Youth digital empowerment | The Express Tribune



KARACHI:

Digital literacy is the ability to understand and use digital tools and technologies. This can be as basic as writing a report or article on Microsoft Word, but today we often take it to mean the ability to use and manipulate software and hardware to suit our needs.

Essentially, this could be application development, data mining, creating machine learning models, or advancing artificial intelligence (AI) models.

Anything that interacts with the “digital world” requires digital literacy, but the rapid pace of technological development means that there is an ever-growing demand for additional digital literacy.

For too many people, the digital world remains like a foreign language, strange until you have learned and studied it, and can read, understand and use it fluently through experience.

It matters a great deal because much of the productivity gains and advances of the 21st century have been the result of advances in the digital domain. Encouraging and ensuring digital literacy means stronger, healthier and more prosperous societies and economies.

As Pakistan’s majority consists of youth population, and youth are our hope for the future of the planet, I would argue that today, not being digitally literate or skilled is almost like not being able to speak a basic language in which to express yourself.

There is no doubt that the future is increasingly digital and any of our youth who lack these skills will potentially lose out in the future economy, not to mention we all lose out as a society.

We used to say the same about English – if you cannot read and write in English, you lose access to the language of information and your ideas cannot reach as wide an audience.

In a globally connected world, digital is a single language that has currency everywhere. It breaks down multiple barriers, with work that can be done across borders and cultures. So, those skills are absolutely necessary for the future of our youth and for the future of our economies and societies.

And there is a tremendous need – most of the world is experiencing an IT talent shortage, at a time when the number of digital projects is expanding rapidly.

I think digital skills should not be a choice, but a basic universal educational right. Today, we don’t ask our children and youth “Do you want to take English class? Do you want to take math class?” We know that these are fundamental to their well-being and requisite skills for success in the global economy.

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Digital skills are the same. They should be taught from a young age, and indeed in many advanced societies, this is the case. That education continues through middle and high school, and digital skills are becoming embedded components in tertiary education, because there is no field that is untouched today by the digital revolution.

While basic digital literacy needs to be ensured, educational institutes must also give opportunities for the youth to develop skills in fields of rapidly accelerating knowledge, including robotics, AI, automation, machine learning, and I think in a few years quantum computing will be added to this list.

Educational institutions need to be able to give their students the option and opportunity to keep learning and delving into areas of passion. AI and data science should be treated as important as mathematics and physics.

Digital skills are a basic necessity simply to function in today’s world. If one has passion and a willingness to learn, then I would absolutely recommend taking computer science courses or enrolling in a computer science degree and specialising into a branch of knowledge that is of interest.

I would advise though that, like any field today, this will require a commitment to lifelong learning and continuous professional development.

Youth need to know that the pace of change is very quick, with knowledge becoming obsolete in just five years – there will be a need for continuous skills development.

However, the intellectual reward is there, the job opportunities are many and continually increasing, and I think there is a tremendous sense of fulfilment in working in a field where your work will have an impact on many, many users, from your workplace to potentially the whole world.

Google, Amazon, Facebook (Meta), all revolutionised the way we interact and engage with things in our lives… all of these were born out of digital skills coupled with a specific interest.

I would always advise youth to follow their passion and do what interests them – but I would add the caveat, build digital skills no matter what. It is difficult today to succeed in any pursuit, whatever your passion may be, if you do not have the requisite digital skills or digital literacy.

The competitive edge for most companies lies in their digital capabilities, and I would argue the same for people – in a world that has a dearth of adequate digitally-skilled individuals, this will be your competitive edge.

The writer is the Global Chief Information Officer, Aga Khan University

 

Published in The Express Tribune, December 25th, 2023.

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