eFacilitators are key actors in providing digital competences for vulnerable people. Getting this profession officially recognised will multiply further formal training and mobility opportunities.
Dr. Bastian Pelka: Co-ordinator of the research unit “Education and Labour in Europe” at Social Research Centre – Central Scientific Institute of Technische Universität Dortmund. His fields of research are digital inclusion, education, occupational orientation, social innovation and ICT for learning and inclusion. He is working on EU level predominantly, engaged in several LLP, FP7 and H2020 projects. He earned his PhD in communication science, holds a position as research council and is senior lecturer at Faculty of Rehabilitation Sciences, lecturing on ICT for vulnerable people.
The European digital single market strategy is largely dependent on the ability and interest of citizens to behave as online consumers. In this regard, a complex issue policy-makers should pay more attention to is the fact that still an 18% of EU population aged 16-74 has never used the internet (EUROSTAT 2015).
Despite the role informal intermediaries like family and friends can play to help the latter profiting from the online market, still a large group of adult citizens are excluded from it – not to say from online education, eHealth, wide parts of the labour market or eGovernment.
The European digital single market needs more digitally competent citizens to succeed.
A comparative analysis of figures across countries shows an unbalanced distribution between Northern/Western and Southern/Eastern countries, evidencing the relevance of regional and national differences.
Indeed, digital exclusion seems to depend socio demographic factors: correlations with socio demographic background of internet users and “offliners” indicate that vulnerable people not only are less active on the web but do also draw less profit from their activities if they are online.
This group of “digitally excluded” persons is largely made up of people aged 65 to 74 years old, people on low incomes, the unemployed and the less educated. On the other hand, the European economy is concerned about the increasing shortage of ICT practitioner skills.
The Digital Agenda Scoreboard (2014) alerts that while “39% of the EU workforce has insufficient digital skills, 14% has no digital skills at all”. This competence gap results in a growing deficit of ICT professional skills, with an estimate of around half million unfilled ICT vacancies today, which could grow to 900,000 by 2020 (Empirica 2015), challenging the EU’s development targets related not only to inclusiveness, but also to innovativeness.
While policy on digital inclusion in the past decade focussed on providing ICT access, remarkable success can be seen in the spread of ICT access throughout Europe.
Cheap digital devices (like smartphones, TV and tablets) and sinking connectivity costs lead to an increasing percentage of Europeans having access to digital means.
The Digital Agenda Scoreboard indicates that those targets related to internet access (broadband subscriptions, regular internet use) will be mostly met by 2015, while targets related to the competence of use (using e-government, using returning forms, buying online) are in danger to be missed.
This raises the question of adequate means to mediate and multiply digital skills.
Accelerating population’s digital skilling requires targeted strategies to multiply and develop the capacities of intermediaries enabling digital learning and empowerment opportunities for all.
A survey study prepared by Telecentre Europe for the European Commission (2014) demonstrated that there are “almost 250,000 eInclusion organizations in the EU27, or an average of one eInclusion organization for every 2,000 inhabitants”.
These institutions, predominantly publicly funded, operate with few employees and small budget – meaning that while the “physical” eInclusion support structure in Europe is widely spread, it consists of small institutions.
These are telecentres and other forms of ICT community centres, public libraries, municipal centres or local NGOs, who are providing digital literacy to excluded groups as well as using ICT to support social inclusion of groups at risk of exclusion.
Among the targeted categories of the population are disengaged youth (e.g. NEETs), long-term unemployed people, domiciliary carers, migrants, or housewives – making the telecentre a space of eInclusion for a broad variety of vulnerable or marginalised groups at risk of digital exclusion.
Telecentres cover the intersection of ICT based learning (for any purpose, such as employability or leisure, lifelong learning or personal development), ICT competences (learning how to use applications, how to surf the web or how to handle a tablet) and community building (local based communities or groups of interest like senior internet cafes or telecentres for migrants).
Half of the surveyed organisations provide employability and a quarter entrepreneurship related services.
They can be categorized by the type of support they offer and the proximity to their target groups. In this respect, a four-level pattern developed for Telecentres in 2010 (but applicable to every eInclusion actor) includes the following categories:
Their local base and pedagogy are aiming at providing a low-threshold environment, empowering vulnerable people to access the digital world. This institutional setting seems a perfect match for targeting the socio economic dimension of the digital gap.
However, there is a constant need for further professionalization of eInclusion actors, as this is a quite new branch of social welfare. Existing institutions, networks, organisations and approaches need further reflection, improvement and recognition in order to expand their impact.
The actual low-threshold space of the telecentre can be regarded as one key ingredient in providing ICT access and competences; the other one is the person that interacts with those seeking ICT access, competences or social activities – such as connecting and collaborating with peers.
People who are disconnected from the digital world today show a multitude of disadvantage features: this group has little option to access the formal education system, so non-formal adult education becomes their unique option (apart from family and friends, i.e. informal learning) to get acquainted with e-skills and digital opportunities.
This makes this target group a multi-faceted disadvantaged group that will need special support on their way to the digital society. Education staff with abilities in dealing with this target group plays key role in providing digital competences.
eFacilitators are key for providing digital competences for vulnerable people, but they are in need of further professionalization.
Recent years have seen a constant rise in requirements for the educational staff working in telecentres. Telecentre staff meets challenges like reduced public funding, new labour market demands for employability concerning ICT qualifications and changing technological systems (tablets, cloud applications, apps).
On the other side, end users are requesting new services (mobile devices, online job searching, certification of competences) and new target groups are entering the digital world and face competence gaps.
These developments lead to an increasing demand in professional training for the educational staff of telecentres. Telecentre Europe (directly or through its members) has been involved in a strand of four EU financed development projects (Lifelong learning programme, 2011-2014) aiming at supporting the professionalization of telecentres, their services and staff.
One of the outcomes was the branding of the profile of the “eFacilitator” as a vocational profile of educational staff for ICT competences in telecentres. But more work has to be done: professionalization has to reach other countries, all levels of staff in telecentres and other welfare organisations that do not understand themselves right now as “telecentres”.
It is difficult to estimate the number of persons working with end users in the field of eInclusion, but taking 250,000 organisations as a basis, it seems safe to argue that around 250,000-375,000 persons in the EU are working on digital competences of disadvantaged persons.
Only tentative research has been done on the socio-demographic characteristics of this field of employment, but it seems to prevail a young, female and highly educated workforce with a high diversity of educational profiles.
This staff can be regarded as persons with high interest in social innovation and strong links between this group and social innovators could be traced through different social entrepreneurship organisations.
This staff is in need of constant training and issues such as means to initiate and sustain fundraising, certification of competences and a regular crew change rate have all to be tackled.
Recent research and development activities are aiming at these issues by developing customized and certifiable curricula for telecentres’ staff.
The aim of this on-going research and development activities is to support and secure professionalization within this new arising working field in order to make it more efficient for end users and more attractive for staff working on Inclusion issue.
Getting the profession officially recognised – either as a stand-alone profile or as specialization of an existing one – tends to multiply further formal training and mobility opportunities.
Employment prospects for e-facilitators stretch beyond telecentres, ranging from advising schools or libraries on digital training to supporting collaboration inside co-working spaces or providing ICT guidance to small business.
While one of the main issues faced by the e-skills mismatch in the IT industry is the limited interest shown by females on IT careers, the eInclusion sector is attracting women on a much higher degree (2 women every 1 man on average).
A window to increase the number of women in IT can be opened if they can experiment the social dimension of IT by acting as e-Facilitator.
The situation described above is calling for a constant development of telecentres as low-threshold specialised providers of ICT competences as a permanent jigsaw piece in providing employment and welfare support in the digital society – either for personal wellbeing or for employability.
With requirements both on the demand side (which competences are needed?) and on the individual side (which restrictions and options do users have?) telecentres are requested to constantly develop their efforts and approaches.
This process calls for a constant professionalization process that cannot be afforded without an extended formal recognition of the eFacilitator professional profile and the engagement of formal education in their preparation.
European and national/regional policy initiatives in this direction would help building a more sustainable, flexible and high quality ICT competence supporting infrastructure, ultimately redounding to the benefit of the Digital Single Market.
If Europe aspires to recover its global competitiveness becoming a truly innovative, knowledge-based economy, and aspires to grow by consolidating a digital single market, it needs not only to change legal frameworks and business paradigms. One essential element of the equation remains the digital education and skills of its population, without which there would not be suitable workers, potential consumers or smarter citizens.
Not only economic interactions but also other spheres of our daily life are increasingly mediated by new technologies, whether we are communicating with friends or making a bank transaction, looking for a job or studying.
While Internet access is progressively available even in the most remote areas of Europe and devices like smart phones and tablets are each time more affordable, a good number of Europeans remains digitally isolated.
Either because they do not perceive its value or have not the right skills. Today digital participation depends largely more on competences than on access to and use of technologies.
The lack of digital competence of a large part of the EU population has dramatic repercussions on their employability perspective. Regardless of overall high unemployment rates, in areas like ICT paradoxically the job offer exceeds the demand and the gap is widening, while it is expected that 90% of jobs in the near future will require ICT skills of some level.
There is a pressing need to develop the digital component of “new skills for new jobs” in the European labour market.
Despite the long record of policy developments in the field since at least 2002, reducing skills mismatches and preparing the population to face the challenges of an ever-increasing adoption of technologies in everyday life are still two urgent challenges that require pressing and focused policy action and endorsement.
The focus on digital competence in formal schooling is recent and still insufficient. The importance of learning about digital competence in non-formal and informal settings becomes a central aspect of education of the EU population with an employability perspective.
However, formal validation and recognition of competences acquired in such ways remains an issue for job-seekers (whether unemployed or already active in the job market) to be able to demonstrate to prospective and new employers their competence portfolio.
This validation and recognition was until recently provided mainly by the ICT industry and was of operational nature (product-based).
It is nowadays necessary to adopt a transversal model, widely recognised by key stakeholders, which takes stock of digital competence richness.
Somehow like the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages already did in its domain, standardising and leveraging the training supply.
A common European framework that allows a shared understanding of the meaning and implications of digital competence and that presents its components and levels of proficiency might ease comparability across Europe and the alignment and harmonisation of training offers.
Not one but three frameworks hat touch upon digital competence have been developed recently at the request of the European Commission – the eCompetence Framework for ICT professionals; the eCompetence framework for end users; the DIGCOMP framework.
While eCF is becoming increasingly the referent framework for ICT professionals and shall then be used in the context of ICT-related jobs, in the case of non-ICT professionals the picture is less clear and somehow confusing.
The eCompetence framework for end users is a framework that explains in a granular way five areas of digital competence, namely: Word Processing, Spreadsheets, Presentation, Communications, Web Browsing and Information Search.
For each area, a series of competences is developed and explained along three proficiency levels. This framework was developed to allow ICT users to describe and develop their capabilities and specifically to allow employers to identify which individuals possess the skills and abilities they require.
DIGCOMP is a competence framework developed for all citizens comprising 21 competences divided in 5 areas and including for each competence a description of three proficiency levels.
The DIGCOMP framework aim is to provide an exhaustive view of digital competence, so that various initiatives could be mapped onto its matrix. It recognises that initiatives, programmes, and certifications do not need to cover all 21 competences.
The DIGCOMP five competence areas are Information, Communication, Content-creation, Safety and Problem-solving.
In my view, this framework is currently the most adaptable tool to the needs of a diversified population looking for employment opportunities, and could be used as the main referent to develop the transversal component of digital competences that are necessary for a variety of job profiles, while the eCF for end users can be adopted when more operational skills are required.
But is highly desirable that the two become just one unique, richer framework that, like with languages, becomes a standard of the ICT training industry.
In conclusion, given the current economic crises, and given the premises of skills and vacancies mismatching, given the rising digitalisation of society which is not followed by a higher digital competence level of the population, as key stakeholders and players in this field we propose the following measures with the scope of nurturing digital skills for employability:
the endorsement of a unique, common reference framework of digital competence to create a shared language and understanding between education and employability and among different initiative for fostering digital competences. The existing frameworks can evolve and converge to better reflect the competence requirements of individuals and organisation
the creation of support material and sharing of good practices to facilitate the implementation of such a framework (with the creation of guidelines and of examples of job profiles to be mapped against it)
the recognition of digital competence as an ability that goes beyond operational skills and that support several aspects of everyday life
the promotion of the recognition of competences acquired in non-formal and informal settings, as the vast majority of the population did not receive a formal education on digital competence, and those who have might need to update their knowledge and skills.
 CEN, e-Competence framework for end users, p. 9. http://j.mp/1FUI68k
 Ferrari, A. (2013). DIGCOMP: A Framework for Developing and Understanding Digital Competence in Europe. Seville: IPTS. http://j.mp/1FpCGP5
An explanatory brochure is available here: http://j.mp/17vkJn2