In Europe Digital Skills Matter: An Interview with Telecentre Europe Managing Director, Gabriel Rissola

In April we announced the renewal of our existing partnership with Telecentre Europe, an organization that represents publicly funded telecentres/telecentre networks, ICT learning centres, adult education centres and libraries across Europe where children and adults can access the Internet, learn the latest digital skills and keep up to date with technology and community developments

Gabriel Rissola, Managing Director of Telecentre Europe offers us his perspective about the organization’s work, the partnership with Microsoft and the need for continued opportunities for Europeans to improve their digital skills.

Telecentre Europe provides extensive training and support for Europeans who are looking to upgrade their digital skills. What do you think are the biggest challenges that need to be overcome to help people of all ages boost their digital know-how across the region?

Young people and children may know how to operate devices but are not necessarily prepared to think digitally. The idea that the new generations are all “digital natives” is a fallacy. Interestingly, the school is now considered as THE place that should undertake the mission to prepare them for the challenges of the digital-by-default society in which they will live. But schools are not ready yet. For example, when one of my daughters recently started secondary school she was immersed in a new pedagogic model that is based on the use of a handheld device instead of books. The model came from a partnership with the industry and counted with the support of the school principal. Although I welcomed the initiative, I soon noticed a mix of new and old ways of teaching that weakened its effectiveness. The intention was great but it was not accompanied by an adequate preparation of teachers to act as learning facilitators. This is one of the major challenges for schools, in my view.

When we think of young people today we also deal with another contradiction. Many of them are unemployed; with some regions in Europe where as far as one out of two youths are unemployed. But at the same time, digital skills are increasingly demanded by the labour market (there will be about 825,000 ICT vacancies in EU by 2020). We tend to think that young people automatically have these skills. But they don’t. Therefore, digital literacy is becoming as important as traditional literacy and numeracy. Digital literacy is not only about the ability to use office or social media tools. It also implies understanding the logic behind it- what some call “computational thinking”- and this can be acquired, for example, by coding.

Another problem, as pointed out by many experts, is the lack of students in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) and this will only make the skills gap deeper. STEM studies are apparently not fashionable. So we need to make them more appealing, for example, by adding topics such as Arts or Creativity to stimulate interest and innovation in these fields. We can also work on better aligning university career plans to the labour market demands and expectations.

With adults it is a different story. The digital revolution took most of them by surprise. They now need quick solutions for re-skilling and up-skilling if they want to develop their career, avoid loosing their jobs, or if they are currently unemployed, improve their employability. Those who work sometimes have the opportunity to benefit from on-the-job IT training programmes, but many don’t.

Telecentres, public libraries and community centres of all kind have emerged as a non-formal learning alternative for those adults looking to catch up with their digital knowledge, or for youngsters to adjust their digital mind-set to what is needed for the job.

Last week was European Code Week 2015. What perspective can you offer to leaders of national, regional and local governments across Europe about the importance of digital skills and the role they can play in supporting European countries growth and competitiveness?  

All the challenges I mentioned above are tackled by the Grand Coalition for Digital Jobs, an initiative launched by the European Commission two years ago in partnership with corporate and social organisations. Telecentre Europe represents thousands of digital adult learning centres across the continent and is part of the Secretariat of the Grand Coalition. Here, our mission is precisely to increase the engagement of local governments in the establishment of local coalitions for digital skills and jobs. We promote the formation of national or regional multi-stakeholder partnerships aimed to contribute in their territories to the goals of the Grand Coalition. This way, initiatives that were already there are enhanced, scaled up, replicated, etc. Many ideas which are “in the pipeline” become a reality with our support. The beauty is to see all them harmonised in a big framework that can then produce consolidated and measurable results.

On the other hand, there are several de-centralised instruments set up by the European Commission such as structural funds, social funds or the Youth guarantee, etc. These instruments may help governments develop their own digital agendas, adapted to the needs of their citizens and enterprises. But one needs to know about them and also understand how to make a clever use of these funds. Just like with teachers, policy makers also have the opportunity to evolve in this sense.

Why do you think it’s important for businesses – in both the tech and non-tech sectors – to encourage and cultivate digital literacy in Europe?

A decade ago, it was already predicted that digital skills, together with language skills, would be among those key competences more critical for learning and working. Time has confirmed this prediction. It was also predicted that there would be a  polarization of skill requirements in the labour market, where more jobs would require soft skills. A digital mind-set always includes, for example, the soft skill of problem solving. We have also seen—through research—that the kind of digital learning taking place in telecentres, being user-centred, collaborative, practical (learning-by-doing), activates other competences like learning to learn, civic and social competences or a sense of initiative. All these points out to the relevance of cultivating digital literacy for the benefit of society and, of course, businesses.

Many, many people have been positively impacted by the programs that Telecentre Europe supports across the region. Is there one particular story of an individual involved in Telecentre Europe that stands out for you?

There are many inspiring stories coming out of our collaboration with Microsoft, but also during our star initiative called the “Get Online Week”. I particularly remember a story coming from our Lithuanian member, a non-profit organisation called Langas į ateitį. They told us about Mr. Romas Razvanavicius, who was unemployed back in 2012. He then found out about computer literacy trainings led by our member, through his local employment office in the town of Jurbarkas. He had some previous knowledge of ICT but had forgotten many of these skills as he did not use them. After having followed a course in IT he found a job announcement online: the Bus terminal of his town was planning to digitalise the storehouse and was looking for an employee with computer literacy knowledge. Romas applied for this job. Having been through the ICT training was an important advantage and he landed the job. In addition, the new skills he learned proved to be very useful for his volunteering as the housing committee chair. He digitalized a lot of the processes that were done on paper until then. Romas is one of 16 000 adult Lithuanian citizens who gained computer literacy, Internet and e-services usage skills during the trainings of Langas į ateitį.



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