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Dr Fazal Ali

The learning of a whole generation of youth has been truncated by school closures brought about by COVID-19. UNICEF estimates that 1.6 billion children in 188 countries have been affected by school closures. The coronavirus pandemic has compounded pre-existing inequities, including the digital divides between and within countries. Countries with strong digital ecosystems were more resilient. Those with feeble digital infrastructure struggled to respond adequately, leaving their citizens further behind. The difference between having and not having adequate internet connectivity has been particularly evident in terms of the impact of COVID-19 on children’s education.

Digital learning has been fundamental for the continuation of education during the pandemic, but at least an estimated 31 per cent–463 million school children–could not be reached by digital and broadcast remote learning programmes. As a result, school children in the poorest countries are falling further behind. Countries across Latin America and the Caribbean exhibit varying degrees of digital maturity and digital illiteracy. Beyond numeracy and literacy rooted in the three R’s (Reading, wRiting and aRithmetic) schools must nurture algorithmic literacy using a playlist of the digital fundamentals required to interact with, configure, use and enhance the digital tools necessary in the digital economy.

Additionally, citizens must develop computational literacy, that is, the ability to formulate and solve problems through computational steps and algorithm representation. Digital transformation requires an approach towards the development of basic skills in the entire population, and reducing skills gaps and the development of much more technical or specialised skills. The importance of having a digital skills framework rests in the creation of a common understanding of a digital skills appropriation plan that underpins public policy and skills development pathways. Digital skills are distributed over three levels of appropriation.

Basic digital skills include: the use of smart devices, navigating the internet, creating accounts and profiles, using apps, managing and locating information, creating a private digital identity, and evaluating the relevance of information. This requires the complementary skills of critical thought and interpersonal intelligence.

The intermediate level of digital skill mastery requires users to: create content, communicate and collaborate digitally, make online transactions, understand digital rights and digital citizenship, buy and sell online, as well as perform computational thinking, information analysis, coding and programming and systems creation. Complimentary skills include emotional intelligence, creativity, negotiation, flexibility and adaptability.

The Advanced Level of digital skills mastery requires specialised skill development focused on solving complex and mixed problems with the use of new technologies including programming skills. It also requires advanced aspects of specific digital branches of knowledge including advanced programming, machine learning, Internet of Things (IoT), networking, and hardware design. This includes skills necessary for the manipulation of hardware and the interpretation of information to use applications, skills related to the processing of information in digital environments, as well as the knowledge and application of basic principles of security and protection of digital identities. Skills to communicate and collaborate in digital environments and the creation of digital content.

Other components include programming and coding, computational thinking, skills to create systems, and the development of digital intelligence for the design of complex solutions in heterogeneous environments. Skills demanded by fluid markets or specialised skills required for cloud computing, augmented reality, virtual reality, automation, wearables, big data analysis, cybersecurity and quantum computing alongside the mastery of a wide range of languages, especially Node.JS and OCaml.

This triple helix of digital skills distribution has a comparative advantage over systems that define specific technological objectives, by developing cap-abilities that remove unfreedoms in changing and specialised environments. The liquid nature of technological trends requires that the Digital Skills Framework is not grounded in technology but in people’s ability to acquire new skills and knowledge. In this way, technological trends coexist and affect directly the type of skills that are required but do not pigeonhole the development of these to a specific group of technologies.

This model serves as a heuristic for different purposes in the general process of developing a digital skills strategy. It calls for the active participation of different actors in the digital ecosystem to nurture the development and implementation of next practices that serve as a guide to address the challenges involved. The objective is to ensure that all people can acquire the skills and competencies necessary to fully participate in the society and the economy of the country.

In Trinidad and Tobago, 64 per cent of the population is concentrated in 160 large communities, while 36 per cent of the population resides in 451 smaller communities. One strategy to ensure that no community is left behind is to launch modular digital skills centres. The digital skills training at each location will take into account the digital maturity of the community and the distribution of digital literacies to plan interventions at the basic, intermediate and advanced levels of skills appropriation. The present network of steel membrane orchestras across Trinidad and Tobago offers a fertile field of nodes to pilot such an intervention across the digital skills ecosystem. Panyards are a rich amalgam of digital natives and digital migrants. Once piloted and perfected, the model can migrate across communities centres giving all citizens a chance to ride the digital wave.