The revolution is coming

By Jolanta Juszkiewicz

Lifelong learning can help Americans remain digitally literate and ready for the jobs of the future.

Robots will take over almost 40 percent of the jobs in 15 years and nearly half of existing jobs will disappear within the next 25 years, according to studies.

How ready are we to transition to such a radically different future? Lifelong learning is an often cited answer.

“Lifelong learning is no longer a luxury, it is a necessity,” said Northeastern University President Joseph Aoun, who spoke at the American Association of Community Colleges’ annual convention in April. The basis of his presentation was his recent book Robot-Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence.

Community colleges are in a particularly good position to be at the helm of this robot-proofing movement, Aoun said. They already focus on lifelong learning, he said, and serve the very population of students most challenged by this changing education and work landscape.

Do our digital skills measure up?

American adults don’t appear to be ready for the imminent digital workplace.

Compared to 18 other countries that participated in a digital problem-solving assessment, 16 percent of American adults 16 to 65 years old were not digitally literate in 2012, compared to the international average of 23 percent, according to a U.S. Education Department (ED) study. The U.S. placed sixth among the countries, edging out the Netherlands (11 percent), Sweden (12 percent), Norway and Denmark (both with 14 percent) and the United Kingdom (15 percent).

Digital literacy rates rise dramatically with educational attainment. According to the ED study, about 60 percent of adults ages 16 to 65 with less than a high school diploma were digitally literate in 2012, compared to 95 percent of adults with an associate degree or higher. Of high school graduates, 83 percent were digitally literate.

Looking at the distribution of educational attainment with respect to digital literacy, American adults with an associate degree or higher comprised 40 percent of those who were digitally literate. This compares to about half of high school graduates, and 10 percent of adults with less than a high school education who were digitally literate.

Factors that make a difference

Digital literacy was also viewed through the lens of other factors, such as gender, race and ethnicity, age, nativity status (U.S. or foreign born) and workforce experience.

  • Gender made no difference in digital literacy rates: 85 percent and 82 percent for females and males, respectively.
  • Native-born American adults had a much high literacy rate (87 percent) compared to the foreign-born (67 percent).
  • 11 percent of white adults were not digitally literate, with twice as many black adults (22 percent) and triple the percent of Hispanic adults (35 percent).
  • Whereas 8 percent of adults between ages 16 and 24 were not digitally literate, the figure was 28 percent for those between 55 and 65.
  • Being employed or unemployed made no difference in digital literacy (87 and 86 percent, respectively); not being in the workforce decreased the digital literacy rate to 70 percent.
  • Also not surprisingly, the more skilled the occupation the higher digital rates, ranging from 67 percent digital literacy rate for those in unskilled occupation up to 94 percent for workers in skilled occupations.

Community colleges, which confer more than 80 percent of all associate degrees and serve as a pipeline to bachelor’s degrees and higher, contribute to making more Americans digitally literate. Being digitally literate, in turn, better prepares the society to be, in Aoun’s terms, robot-proof.

This article originally appeared in CC Daily.

Jolanta Juszkiewicz

is director of policy analysis at the American Association of Community Colleges.