Reading, writing, arithmetic – and programming?

Publish Date

22 JUN 2020


Kai Beckmann


We take it for granted that all children should learn to read, write and do arithmetic. In the digital era, new basic skills are added to this list, as we are now facing the challenge of digital literacy.

Reading, writing, arithmetic – and programming? 
We take it for granted that all children should learn to read, write and do arithmetic. In the digital era, new basic skills are added to this list, as we are now facing the challenge of digital literacy. Digital skills are essential for success in the workplace and to participate in society. That’s why Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany is making targeted investments in relevant educational initiatives. 
Digital literacy 
Cloud solutions, digital collaboration tools and smartphones have become an integral part of everyday office life. On the factory floor, machines are now controlled by computers or even operate autonomously to a degree, thanks to artificial intelligence. The global coronavirus pandemic has once again highlighted the importance of digital technologies and work processes. Mobile devices, broadband Internet and the appropriate software have enabled us to collaborate despite physical distance, thereby keeping the economy running to some extent. The trend toward digital collaboration will not level off after the crisis – on the contrary. 
For all these reasons, digital skills are essential in the modern working world. These skills are collectively referred to as digital literacy. The concept includes not only the competencies relevant for the working world, but also all the skills that make it possible to participate in a society shaped by digital media, technologies and processes. Doing banking transactions, completing a tax return, shopping, reading the news, booking vacations or listening to music – more and more activities are now done online using an app. During the coronavirus crisis, some restaurants have even replaced their paper menus with a virtual version that can be viewed by scanning a QR code. 
Without a basic understanding of virtual user interfaces, Internet applications and computers, we would be at a loss. And we must assume that digitalization will continue to accelerate, thereby also increasing our need for digital skills. 
Germany in the middle of the pack 

When it comes to digital literacy, major differences exist even among western industrialized nations. International studies show that Germany lags behind many of its European neighbors. For example, in the Digital Citizen Equity Index published by the Gartner market research and advisory firm, Germany ranks 14th out of 33 countries on the question of how much confidence citizens have in their digital skills.  The frontrunners are Norway, Denmark, Sweden, the United Kingdom and Switzerland.   
Meanwhile, insufficient digital literacy creates a breeding ground for widespread distrust of digitalization. According to ”TechnikRadar”, a joint publication of Acatech (the German National Academy of Science and Engineering) and the Körber Foundation, only 54% of Germans believe that the digital transformation will have positive social consequences. One of the main concerns is the potential for job losses. On average at the European level, by contrast, two-thirds of respondents expect to see positive effects. In Sweden, this figure is as high as 75%. The connection is obvious: Countries that assess their digital literacy as being better also view digitalization much more positively. By contrast, inadequate digital education leads to anxiety about the future. 
Thus, for example, the generally more optimistic attitude in Sweden can probably also be attributed to the fact that the Swedish government has deliberately promoted the country’s digitalization – in government and in the health and education sectors, as much as in its financial system. Cashless payments, online applications for daycare facilities and tablets in the classroom have long been part of everyday life in Sweden. 

The curricula of primary and secondary schools, as well as vocational institutions and universities, must be tailored even more strongly toward digital skills. This starts with the use of particular software and a basic understanding of how computers and algorithms work. It extends through fundamental programming skills to a critical engagement with data on the Internet. In addition, schools must be equipped with the necessary technology. The promotion of digital skills is also one of the key topics of the German Federation of Chemical Employers’ Associations (BAVC), which I head. 
After all, the government does not bear sole responsibility for preparing society for technological progress. Companies also have an important role to play. I and my colleagues here at Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany are convinced of this. For that reason, among other things, our colleagues participate in SPARK, our global skills-based volunteer program, engaging students in hands-on learning in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). In addition to interactive lessons, the program includes career fairs and tours of our production facilities. In the past year, more than 2,300 of our employees participated in the program, reaching more than 66,500 students. 
Digital skills mean equal opportunity 
Last but not least, we must improve the image of IT fields and careers. Although Silicon Valley tech companies like Apple and Google have made this sector much more attractive to talented young people, computer science is still regarded as a field for nerds. As an IT student in the 1980s, for example, I was considered an anomaly. However, I could not imagine a better course of study to prepare for my later career path. Much of what I learned then is now more relevant than ever. 
To ensure that segments of our society are not left behind in the wake of the digital transformation, we need digital education for the entire population. Digital skills are a prerequisite for equal opportunity. As the pace of progress continues to accelerate, we cannot rely on people teaching themselves all that they need to know. We must support and empower them. 

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