Sue McKerracher – CEO – Australian Library and Information Association
There is a public library in most communities across Australia – more than 1600 in total – and each one demonstrates that there is not only a need for lifelong learning, there is also a keen appetite for it. Libraries run more than 250,000 programs each year, ranging from rhyme-time for toddlers to Tech Savvy Seniors classes for older Australians, with lots in between. You can build your own computer, learn coding and robotics, find out about keeping chickens in your backyard or how to research your family history, use a 3D printer, build new worlds with Minecraft – and much more. There are bi-lingual story-times for families whose first language isn’t English; there are Deadly Digital sessions for Indigenous communities and there are English conversation classes for new arrivals. These courses are free at the point of delivery, putting them within the reach of everyone; unlike formal education, where increased costs have priced out of the market those who most need the support.
Library programs attract all ages and participation is driven by a number of factors. Literacy is at the core, whether it is introducing children to the joy of books, or helping adults pick up the reading ability they missed out on at school. For some, it’s about updating or developing new skills, which will help them find employment or improve their career prospects. For others, it’s about keeping their brain active post-retirement. Many turn to the library to help them stay on top of the new technologies, which are changing the world around them.
It’s this latter point, which is of greatest interest to the federal government and gives the lifelong learning lobby perhaps its strongest lever. There are undoubted merits to improved literacy and work-readiness, but people’s ability to operate effectively online goes to the heart of the Australian Government’s agenda.
It is cheaper to offer government services electronically and there are exciting opportunities from the data generated. We have seen the move to digital-by-default for the Australian Tax Office, the Census, the National Digital Health Strategy, and from the Digital Transformation Agency’s 8 May 2018-2019 Budget statement:
$92.4 million will be invested in the next phase of work to build Govpass, our digital identity system. Govpass will provide a simple, safe and secure choice for people to verify who they are and access government services online, reducing the need to visit a shopfront. Over the next financial year, up to 8 high-volume government services will be piloted using a digital identity, giving more than 500,000 people the opportunity to test the system.
Digital-by-default government services will only work if the overwhelming majority of the population is able to engage in online transactions. Connectivity and affordability are part of the story, but if people don’t have the confidence and the skills, they will simply not be able to participate.
When we talk to the federal government about the need to invest in lifelong learning, digital literacy may well be our Trojan horse. As well as illustrating the necessity for lifelong learning, it responds directly to a government imperative.
As digital literacy is where the lifelong learning lobby and government interests coincide, perhaps this is where we should focus our initial energies. Whether it’s in TAFE, through a Neighbourhood House, or at the library, we are supporting current and future generations to develop the skills they need to be confident digital citizens – and that’s good for everyone.