We Can’t Afford a Widening Digital Divide

Adults who lack basic literacy, numeracy, and digital skills are facing a widening gap in access to learning and training opportunities during the disruption caused by COVID-19.


At the same time, low-skilled adults, parents, and caregivers are now expected to facilitate learning experiences for the success of school-aged children in the home.


Even before stay-home orders and the shift to online learning, the dangers of a digital divide were apparent. It is now more important than ever for every household to be connected to internet, have access to digital devices, and acquire digital literacy skills to consume, manage, and utilize information successfully.


Transforming at pandemic speed

The economy is becoming increasingly knowledge-based, emphasizing digital skills for professional and personal success. As employers begin implementing new processes to keep employees safe and healthy, we can expect an increase of workplace adaptions and digitization.


In this environment, low-skill adults will be the most vulnerable members of the workforce. Getting back to work will require understanding the transformations taking place, and an even faster acquisition of digital literacy capabilities and adaptability.


For example, lack of digital literacy or technical proficiency is closely linked to an unwillingness to participate in the sharing economy. Rapid economic changes are likely to increase demand for this skill set.


Addressing the needs of individuals with low digital skills is one tool to for avoiding an inequitable economic recovery as seen after the Great Recession. This will be especially important when considering Michigan’s inequitable access to broadband and digital devices.


Digital skills pay off

In a report for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Ji Eun Chung explores the capability to use information and communication technologies (i.e. email, web browsers, and spreadsheets) and its impact on labor force participation and wages.


Digital literacy is positively related to both. Some countries, including the United States, have an exceptionally strong relationship between digital skills and employment. Americans with no problem-solving experience using information and communication technologies average 31 percentage points lower in labor force participation when compared to those with the next lowest level of skills.


Likewise, the results show that individuals suffer a wage penalty of up to 18% when they have no digital skills. The wage penalty is reduced to 6% when taking into account factors such as age, gender, educational attainment, literacy, and numeracy.


A report by the EdTech Center at World Education concludes that upwards of 103 million adults in the United States face an employment opportunity gap because they lack in-demand skills for advancing skills and wages.


To address this, the organization proposes employment education technology. This process uses tools like mobile phones, texting, and the cloud to learn digital skills, followed by related online competency-based assessments. EdTech Center has spent over a year field testing seven employment and education technologies with more than 1,500 working learners and job seekers. The organization concludes that effective tools for learning digital skills had five things in common:

  • Mobility
  • Few barriers to begin using
  • Support for personal connections
  • Ability to screen-in qualified job candidates
  • Capability to display rich and diverse media


How our region is adapting

Some organizations in West Michigan are already pivoting to support the growing need for digital skills, particularly amid increased unemployment and transforming workplaces.


Literacy-focused organizations such as READ Muskegon and the Literacy Center of West Michigan have transitioned to online platforms for their adult learners. Both organizations are working to meet their learners where they are, in terms of access to broadband, access to digital devices, and digital literacy. They are using technology or apps with demonstrated preference among learners, while relying on low-barrier formats like texting, social media, and Zoom to hold lessons.


Promoting digital literacy and expanding these efforts to the workplace will address the needs of low-skill adults at all stages of adult education. This supports workers and employers alike in an increasingly knowledge-based economy.


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