Digital skills training for South Africa

Digital information and communication technologies have revolutionised the ways in which knowledge is created and shared. Today, global domination of the information economy by the Internet, mobile phones and other digital devices creates the potential to facilitate new ways of recording and sharing knowledge. However, for the majority of South African people, limited digital skills and poor information literacy puts the Internet and online information beyond their reach, even if access to these technologies was available.

Accessing information on a mobile in South Africa

African Content on the Internet

In terms of digital information, African content levels are low, mainly due to a lack of capacity among local communities to record, transfer and disseminate information digitally. This puts Africa at a major disadvantage in the current knowledge economy, and leaves people poorly equipped to make a meaningful contribution to the global information society.

The knock-on effect of limited local content and a lack of local language usage on the Internet is that it slows the uptake of digital resources by local communities, impeding ICT skills development and, thereby, socio-economic transformation. However, African knowledge needs to be part of the global information economy, regardless of the inherent difficulties in collection, preservation and dissemination. This philosophy is underpinned by the Geneva Plan of Action, developed by the World Summit on the Information Society (2003). Three action lines in the plan speak directly to the need to include all people in the access to and generation of knowledge:

  • Access to information and knowledge: This line concerns policies relating to public domain information, community access points, and alternative software models.
  • Capacity building: This covers skills needed for the Information Society, including literacy and ‘ICT literacy’ and the empowerment of local communities to use ICTs.
  • Cultural diversity and identity: linguistic diversity and local content. This action plan line focuses on promotion of respect for cultural identity, traditions and religions and dialogue among cultures as a factor in sustainable development.

There is a tendency for digital divide thinking to focus on getting ‘global’ information resources to the marginalised and on educating the marginalised to consume information in the way the globalised world does. However, in order to decrease the digital divide between the data ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’, there needs to be an understanding of the processes by which people can assimilate, and then use, information. ICTs can become a broad enabler of development when used in community informatics, which allow groups to use the resources in ways that are meaningful to them. However, this is not easy to achieve in practice because skills levels are often low at a local level. 

Increased Access 

The focus of a development initiative should be prompted by the people’s own experience of their reality. By harnessing ICTs to facilitate access to locally relevant information, local communities in Africa can be empowered to bridge the digital divide and become part of the global information society on their own terms. Access to a digital knowledge resource of local relevance has the potential to contribute to the capacity-building of digital and information literacy skills, resulting in economic empowerment through ICT skills development, knowledge provision and social networking. 

Over the last decade Internet usage has increased globally by an average of 445%; this is in stark contrast with the meagre growth of 2.36% on the African continent. While 29% of the world’s population use the Internet, only 11% of Africans share in this global information resource (Internet World Stats, 2010). This being said, the African Telecommunications/ICT Indicators 2008 Report of the International Telecommunications Union (2008) does, however, highlight the phenomenal growth in Africa’s mobile sector. Mobile penetration has risen from 2% in 2000 to almost 33% of the continent’s population today. While this statistic may not be representative for large parts of rural Africa, indications are that there is a significant increase in the use of mobile devices in urban, peri-urban and rural areas along city boundaries; this is well aligned to the pervasive migration of rural people throughout the continent. Communities living in these areas typically suffer from high levels of poverty, low levels of sustainable income, and marginalisation in terms of economic opportunities. These areas contain few social, physical or economic support amenities. Many people have access to neither library/information services nor public ICT facilities such as computers, Internet or e-mail. 

Combining people’s local communications systems with appropriate use of modern, low-cost communications technology, marginalised communities can strengthen their communication capacities for development. The availability of better information helps to improve people’s education, health services and general knowledge and can reduce poverty (World Bank, 2001). Benefits to the community include not only access to digital resources of local relevance, but also access to capacity building in digital and information literacy skills, constituting empowerment in terms of knowledge and ICT skills.

Mobile technologies are currently being developed for a wide array of applications, with functionalities that allow users to interact with each other in many ways. The African mobile revolution is creating an African information society in its own right: a society in which e-skills and information literacy have become valuable, sought-after abilities. By mastering digital skills and information literacy skills people are able to interact socially by acquiring, creating, and sharing knowledge to the benefit of their wider communities. Coupled with digital media competencies, such skills can lead to economic and social transformation in communities throughout Africa. The social development dimension of such a project promotes a culture of community participation in local government structures, encouraging development of social capital and a sense of citizenship through the concept of shared heritage, customs and knowledge.

Digital Skills

In order to access digital information and share their own knowledge in the digital realm, people need to learn how to navigate the Internet and how to add content to it. This poses a real problem for communities in which basic literacy skills levels are often very low, creating a barrier to ICT use. The increasing familiarity with mobile technology, particularly among the younger generation, mitigates this problem to some extent. Nevertheless, training programmes should focus on inclusivity of all participants. This means teaching has to begin with the basics of digital literacy and the trainer should also be prepared to adapt to the pace of the slowest learner in the group, and to accept that much of the teaching will be on a one-to-one basis. Teaching of digital skills should focus first on familiarising participants with the desktop environment and the filing system on word-processing software. Participants need to know the basic functionalities of a word-processing programme (e.g. copy and paste, delete, save) in order to write and prepare copy for the web and part of this learning exercise will invariably also include grammar and composition skills. They also need to learn how to create email addresses and how to communicate via email and attach files. Most importantly, they need to learn to adhere to the discipline of following a style guide. Only then should they graduate to loading copy (written content) onto a website. 

Niall McNulty conducting digital skills training in eThekwini

All these steps pose significant challenges for people with limited literacy skills. Trainers must accept the fact that repetition will form an integral part of the training programme, in order to ensure that the e-skills are well understood and mastered. An important consideration in teaching e-skills is the language barrier that may exist for people who are conversant mainly in their home language. To confront them with unfamiliar concepts in a foreign language, of which they have only a limited grasp, will slow down the learning process further. It is therefore advisable to keep training sessions short, limit the number of participants, and to adopt an informal methodology that is reassuring to even the least confident of participants. Trainers should allow ample time for practice until all participants are comfortable with the lesson material, encouraging the faster learners to interact with the slower learners and allowing them to discover and share new features among themselves.

Information Literacy

Information literacy refers to the ability to operate effectively in an information society. This involves skills such as critical thinking, information evaluation, conceptualising information needs, organising information, and making effective use of information in problem solving and decision-making. Many of those who are most in need of information literacy are, however, often amongst those least able to access the information they require. Illiterate adults and economically disadvantaged people, for example, are among those most likely to lack access to the information that can improve their situations. Most are not even aware of the help that is potentially available to them. 

The different dimensions of information literacy include, inter alia:

  • Tool literacy, or the ability to understand and use the practical and conceptual tools of current information technology to find relevant information,
  • Resource literacy, or the ability to understand the form, format, location and access methods of information resources, 
  • Publishing literacy, or the ability to format and publish information and ideas electronically, in textual and multimedia forms … to introduce them into the electronic public realm and the electronic community, and 
  • Emerging technology literacy, or the ability to continuously adapt to, understand, evaluate and make use of the continually emerging innovations in information technology so as not to be a prisoner of prior tools and resources, and to make intelligent decisions about the adoption of new ones (Wikipedia, 2013).

The first step in information literacy teaching is to clarify and understand the requirements of the problem or task for which information is sought. Basic questions asked at this stage include:

  • What is known about the topic?
  • What information is needed?
  • Where can the information be found?

The second step is to identify sources of information and to find those resources. Depending upon the task, sources that will be helpful may vary and may include books, encyclopaedias, maps, almanacs, etc. These may be in digital, print or other formats. Lastly, step three involves examining the resources that were found, when the information must be determined to be useful or not useful in solving the problem. The useful resources are selected and the inappropriate resources are rejected.

Some measure of experience is usually required to attain the above steps successfully. Again, in the case of those with low skill levels, prolonged supportive training is needed to reach useful outcomes. Thus is the assignment of this project in the quest to develop a digital memory toolkit. However, the student who has attained information literacy skills, at any level of competence, contributes positively to the learning community and to society. Not only do they participate effectively in groups to pursue and generate information, they also recognise the importance of information to a democratic society.

Developing Digital Media Competencies

As has been shown in this section, the development of ICT and digital media competencies are necessary for the creation and maintenance of a successful digital memory project. While much of what has been covered up until this point refers to more rudimentary ICT skills, there are a host of competencies that need to be present in the project team. These are not necessary for each individual member, but should be available in the appropriate team members when necessary, and include:

  • Emailing and basic Internet skills already covered in this section, including attaching images and other files to emails, searching for information on the Internet, accessing websites and downloading files from the Internet. 
  • Word processing skills, such as typing, copying and pasting, saving files, managing text documents. 
  • Internet journalism skills, which include researching topics on the Internet, writing copy and adding hyperlinks to web pages.
  • Audio-visual skills, including the use of digital cameras for taking pictures (operation, lighting, composition), editing and compressing images for online distribution and the ability to use an audio recorder to record interviews, oral histories, meetings etc., as well as editing and transcribing audio files. Some projects also require more advanced audio-visual skills like the use of digital video cameras, editing video files and saving them in various file formats for use on the Internet and for long-term preservation. 
  • Managing the digital media created using audio recorders, cameras and mobile phones. This includes transferring them from devices, filing, renaming, resizing, and uploading them to the Internet. 
  • Content management, including the ability to use a web-based content-management system such as WordPress, Joomla, Drupal etc., which entails the uploading and management of files in various formats (text, audio, video). Content management also includes the editing of copy and may entail correcting content in different languages, writing summaries, acknowledgements of sources and reviewing texts for plagiarism. It also involves managing compressed versions of files for dissemination, metadata management such as the maintenance of categories and folksonomies (expanding, editing and updating) and the backing up of online content. External archiving of digital files for long-term preservation is another core element of community memory projects but is generally undertaken by a trained professional (more info in the section “Digital Archiving Strategies for Building Community-Based Digital Archives”).
  • Social media management. For projects that employ social media, a team member will be responsible for developing an online community through the use of Facebook, Flickr, Twitter, publishing news items on a blog and compiling and sending out a newsletter.
  • Mentoring volunteer fieldworkers as their digital media skill levels are typically low and constant contact is needed, as well as regular follow-up training.
Developing skills in digital media production in Umbumbulu

Using affordable, accessible technologies (including mobile technologies) and developing the required skills and competencies, there is a massive opportunity to help connect people on the fringes of the information economy to resources that can help to empower them.

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