Written by Samantha Ndiwalana, Research Analyst Digital Inclusion Benchmark

Digital skills are an important, but often overlooked aspect of digital inclusion, which companies could leverage for inclusive development. The spectrum of digital skills goes from basic skills, such as copying files, to intermediate skills such as using basic formulas on spreadsheets, to advanced skills such as computer programming. To achieve digital inclusion, companies will not only need to support the development of digital skills across the spectrum of skills levels. They will also need to consider digital divides such as those across regional, income and gender lines. In doing so, companies will contribute to digital inclusion, sustainable development, and to reaching the estimated 3.7 billion people who are not connected to the internet.[1] Ideally, the digital economy should leave no man, or woman for that matter, behind.

What is digital inclusion and how is it connected to?

Broadly, digital inclusion refers to everyone having affordable access to digital technologies such as smartphones, applications, and the internet. Furthermore, it includes being able to exploit digital opportunities from having access for personal, social and economic benefits. There are several digital divides, such as income and gender, along which individuals can be excluded from digital technologies and digital skills. For example, in developing countries, only 40% of individuals have basic digital skills compared to almost 70% in developed countries.[2]

Digital skills are only one aspect of the digital inclusion puzzle considered by the World Benchmarking Alliance (WBA). The WBA’s Digital Inclusion Benchmark defines digital inclusion along the lines of access, use, skills and (As discussed in more detail in this Digital Inclusion Benchmark blog). [3] 

An inclusive digital system creates opportunities for companies and individuals alike by considering basic, intermediate and advanced skills in both developed and developing country contexts. It would also create opportunities such as education and employment both within and outside of the ICT industry; while supporting the achievement of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4, “Inclusive and equitable quality education and promoting lifelong learning opportunities for all.[4]

An inclusive approach to digital skills: SDG 4 and digital companies

SDG 4 links digital skills to education through several targets and metrics. Targets include, building and upgrading education facilities with inclusive and effective learning environments. Metrics include, the proportion of schools with internet access and computers; an area where we are seeing some digital companies stepping up to support this. By looking at various targets and metrics, including those in SDG 4, we can track companies that use an inclusive approach to digital skills.

Examples of companies using digital inclusion to achieve SDG 4

Verizon’s Innovative Learning[5] program addresses the provision of technologies for education. The program provides free internet access, technology and learning experiences for students from marginalized communities. In addition, Verizon provides evidence on the impact of the program, such as metrics on those affected broken down by . In the future, this information could be used by governments and NGOs to help schools and other stakeholders understand the demographics and geography of digital exclusion. For example, UNICEF Innovation is using Deep Learning techniques to map every school in the world in order to use this evidence for change, such as connecting schools to the internet.[6] Data from Verizon’s program could contribute to this and to other projects. Verizon’s program introduces students to the latest technologies, and some are selected for deeper immersion through summer courses. Through this approach, Verizon is contributing to increased interest in STEM careers. Verizon stands to gain not only through .

Another example, is Vodafone’s Instant Network Schools[7] program which supports inclusion via the provision of digital connectivity for refugees in 8 camps in 5 African nations. The program provides free access to the internet, electricity, tablets, educational content and teacher training. Vodafone is partnering with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees,[8] to enhance digital education inclusion and improve learning outcomes for students living in some of the most challenging conditions in the world.

These initiatives are commendable, but there is more work to be done to fill the huge digital gap in school connectivity. In Latin America and the Caribbean, two thirds of secondary schools and around one third of primary schools were connected to the internet in 2016; in South Asia less than half of secondary schools were connected; and in Sub-Saharan Africa a quarter of secondary schools were connected.[9]  More recently, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted digital exclusion. Schools have been closed in many countries and in some, online learning has been arranged. However, this only works for families that have internet access and computers.[10] Some telecommunications service companies  are stepping up to fill this gap by providing free access to their hotspots.[11] Even so, there is still scope for companies to support digital inclusion in these difficult times.

 As globalisation makes the world more interconnected, digital companies have a responsibility to work towards digital inclusion. Digital skills are one avenue through which companies can pursue this goal. If companies work to consider the entire spectrum of digital skills and address various digital divides, these companies will contribute to connecting billions of unconnected people around the world, leaving no person behind.

[1] ITU. 2019. “Global internet growth stalls and focus shifts to ‘meaningful universal connectivity’ to drive global development.” Press Release, 22 September. At: “https://www.itu.int/en/mediacentre/Pages/2019-PR16.aspx”

[2] ITU.2018. “Measuring the Information Society Report 2018 – Volume 1” at: https://www.itu.int/en/ITU-D/Statistics/Documents/publications/misr2018/MISR-2018-Vol-1-E.pdf

[3] Methodology Digital Inclusion Benchmark covers four critical themes. 2019.At: “https://www.worldbenchmarkingalliance.org/methodology-digital-inclusion-benchmark-covers-four-critical-themes/”

[4] “Sustainable Development Goal 4” at: https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/sdg4

[5] “Verizon Innovative Learning: opening new doors for millions of students” at: https://www.verizon.com/about/sites/default/files/corporate-responsibility-report/2018/community/education.html

[6] “School Mapping” at: https://www.unicef.org/innovation/school-mapping

[7] “Instant Network Schools” at: https://www.vodafone.com/about/vodafone-foundation/our-projects/instant-network-schools

[8] “Instant Network Schools Programme, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Vodafone Foundation / May 2016 – December 2017” at: https://www.un.org/partnerships/content/instant-network-schools-programme-united-nations-high-commissioner-refugees-unhcr-and

[9] “Schools with access to the internet for pedagogical purposes, by education level (%)” extracted from the Global SDG Indicators Database at: https://unstats.un.org/sdgs/indicators/database/

[10] “As Schools Close Amid Coronavirus Concerns, the Digital Divide Leaves Some Students Behind” at: https://time.com/5803355/school-closures-coronavirus-internet-access/

[11] “Comcast offers free Wi-Fi hot spots and eliminates data caps nationwide in response to coronavirus outbreak.” The Seattle Times, March 13, 2020. https://www.seattletimes.com/business/technology/comcast-offers-free-wifi-hotspots-and-eliminates-data-caps-nationwide-in-response-to-coronavirus-outbreak/