Digital skills are vital now

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As the pandemic’s unyielding grip on the globe continues, concerns are being raised about its impact on students whose learning has been interrupted for almost two years.

Some students have not had the benefit of tutoring since the pandemic shuttered schools across the world. Others have had irregular forms of schooling, and, in some cases, blended and more structured sessions. With almost everything moved online, the pandemic has exposed gaps in the education sector and has helped to put the need for digital skills in sharp focus. Early challenges to learning included access to devices and the internet.

UNICEF, the UN organisation that focuses on children, has been strident in its calls for schools to be reopened, and while some countries have been attempting to do so in face-to-face and other formats with mixed results, schooling, as in other areas of life, is now far from normal.

The challenge of schooling and the necessity for developing strong digital skills from an early age, were key areas of focus at the mid-September launch of the CARICOM Digital Skills Task Force which is aimed primarily at:

  • promoting awareness of the importance of digital skills in the region for economic and social development,
  • and providing technical guidance on a coordinated approach to mitigating the digital skills challenge, exacerbated by the COVID19 pandemic.

Mr. Carlton Samuels, former CIO and University Director of IT-UWI, Mona, and Dr. Barbara Reynolds, former Deputy Vice Chancellor, University of Guyana, are the Task Force’s co-chairs. The Task Force comprises Member States, regional and international entities, including the Caribbean Congress of Labour (CCL), Caribbean Association of National Training Agencies (CANTA), Caribbean Examinations Council (CXC), University of the West Indies (UWI), CARICOM Youth Ambassador Programme (CYAP), Caribbean Union of Teachers (CUC), Caribbean Employers Confederation (CEC), CARICOM Regional Organisation for Standards and Quality (CROSQ), International Labour Organization (ILO), United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), International Telecommunications Union (ITU), Digital Skills Working Group of the Single ICT Space, and the CARICOM Secretariat. The Task Force will serve for one year.

Vital Digital Skills

Dr. Carla Barnett, CARICOM Secretary-General spoke at the Launch and zeroed in on what is occurring in education. While the regional digital footprint had increased “tremendously” in the past year, the crisis, she said, revealed the “weakness and unpreparedness of the current education systems worldwide, following the deployment of digital learning during mass school closures across almost all countries.”

“Before the pandemic, digital skills were valued, but now they are vital to keep up with the growing trend of the virtual world in which we live and must thrive,” the Secretary-General said.

She pointed to the priority areas UNESCO had identified last year for urgent action which included support to teachers as frontline workers, scaling up of digital skills and narrowing the digital divide.

The Secretary-General announced that the CARICOM Secretariat is to embark on an ICT Sector gap analysis next year across the Community with funding from the 11th European Development Fund. The gap analysis will support the Region’s recovery efforts by identifying and quantifying the critical parts of the digital infrastructure and help fast-track digital transformation.

Life-long learning

Prime Minister Keith Mitchell of Grenada who launched the Task Force, pointed to the changes that would be reflected in the way education was delivered. Dr. Mitchell, who is the Lead Head of Government with responsibility for Science and Technology in the CARICOM Quasi Cabinet, called for a re-examination of the investments made in science and research, as well as a focus on what he described as ‘lifelong learning and upskilling”.

“Digital technology will also change traditional methods of delivering education.  This is already evident as schools, teachers, parents and students have been forced to adapt to more online learning. There should be greater emphasis on providing every citizen with adaptable digital skills. Changing demands from businesses, consumers, students and communities mean that apprenticeships, vocational qualifications, technical and vocational training and degrees, need to deliver both general and specific digital capabilities that support the evolving nature of the workplace,” Prime Mitchell said.

He added that it was imperative that CARICOM countries agreed on an agenda of change for further and higher education that addressed the magnitude of the challenge.

“… we must re-examine our human, technical and financial investment in science and research,” he added.

One of the questions that needed to be answered, he said, was: How do digital skill-building policies and programmes connect to the other critical areas of digital inclusion – broadband internet access and digital devices such as laptops and tablet computers, the unknowns of future technologies and to the larger regional initiative of developing a CARICOM Single ICT space?

Access to digital devices and broadband internet were issues that Dr. Susan Teltscher,Head, Capacity & Digital Skills Development, International Telecommunications Union (ITU), also raised in her presentation at the Launch. She pointed out that teaching, learning, and working from home required reliable and affordable internet connection and digital skills, but that in the Caribbean, internet usage was low because of a lack of digital skills.

Moving activities online, she pointed out, required digitally skilled population, and even in the current crisis that has seen strong growth in ICT-related industries, a huge skills gap remained at all levels:

  • Basic skills such as word processing and using keyboard and touchscreens
  • Intermediate skills including desktop publishing and digital marketing, and
  • Advanced skills such as artificial intelligence and cybersecurity

She advised that the work of the Task Force needed to consider how best to address the full range of the spectrum. She added that policies needed to be addressed the post-pandemic demand for digitally skilled population and workforce. Digital skills and digital access needed to be considered in tandem, she noted.

Ms. Karine Sonigo, Digitalisation Specialist at the International Labour Organisation pointed out that technologies and digitalisation were among the “mega drivers of change” in a number of areas including workplace settings, and on the “way in which we teach and learn”. They require new sets of skills, new roles, attitudes and responsibilities, she added.

She also referred to the life-long learning perspective, pointing to the need for an integrated approach to digital transition and each level of a skills system.

For My Wayne Chen, President Caribbean Employers’ Confederation, the future of work was grounded on training young and old in digital skills which he described as “far more than” ICT skills. There are far more opportunities that were created, he said, from the combination of innovation and technology, and by using technology and management to create more value for example.

 He said the pandemic had focused minds on the need for digital transformation, and used e-learning as an example of what has occurred in the education sector.

“We have been forced into e-learning because face-to-face schooling has been disrupted. It has exposed the vulnerability of our students who do not have access to the devices, who do not have sufficient access to broadband; to teachers who have not yet mastered the skills of teaching online; to households who do not have supervisors at home. But despite the challenges, we have been forced to adopt more online tutoring to our traditional mix and going forward, we would have to have a blended approach and it opens up new opportunities for training for enhancement of the broadband and so on,” he said.

The Launch ceremony featured a performance by Christin Fermin, a 4th Form student at Presentation College, San Fernando, Trinidad and Tobago. Ms. Jennifer Britton, Deputy Programme Manager, ICT for Development at the CARICOM Secretariat chaired the event and Dr. Laurette Bristol
Programme Manager, Human Resource Development at the CARICOM Secretariat gave the Vote of Thanks and Closing Remarks

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