Tracking India's digital progress: The need for measuring digital skills

Update: 2023-08-18 18:40 GMT
The government introduced the Pradhan Mantri Gramin Digital Saksharta Abhiyan (PMGDISHA) in 2017.(Image: https://pmmodiyojana.in/pmgdisha/)

Digitalisation has been a big part of the national agenda in the last decade. The Prime Minister’s “Digital India goals 2026” include creating a $1 trillion digital economy by 2025-26. Even as individuals, technology is an integral part of our daily lives. Digital skills are necessary not just to remain competitive in the workforce, but also to participate fully in modern society. In a post-pandemic world, SDG 4.4.1 — about youths’ digital literacy skills — has emerged as a key competency goal, which might also dictate future opportunities available to youth. With India’s growing and large youth population, digital literacy of the youth can be one of the keys to unlocking the much-anticipated demographic dividend.

The Indian government had launched its flagship Digital India campaign in 2015 to improve digital literacy and empower citizens with technology. Recognising the rural-urban gap in digital literacy, the government introduced the Pradhan Mantri Gramin Digital Saksharta Abhiyan (PMGDISHA) in 2017. This scheme aims to train at least one person in eligible rural households with functional skills like setting up devices, browsing the internet, and using online applications for various practical uses.

The PMGDISHA course structure focuses on digital literacy through a range of devices, including not just computers, but also smartphones, tablets, and keypad-phones with Internet connectivity. The curriculum prioritises applications that are relevant to the agricultural majority residing in rural India, as it teaches the participants how to look up crop prices, weather patterns, college courses or job openings, and even how to book railway and bus tickets online.

The programme also highlights digital payments, a critical aspect of the Indian government’s digitalisation objectives.

The existence of such national-level schemes warrants mechanisms to assess the current status of digital skills in all parts of the country, and to track their improvement over time. In the absence of any data, it is difficult to determine which digital skills should be prioritised and to plan targeted interventions. The Multiple Indicator Survey (MIS) released by the ministry of statistics and programme implementation in March shed some light on this. It underscored the importance of digital skills, by providing data on Information and Communication Technology (ICT) skills among the population.

However, while the MIS provides valuable insights into people’s level of awareness of digital technology, it cannot be used to make conclusive claims about the number of people who can perform these activities. The ICT skills reported by MIS ranged from basic skills like moving a file, copying and pasting, and using email and spreadsheets; to specialised skills like computer programming. The survey was conducted in a self-reported format, that is, people were asked if they could perform these tasks rather than assessed on their ability to demonstrate these competencies. There are fundamental problems with this format. Self-reported ICT assessments are known to overstate proficiency levels, making it difficult to accurately estimate the number of people who can perform these activities (PalczyÅ„ska and Rynko 2021) . Furthermore, the MIS does not ascertain any minimum level of proficiency that can be used as a marker of digital literacy in the Indian context.

Last year, the G20 also came out with a digital literacy toolkit. This document encourages the development of a uniform definition of digital literacy for G20 member nations, including India, so that they can design strategies and assessments for their respective national digital skills agenda. It is clear that digital literacy has become a global priority. India, with its vast and growing youth population, has a unique opportunity to position itself as a leader in digital literacy by developing and implementing a comprehensive policy. A first crucial step is to collect reliable and representative data on the current state of digital skills in the country, particularly among young people.

It is clear from international literature that there is no uniform definition of “digital literacy”. It can only be explored in terms of a set of skills that are necessary to be a functioning member of society. This would vary across the world. Unesco recommends defining a “minimum level of proficiency” and test for the same. What this decided “minimum level of proficiency” should entail, for the Indian context, will depend upon India’s digital competence goals. In a society where the digital surge is fairly recent, focus should be on access and functional knowledge of carrying out basic tasks, rather than specialised ones such as programming.

In addition, the many drawbacks of a self-reported format make it important to design and implement performance-based assessments that examine respondents’ ability to actually use digital skills in their daily life. Even though there might be capacity constraints in operating a large-scale performance-based digital assessment, it is most suitable to accurately assess the population’s skills.

Several household surveys have indicated the extent of smartphone penetration in India. For example, the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2022, a large-scale, representative survey, showed that over three quarters of all households in rural India have a smartphone — a figure which has more than doubled in just the last four years. On the other hand, the proportion of households with a family member who knows how to operate a computer is far lower at 16 per cent.

The rapid digital wave in India is thus largely driven by smartphones, which makes testing digital competencies by examining youth familiarity with computer operation an inadequate metric for this purpose.

India can derive valuable insights from international frameworks and assessment tools in enhancing its digital literacy assessment methods. Without up to date and accurate data, it is impossible to design and implement effective policies to improve digital literacy. Hence, India must invest in developing an assessment mechanism that provides a comprehensive understanding of the country’s current digital literacy levels, which can guide policy development and implementation.

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