UNESCO highlights digital skills and empowerment at ITU/UNESCO Broadband Commission on Sustainable Development in Rwanda

President Paul Kagame of Rwanda and the Mexican philanthropist and entrepreneur Carlos Slim opened the ITU/UNESCO Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development, hosted in Kigali, Rwanda, concurrently with the Transform Africa Summit 2018, attended by an estimated 4,000 delegates.

The Broadband Commission, co-chaired by President Kagame and Mr Slim since its founding in 2010, seeks to harness broadband and ICT in the service of achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. The Commission comprises a select group of chief executives/chairpersons from the private sector; senior policy-makers representing governments; heads of international agencies including UNDP, UNCTAD, UN Women and UN-OHRLLS; and thought leaders in academia and other organizations working for sustainable development. Cisco, Ericsson, Facebook, Huawei, Intelsat, Microsoft, Nokia and other private-sector partners are represented on the Commission.

In the session moderated by UNESCO on “Digital Skills & Empowerment”, the Broadband Commissioners exchanged views and endorsed a proposal – which will be led by UNESCO and the Baroness Beeban Kidron (United Kingdom) – to form a Commission working group to develop common indicators and definitions for Digital Skills and practical guidelines on digital citizenship, skills and competencies that may help to optimize implementation of digital skills frameworks.

President Kagame highlighted the importance of bringing digital skills to young people. He noted that when the “One Laptop per Child’ initiative was first introduced in schools in the Republic of Rwanda, the speed with which young people developed computer literacy often outpaced the rate of teacher ICT training in this subject. The President recalled that “every weekend we would see hundreds of kids at the airport” in order to access the Internet, which motivated him to expand Wifi connectivity to other parts of Kigali and beyond.

Introducing the concept, Indrajit Banerjee, director of UNESCO’s Knowledge Societies Division, noted that UNESCO is working with partners including ITU, Baroness Kidron and the Broadband Commissioners “to articulate a sufficiently broad definition of the skills that underlie digital literacy as well as a measurement approach that will generate internationally-comparable data needed to monitor progress towards the Sustainable Development Goal 4.” (SDG-4 “quality lifelong education”). He noted that UNESCO’s work to develop common indicators will allow for the collection of internationally comparable education data while also supporting efforts to develop indicators for Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) targets beyond education, while emphasizing the need for Member States to adapt and develop their own national framework for digital skills, taking into account specific development and educational contexts.

Baroness Beeban Kidron will play a leading role in the initiative with UNESCO in the new Working Group that will include a number of fellow Broadband Commissioners as well as high-level experts. The Baroness highlighted that her preliminary fact-finding had included interviews to date with around 200 experts drawn from governments, private sector companies, intergovernmental organizations, civil society groups and academia: “whilst there is agreement on the urgent need for digital skills, there is no common understanding on what these skills are,” she noted. The Broadband Commission initiative will seek to address practical goals to build a consensus around the definition of digital skills; define clearer and more useful indicators and guidelines, which can be applicable to operationalizing digital skills frameworks in diverse socio-economic contexts; and to the encourage practical and scalable implementation of good practices, she said.

“It is more and more clear that digital skills are key to our success,” said Houlin Zhao, Secretary-General of ITU. “For all the infrastructure developed, we must also address digital skills.”

Fekitamoeloa Katoa ‘Utoikamanu, High Representative for the Least Developed Countries, Landlocked Developing Countries and Small Island Developing States (UN-OHRLLS), said that digital literacy has been a barrier to Internet use according to the Report, launched on 7 May in Kigali, of the Broadband Commission Working Group on Vulnerable Countries, which she chaired. The report draws on evidence from country case studies and an UN-OHRLLS/ ITU report on achieving universal and affordable Internet in the least developed countries. She stressed the importance of scaling up initiatives that work well.

Mats Granryd, Director-General of GSMA, co-host of the Kigali Broadband Commission session and a member of the new Working Group, noted that almost half of all people who live in areas within 3G or 4G coverage – an estimated 3.4 billion people – do not access mobile and internet. One part of the reason for this gap is a lack of digital skills, he said.

Commissioner Nicholas Negroponte said that the most important digital skill to emphasize is computer programming, a type of learning that teaches to “think about thinking” through the iterative process of writing and debugging code. “I shudder to hear that the reason for coding is to get a (technology) job,” he said. “The reason (for coding) is you want to build a society that thinks about thinking. Creative societies will come from that.”

The new Working Group initiative will be entitled SKILLED (Skills for Life, Learning and Employment in a Digital world). This “roadmap towards global digital citizenship, digital skills and competencies” will seek to deliver:

  1. strategic and operational guidelines to countries on how to implement digital skills competency frameworks and promote digital skills education;
  2. identify and share good practices;
  3. refine the definition of digital skills and competencies at national and international level and contribute to the further elaboration of a global framework.

The SKILLED roadmap aims to support education stakeholders—whether Ministries of Education, individual schools or NGOS—to develop the digital skills and competencies of children, young people and adults, as well as to support countries to operationalize their digital skills frameworks and legislation.