 66 million Americans lack the basic skills to use computers and the internet.  Referring to this group as “digital outsiders,” Amy Southerland addresses the difficulty in encouraging more of them to acquire basic skills:

People can’t develop digital skills without access to a computer and a fast Internet connection, but precisely because they lack digital skills, they often don’t understand the potential value of acquiring such skills, or the value of having broadband access.

Furthermore, digital outsiders who are trying to cross the digital divide may find themselves ill equipped to make decisions about the kinds of skills and type of access that would benefit them most. The lack of digital literacy can be self-reinforcing, with no Rosetta stone to unlock the many mysteries of the digital world.

Improving the country’s digital literacy is an integral way for the United States to grow and improve its standing in the labor market. Drawing from an IDC research report, an FCC fact sheet shows that 50 percent of today’s jobs require technology skills; that number will grow to 77 percent in the next decade. The FCC and the U.S. Department of Labor is taking steps to expand online access, including a new initiative that would provide digital literacy training at nearly 2,800 American Job Centers nationwide.

“The centers will also be listed in a national digital literacy database, accessible online and through a toll-free phone call,” said Southerland.

The database will be funded by the nonprofit Connect2Compete. Supported by the FCC and a coalition of more than 40 private and non-profit partners, Connect2Compete will expand a pilot program this fall to make low-cost ($9.95 per month) broadband service and $150 laptop computers available to low-income families with children who are eligible for the free-lunch program, writes Southerland.

Such initiatives have worked in places like the Netherlands, where personal computer use rose faster than in the United States thanks in part to tax breaks for computer purchases and low broadband fees, And they come at a crucial time—according to the FCC, 100 million Americans do not have broadband access at home.

But is low-cost broadband the solution for everyone? Southerland acknowledges that for families with school-age children, people in the workforce and people living in rural areas, it’s likely a necessity. For others, however, free internet access at a local school or library may be sufficient. 

“In fact,” writes Southerland, “it seems to me that an essential aspect of being digitally literate is knowing what kind of digital tools and what level of access you actually need.”

Perhaps some of the most important work the Connect2Compete coalition can take on is in spreading the word about its nationwide digital literacy database. As Southerland points out, the issue isn’t just one of access:

We need tens of millions of digital outsiders to think: “Yes, I really want to have digital skills.” And then we need to meet them where they are and help them leap the digital literacy divide

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