If we were pressed to list one positive outcome of the health and economic crisis the world is currently facing, it would be this: it brought the pre-existing (and largely hidden) problem of the digital literacy gap to light.

Mind the gap

Technology’s impact on society and the very speed of continuing innovation, transformation, and successive breakthroughs has no historical precedent. Working in the tech industry (or any area mildly related to it), we tend to view this an advantage: we are creating an ever-approaching vision of a better life for all of us. And we’re right: the power to improve the world really is in the palms of our hands.

Digital literacy gap

But being on the inside of this change makes it extremely easy to forget what it’s like to be on the outside of it. In other words, we tend to forget about those left behind, when in fact, there are many more of them than we’d like to think. It’s not limited to localization problems and web accessibility issues: there are simply many more people struggling to keep up with technical innovation than those pushing it forward.

What is the digital literacy gap?

Digital literacy is a broad concept used to describe a person’s ability to find, evaluate, and compose clear informationusing digital technology. Digital literacy is one of a few fundamental skills not taught at schools, but is vital in areas such as communication or succeeding in the job market. It really sets apart the well-adjusted, quick learners, who can easily take advantage of the tools the modern world offers, from those who stick (or need to stick) to traditional, analog ways of getting things done – just as in the distant past, some people knew how to write, and some others needed to get by without it. And, just like in the past, this difference can be largely attributed to socioeconomic inequality (19th-century peasants couldn’t afford writing lessons, just like today’s workers often lack time or resources to learn to adopt new technologies).

Child using PCIn short, the digital literacy gap is what sets people apart, from those who know how to use a smartphone from those who don’t, from those who know how to do their banking online from those who still wait in queues, and from those who know how to apply for a social benefit on a government website from those who don’t even know it’s possible – and so on.

A bit of pre-pandemic data

The sad truth is that the digital literacy gap is a painfully prevalent problem, both in developed and developing countries. Examples galore: in the UK alone, about 10.7 million people have either zero basic digital skills or limited abilities online. In the US, only 17% of adults are confident in their ability to use digital tools to pursue learning. In South Africa, 33% of households see no relevance in accessing the internet, with 35.5% of them citing a lack of knowledge/skills/confidence as the reason. In China, 54.5% of people refraining from using the internet give a lack of internet knowledge as the primary reason.

Cheerful looking robotIt’s even more alarming when you consider that self-assessment surveys often present skewed results, as people tend to evaluate their skills as being better than they actually are. For example, in Austria, 94% assess their digital skills as average or very good, whereas only 39% get the same score in a practical test. Same for Switzerland: 85% consider themselves good or very good, but only 34% really are. In Singapore, that disparity is less apparent, but still exists: 88.5% consider themselves good or very good vs whereas only 55% are. The same goes for Denmark, Finland, Germany, and India: people are less digitally competent than they think they are, which makes the challenge of filling the digital literacy gap even more pressing.

Setting this data against the fact that as many as 82% of middle-skill jobs require some sort of digital skills (that’s the number as of 2014 and it will, obviously, keep rising) should be enough to recognize the scale of the problem.

A bit of post-pandemic reflection

Technology affects our lives like never before in human history – the COVID-19 crisis proved it in the most explicit way possible. As an example, take one social group affected by the crisis: teachers.

Teachers’ struggle during the pandemic is unprecedented. Quite predictably, most of them had no previous experience in remote teaching. Teachers in India list technical glitches, parents’ complaints, or dramatic drops in efficiency as some of the results of their remote teaching efforts. Poland’s government spent millions on TV-produced lessons, that on day one turned into a nationally-derided fiasco – partly because the teachers they chose for the job didn’t know how to find themselves in the new technological reality. The bottom line is that teachers all over the globe had to suddenly become students.

Man looking at stack of devices

And teachers are just the tip of the iceberg. What about anyone who didn’t work remotely in their lives before the pandemic? What about companies struggling to set up new digital workflows? What about radio journalists, government officials, psychotherapists, dermatologists, priests, musicians, pediatricians, fitness trainers, car mechanics, local businesses, farmers setting up grocery delivery services on Facebook… the list goes on.

What’s more, the digital literacy gap causes digital exclusion on a social level. Ask any pensioner who didn’t know how to use Zoom to communicate with their families during a lockdown. Or anyone who didn’t know how to apply for government help without leaving their home.

Ok, so the digital literacy gap really exists. How do we close it?

There are two complementary solutions to closing the digital literacy gap:

  • Solution 1: Bring technology closer to humans.
  • Solution 2: Bring humans closer to technology.

Solution 1 is all about designing and building technologies that are easily accessible by those who need them. It’s UX design rules applied to all areas of technology, be it hardware, software, or services.

Solution 2 is about education, technical support and easily obtainable, well-made help resources. In short, it’s about technical communication.

The 2020 crisis demonstrated the importance of quality technical communication

Working in the field for over 17 years, 3di have seen countless examples of technical communication bridging the gap between technology and people. We’ve been producing help materials for such diverse products as scientific research hardware or interactive displays used in classrooms in over 154 countries. We’ve been creating information portals for users working remotely. We simplified documentation workflows for organisations that had their knowledge scattered around dozens of places.

Those years of experience taught us that if people are to use certain technology, they need access to the right information. And the 2020 crisis confirmed what we already knew: that the quality of technical communication matters.

Enter technical communication

A family member of mine is an inspired teacher. She spent most of her adult life gathering experience, expanding her knowledge, and improving her teaching methodology. The pandemic put her in a situation that now seems like one of the most common stories around: at nearly 60, in a matter of days, she needed to evolve from a digitally-illiterate lady into a quick-learning, well-adjusted mid-level user of a dozen different tools she’s never heard of before. It may sound funny, but for her, it’s a real struggle, full of chronic stress and self-doubt. I’m not saying she not partially to blame – sitting within your comfort zone for years and sticking to the things you know best is never a good idea in a fast-changing world like ours – I’m saying there’s no reason why things should be that hard for millions (billions?) of people like her.

Living in our own information bubbles, it’s really easy to forget that there are and will always be people who struggle to get actual use of the technology they’re required to use. And technical communication is one of the ways to ensure that technology doesn’t complicate their lives, but makes them easier – after all, that’s the way it’s meant to be.

If you are looking for help with your technical communication projects, we’ve got plenty of blog posts and case studies on a wide range of topics, such as; improving the UX of your documentation, communicating about complex subjects or implementing continuous deployment of documentation for software and applications. Alternatively, you can discuss your technical communication projects by calling us on +44 1483 211 533, or e-mailing us at contact@3di-info.com.