Digital Literacy in the times of COVID

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The importance of digital skills for social inclusion has been fairly evident to most of us over the past decade. But a global pandemic put us on the spot and forced us to take a closer look at the gaps in our policies and the ground reality.

For long, I have been a strong advocate of the importance of digital literacy on par with basic literacy. Today, as we stare at a new normal where physical interactions are replaced by virtual existence, we realize that we need more action on digital inclusion and we need it now.

With a large section of global population still lacking basic digital skills, are we ready to move online as a society? Probably not. But this is the need of the hour and given the enormity of the task at hand, we all must join our forces to make this leap happen. The task is herculean, no doubt. But with collective will, we can make digital skills and tools accessible to everyone.

With the COVID crisis, we realize even more how important is digital literacy.

As the pandemic started raging across the globe earlier this year, we turned to digital technologies to ride out the storm. Overnight, virtual became the new normal and continues to be so. From working to learning or even socializing, most of us are essentially living a virtual life in more ways than we could have imagined six month ago.  But where does this transition leave those who do not have the skills or the tools to use digital technologies?

Millions of children are at risk of losing precious academic year due to lack of access. Work-from-home options have saved many jobs during these extraordinary times, but the reality is not the same for those who are not completely comfortable with technology due to various socio-economic reasons. Social isolation has been particularly challenging for the elderly, many of whom have preferred to stay away from technology, until recently.

But access remains a major impediment

Earlier this year, we conducted a comprehensive research on global digital divide and found that almost half of the world’s population still remains offline. We interviewed 5,000 people from diverse backgrounds and geographies, and spoke to several charities, NGOs, non-profits and private organizations who work in the digital inclusion space. We found that cost, complexity, and a perceived “lack of interest” keep people offline. And being offline has significant social and economic implications, even more intensified by the pandemic. The Great Digital Divide report further reveals that even before the pandemic hit, 69% of people without online access were living in poverty. Here are a few glaring trends that came forth during our research:

  • 56% of offline people aged 22 to 36 say the cost of a device is the reason they have never used the internet
  • 40% of all offline people in poverty say they have never used the internet because a subscription is too expensive
  • 35% said the computer or mobile phone needed to access it is too expensive

So, what can we do?

The responsibility to address the challenge of digital inclusion cannot fall to one group. Private and public organizations need to work with local governments to create a global framework of cooperation to close the digital gap.

Colleagues engaged in digital literacy workshop during one of our annual volunteering initiatives, Impact Together Week, in 2019.

COVID-19 is likely to have a lasting impact on access to public services and attitudes to opportunities like remote working, so there’s a collective responsibility for organizations which work to challenge the digital divide do so in a way that it creates a long-term change, not just a quick fix. In the wake of this pandemic, we expect to see a closing of the digital gap – for example, elderly people who have previously not felt a need for digital access will quickly find themselves engaging with digital tools in place of face-to-face socializing and the provision of goods. However, this is reserved for those who can get access to the internet but have previously chosen not to. The impact will be felt among those who still can’t use online services, whether through a prohibitively high cost or a lack of local provision. Here we’ll see a polarizing effect, especially for those already living in or falling under the poverty line.

We have made strides in helping communities gain access and skills to cope with the situation. This year we forged a new collaboration with Digital Unite, a leading Digital Inclusion organization in the UK. For over two decades the organization has been helping third sector organizations build digital capacity by helping them recruit and train a network of almost 4000 Digital Champions, who then directly engage communities and help tens of thousands of people learn basic digital skills. Together, we aim to transform the model for corporate support of digital skills training in the region. We have also launched Digital Futures initiative this year, spearheaded by our Cloud Infrastructure Services leaders and colleagues. The initiative is designed to help and support thousands of digitally excluded people in their journey to inclusion through digital literacy projects. Initiatives such as this is a testament to our collective commitment towards digital inclusion actions.

In 2020, Capgemini aims to support 100,000 digitally marginalized people through digital literacy program across the world. Though we set the target before the pandemic, we are determined to achieve it despite new challenges in these extraordinary times.

Parting thoughts

Bridging the digital divide requires collaboration and cooperation of all stakeholders – private organizations, governments, NGOs, non-profits, and academia. Private organizations should invest in digital inclusion as part of their CSR agendas, educate people on how to stay safe online, and recruit from marginalized communities. Policymakers and governments need to work towards making access more accessible. Without a global cooperation model, the digital divide will continue to create inequalities across the world. And that is something we can ill afford, especially right now.

To know more about Capgemini’s action on the topic, visit the Digital Inclusion page.

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