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Training digital skills: a crucial challenge for Europe

The digital transformation of society is about more than technological evolution: it has become a major societal challenge

According to a June 2019 study led by the European University Association (EUA), the digital transformation of society is about more than technological evolution: it has become a major societal challenge.

New technologies affect the way we live and work, and we can’t predict how future generations will use these tools. That’s why it is important to teach them the digital skills with which to adapt to this shifting and uncertain environment as both citizens and economic players.

At the European level, the EUA believes this challenge occupies a geopolitical dimension: to preserve Europe’s independence, we must train experts capable of developing their own technologies, not merely of using those created in China or the USA.

At the individual level, the challenge is a professional one: it is vital for new generations to master digital tools if they want to find their place on the employment market, because digitalisation is going to transform more jobs than it is going to destroy. According to a 2018 study by the OCDE, 14% of current jobs are threatened by automation, while 32% are at risk of «significant change».

The central role of universities

In this context, universities have a double mission: to train specialists and to teach students from other fields about digitalisation, because they too will have to work in a digitally transformed society.

While it is important to teach specialists technical skills, there must also be an ethical aspect to their training. As the EUA reminds us: «The tool itself is less neutral than we think.» Facial-recognition tools, for example, can be racially biased depending on how they are programmed. To fight stereotypes, universities and other institutions must be committed to diversifying the student population in fields like Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) which are still dominated by white men.

The majority of today’s students may not be digital specialists, but it is crucial for them to be aware of the subject nonetheless. One example is the rise of e-health in medicine. Since patients can use self-monitoring to collect data about their metabolism, medical professionals must be taught about such tools in order to use them and deal with the potential psychological impact they can have on a patient. Similarly, the legal field is being disrupted by software which can review and analyse legal documents in no time at all. Future lawyers need to understand how these artificial intelligences work if they are going to rely on them when making decisions.

Lastly, the EUA underscores the importance of acquiring digital proficiency in developing leadership and an entrepreneurial mindset, which is why it is vital to train these skills to strengthen Europe’s competitiveness.

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