Gaining and sustaining digital skills

Good Things Foundation Researcher, Joseph Chambers, discusses how the Future Proof: Skills for Work programme, which aims to equip learners with digital skills and supporting change to the underlying behaviours driving their learning.

The world of work is changing at a rapid pace and digital technologies are leading much of this transformation. But individuals without the necessary digital skills, or the confidence and determination to learn them, can become held back from seeking or bettering their employment.

To meet this challenge, Good Things Foundation has been working in partnership with Accenture to deliver the Future Proof: Skills for Work programme. Thirteen Online Centres have been grant funded through the programme, which is already helping learners gain digital skills and supporting change to the underlying behaviours driving their learning.

The workplace of the 21st century is increasingly becoming digital, resulting in employees being required to have a range of associated skills. Whilst much of the UK’s workforce has been able to adapt to the increasingly digital workplace, the speed at which this transformation has happened, as well as other social and economic factors, have meant that a ‘digital skills gap’ has emerged.

This digital skills gap costs the UK economy an estimated £63 billion a year and impacts upon a range of other well-being measures such as happiness, mental health and social cohesion. As the Digital Skills Crisis report notes, tackling this digital skills gap needs to become central to policymakers’ approach towards creating more equitable societies and productive economies.

In a joint partnership between Accenture and Good Things Foundation, with support from Nesta, the Future Proof: Skills for Work project seeks to engage and support unemployed or underemployed individuals, helping them gain the digital skills they need for the modern workplace.

Thirteen Online Centres have taken part in the project and are using a range of resources provided by Accenture (including their free online learning programmes: Skills to Succeed Academy and Accenture Digital Skills) and Good Things Foundation so as best to tailor each learner’s journey towards gaining the digital skills needed to achieve personal employability goals.

To measure the digital skills gap, frameworks have tended to be designed around the idea that someone could either do or not do something. For this project, however, we wanted to move away from these traditional frameworks and their yes/no structures, as this rarely matched reality where someone ‘having’ a digital skill is often difficult to pinpoint. By reviewing many of the current frameworks being used, it became apparent that future efforts to measure digital skills should not rely solely on yes/no binary measures, and instead must incorporate qualitative research to develop richer understanding around this topic.

We also noted that, if we wanted to understand what causes people to gain and sustain digital skills, we needed to explore the role of behavioural and attitudinal factors. By examining a range of behavioural theories, and work that tested these in relation to digital skills, we identified eight behavioural components as critical in gaining and sustaining digital skills: habit, grit, resilience, relatedness, self-efficacy, motivation, goal setting and trust.

But what do these eight behavioural components mean?

Grit and resilience measure the likelihood and reality of learners staying on track when attempting to gain new skills and their ability to pick themselves back up after setbacks. Representations of these components can be found in popular 90s TV show Gladiators. For contestants facing The Travelator, an uphill run against a moving floor requiring continuous effort, high levels of grit were necessary to complete the event.

Resilience however, is personified by The Gauntlet, an event where contestants must travel along a route whilst being pushed, pulled and thrown off course by the Gladiators. For many progressing along learning journeys, they face numerous setbacks and hurdles along the way, but for those with high levels of resilience, they are able to pick themselves up and keep going.

Goal setting and motivation were framed as the extent to which learners had specific aims for participating in the project, and how determined they were to achieve these. Self-efficacy is someone’s level of belief that they were able to carry out certain actions.

Focussing on the wider social aspects noted as influencing behaviour, relatedness is the strength of someone’s desire to form connections with others, and trust the extent to which learners placed faith in technologies, people and institutions. The final component, habit, refers to the likelihood and reality of someone carrying out and repeating specific actions.

Despite identifying these eight behavioural components that theorists, researchers and ourselves suggest as key in determining the learning of digital skills, it was paramount to test these in a way that made sense in the context of the Future Proof: Skills for Work project and for the learners taking part.

To address this issue, we held a co-design workshop with Online Centres taking part in the project to discuss these components and how we would measure them. Through this session and by working with the centres, we co-created surveys to be filled out by learners that would examine not only their digital skills learning journey but also how strongly they demonstrated the eight behavioural components.

Although at an early stage in the Future Proof: Skills for Work project, interesting findings are already emerging. The majority of learners so far have been unemployed and were either looking for work or getting back into work. Furthermore, nearly all learners were aware of the importance of ICT in their future career plans, thereby indicating high levels of motivation for taking part in the project. One-quarter of learners noted that they felt removed from what they perceived to be an increasingly digital society. In addition, just over one quarter said they found it hard to overcome hurdles when learning something.

As the Future Proof: Skills for Work project progresses, we’re continuing to test and refine the quantitative and qualitative tools we use to understanding how people gain and sustain digital skills. By taking part in the project, we hope learners will not only develop the necessary digital skills to support their participation in an ever digitally-changing world of work, but that they will also strengthen and improve the behavioural aspects that help them gain these digital skills, such as self-efficacy, motivation and resilience.

Our project with Accenture represents just one part of our work at Good Things Foundation where we not only support the learning of key digital skills, but also provide invaluable insights for employers and policy on how best to support the teaching of digital skills.