Over 18 months ago, I wrote an article for The Guardian website about the need for libraries in the digital age. One of the key points in my piece was that IT literacy is as important as the provision of access to IT. Whilst possessing the skills to utilise IT is clearly vital, underpinning such skills are basic literacy standards. After all, if you do not meet certain literacy standards, how can you ever hope to develop a degree of IT literacy? The two things work hand-in-hand. Whilst there is a degree of compensation for literacy skills (Google’s “did you mean..” function for example), a distinct lack of literacy skills will severely hamper anyone from exploiting the internet to their advantage.
Three years ago, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) claimed that literacy levels in the UK represented a ‘dismal picture’. In 2010, the Head of Ofsted claimed that standards of reading and writing amongst 11 year olds fell “stubbornly short” of achievable standards. According to the National Literacy Trust, 5.2 million people in England (approximately 1 in 10) can be described as “functionally illiterate” (ie would not be able to pass an English GCSE and have literacy levels at or below an 11 year old). For those 5.2 million people, the provision of a computer and internet access in their home would simply be of no benefit to them. Clearly, access is not the only issue, there needs to be a degree of support.
Today a new charity, National Numeracy, claimed that ‘millions’ of people struggle to understand a payslip or a train timetable. The figures appear to have been drawn from the Skills for Life survey. Personally, I am a little sceptical about these figures, not least because they are a new charity and making such claims does much to raise awareness of themselves amongst the general public. Clearly they have done an excellent job as their claims have been all over the news websites (and now this blog). But if we are to take the report at face value, then 17 million people in the UK have numeracy skills below those needed for the lowest grade at GCSE. Chances are, provided this figure is accurate, a significant proportion of those 17 million people will experience difficulties both obtaining and interpreting data online.
Whilst this is clearly troubling, the most interesting aspect of the story comes from a YouGov poll for the charity. According to the findings of the poll (and again it is sensible to be slightly sceptical about such polls):
4 in 5 (80%) would feel embarrassed to tell someone they were bad at reading & writing, but less than 3 in 5, or just over a half (56%), would feel the same about telling someone they were bad at maths.
Once more, there is a problem here that simple access cannot resolve. But then there is also a problem in terms of support and how this can be provided.
One of the key institutions in addressing the concerns of the digital divide are libraries. They provide free access for those who do not have a computer or internet connection at home as well as skilled staff in order to support them. According to the latest figures, around 8.2 million people have never used the internet. Paired with the figures claimed for literacy and numeracy levels, there are a significant number of people who are clearly unable to exploit the internet to its fullest and reap the economic and social benefits.
But herein lies the problem. There is a perception that because people are sitting at a computer and appear to be comfortable using it, that they are using it effectively and to their best advantage. As is apparent from the poll findings, many people would not like to admit that they struggle with reading and writing. Which begs the question, how many people using a computer in a library (or anywhere else for that matter) would be prepared to admit they experience difficulties with their reading and writing and needed support? How many would just carry on without requesting assistance thinking that they are getting what they require? Furthermore, how can this best be addressed? Should staff who are available to assist wait until they are approached by someone? Or should they be taking a proactive approach? Is it satisfactory to assume that if they are using the computer they probably know what they are doing? Or should an interventionist strategy be adopted?
From my experience it is a difficult situation to judge. We would often wait until we were approached before providing library users with assistance. But with literacy standards at the levels supposedly reported, how many people use the computers in a public space, fail to make use of the resource fully and leave with second rate information because they aren’t confident in asking for assistance, or are unaware that the standard of information that they did obtain was poor? How can we be sure that the playing field is levelled so that those without the skills are not disadvantaged? If 80% of people do feel embarrassed to tell someone they have trouble reading and writing, I’m not really sure what the answer is. But I do think an answer is fundamental if we are to ensure that the digital divide is closed and we ensure true equal access for all.