That last training session is easy to remember. We were in the Lisbon City Hall’s digital training room accompanied by a dozen of adult learners, all facing their screens or helping their peers, seemingly ignoring the clock.
We had reached the end of the final session of the Digital Citizenship training course, organised as part of our Digital Skills Passport initiative. This final session was in fact an informal award ceremony, a celebration of our participants’ achievements.
It was the 12th of March 2020. More than a hundred cases of Coronavirus infection had been detected in Portugal and the state of alert was about to be declared by the government, effectively closing schools, halting visits to nursing homes and heavily restricting people’s right to move around freely.
Despite this great uncertainty, or perhaps just because of it, all our adult learners wanted to know when the learning sessions would be resumed.
As coordinators of the Digital Skills Passport – a city-wide initiative in Lisbon towards empowerment and digital inclusion – suspending all in-person digital training and mentoring was a difficult but necessary measure. At the same time, with most of the population under strict stay-home orders, our mission, helping people fully exercise their citizenship by leveraging everyday technology, became more relevant than ever.
Exploring the democratic potential of the internet
Lisbon City Council launched the Digital Skills Passport initiative three years ago to further address the Portuguese digital skills gap.
According to European Commission’s Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI), in 2018, a full half of the population lacked basic digital skills and almost a quarter (22%) had never used the internet. As a result, Portugal ranked 21st out of 28 Member States in DESI’s Human capital dimension and scored significantly below the EU average.
Several factors might contribute to the situation.
Luísa Aires, Ricardo Palmeiro and fellow researchers from the Network of Municipal Observatories for Literacy and Digital Inclusion (ObLID) portray a grim picture of the once widespread network of nearly 1 200 public Internet Hubs. The number of these hubs has been dropping significantly since 2012.
On another note, when researchers Fernando Costa, Joana Viana and colleagues asked adult citizens what digital skills they needed the most, the answer was revealing. Rather than word processing or spreadsheet calculation, respondents indicated e-Government, communication, creativity, and entertainment as their primary needs. These are all things significantly lacking in adult education and training curricula in Portugal.
In the new situation, technology was not just important, it was essential.
To change this, we took inspiration from our team’s decades of experience empowering adult learners and created the Digital Passport initiative that draws upon key principles from Paulo Freire’s Problematizing Pedagogy, Non-formal Education Theory, Connected Learning Paradigm, Gamification and Recognition of Prior Learning.
Through informal Digital Skills training courses, participants are challenged to explore the democratic, critical thinking and creative potential of the internet, while earning collectable digital badges. Badges are earned upon successful completion of flexible and interest-based learning activities called “Digital Challenges” that make extensive use of gamified strategies such as missions, quests, role-playing and game narratives.
The initiative is targeted at all audiences, with a focus on the unemployed, the elderly, and those with low levels of education or on low incomes.
A pivoting moment in technological proficiency
That day in March, no learner wanted to leave. Badges had just been awarded, new skills had just been demonstrated and learners’ newly found confidence had been praised and applauded.
Most of our Digital Skills Passport participants belong to one or more of the high-risk groups. Many of them live alone and are unemployed or retired.
During the following days, dozens of participants reached out. In the new situation, technology was not just important, it was essential. People were feeling both overwhelmed and excited about video chats, online shopping and internet safety.
First, Digital Skills Passport sessions were being continued in the form of phone calls, video calls, social media posts, screen sharing, and, of course, good old email. For some participants, this was a pivoting moment in terms of technological proficiency.
Our team then gathered ideas and resources to best support all Digital Skills Passport trainees and help them to fully exercise their citizenship while facing confinement.
The result was an in-house online campaign we named “Everyday technology for everyday life”.
Positively overwhelming feedback
“Everyday technology for everyday life” includes weekly Facebook live video training sessions about current digital issues, from fake news to using WhatsApp and secure online payment methods.
So far, 14 episodes have been aired and although originally intended solely to our learners, our audience has unexpectedly grown to a total of 8 000 viewers.
Our online video training sessions are entirely directed, produced, and presented by our team. We use smartphones, free software, and other tools we could find in our homes, like impromptu studio lights made of spare lamps and parchment paper.
The online campaign has two main goals: to keep supporting our trainees’ self-empowerment efforts by maintaining a friendly presence and to help solve the most relevant everyday issues that surfaced during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Participants’ feedback has been positively overwhelming. It has also been instrumental in identifying specific needs ultimately helping expand the campaign into a range of pedagogical formats. We now have “Digital lessons”, one hour long sessions about complex and relevant issues such as fake news; “Digital doctor”, which are Q&A sessions; and “Digital shorts”, 15-minute sessions about specific apps directed to internet users who prefer short social network content.
All hands are needed on deck when it comes to helping those who can’t afford not to be ready for the digital world.
Recently we have also launched a massive open online course (mooc) about safe online payments. It is no ordinary mooc, though. We worked hard to simplify and lower down the digital barriers that our audience would face, like the login process, subpages or links to other resources without compromising our core values.
The urgency of Digital Inclusion
It is safe to say that the campaign has become much more than we ever did expect. It has consolidated into an engaged learning community interested in digital skills.
In hindsight, “Everyday technology for everyday life” has been a great and humbling lesson.
If anything, we’ve come to realise that digital readiness is astoundingly more important and more urgent now than it was a few months ago. All hands are needed on deck when it comes to helping those who can’t afford not to be ready for the digital world.
15 years ago, when we first started training ICT skills, we were baffled by people’s resistance to technology. Sadly, there was no other subject that would erode more over time than learning how to use windows or office apps. Learners would achieve great results in the classroom and then ask for that same training a year later.
What we feel worked best was to shift gears, stop considering digital skills as a goal in itself and instead start helping trainees understand digital skills as a set of tools that would make life easier.
Also, learning how to use digital devices is often too solitary. If you are new to technology, sitting an entire session in front of a complex machine such as a computer can be quite challenging.
The journey from training ICT skills to promoting digital citizenship and empowerment was accelerated by embracing some key principles:
Accessing digital devices does not empower individuals. Knowing how to use them does.
Nobody wants to learn (again) what they already know.
Learning happens everywhere. Not only in the classroom. In the digital age, learning is connected, social and lifelong.
The learner is the focus and centre of the learning process.
Digital Skills Passport is only but a small effort to fight an emergent global crisis, expected to deepen and worsen several inequalities, including the digital gap. But as Paulo Freire, an endless inspiration, once wrote: “There is no change without dream, as there is no dream without hope”.
We believe that being a public servant is an act of hope. And we are proud to act towards the empowerment of our fellow citizens through hope.
Digital passport initiative – how does it work?
- Lisbon City Council’s Department for Training and Development launched the Digital Skills Passport initiative in 2017 to demystify use of technology and to help citizens to take advantage of its daily use.
- Examples of “Digital challenges” include collaboration-friendly activities such as “Guess Who?” skype games, Whatsapp Treasure Hunts, “Don’t just play it. Program it!” intergenerational Game-a-thons, and citizenship focused activities, such as “Digital advocate”.
- In “Digital advocate”, learners use digital tools to map their expectations and interests; to elect a local, global, social or political issue and to collectively execute “micro-actions”, that may include a campaign blog, handouts, soundbites, video short-stories and actionable posters.
- Upon successful completion of select Digital Challenges, learners collect online digital badges.More than a thousand learning badges have already been issued as part of the initiative, 60% of which to female participants.
- Participants’ predominant qualification level is 9 years schooling, below the current 12 years of mandatory schooling. Participants’ age range from youth to 91 years old.