The world economy has been reshaped and significantly transformed in recent years. While we tend to refer to this transformed economy as the new economy, according to the theory of Kondratieff cycles, this economy is not so radically new. It is essentially a reborn economy; this transformation takes place about every 40 to 60 years. Global development has unfolded through the succession of new economies. The new economy may be represented as a comparable economic transition driven particularly by revolution in technology. The first new economy (1770 to 1830) was characterized by water mechanization. The second new economy (1820 to 1880) was focused on steam mechanization, which led to the development of railroads. The third new economy (1870 to 1930) brought major development in electricity. The fourth new economy (1910 to 1970) contributed to the growth of the automobile industry. The fifth new economy, which began around 1960, kick-started the development in defence, television, mainframe computers, personal computers, telecommunications, and entertainment (Norton, 1999).Learn More
The information and communication technology (ICT) revolution is characterized by three major trends. The foremost characteristic of the digital era was marked by the omnipresence of microchips. Secondly, there was a dramatic decrease in the cost of computing. Thirdly, there was significant reduction in data costs. The term digital economy was coined to describe this new economy, which is driven by ICT. This term emerged from the observation that the relatively smooth transition from the old economy to the new economy was facilitated by the emergence of information goods, which can be digitized. This prominence of information commodities also entailed three landmark events: the invention of the microprocessor in 1971, the introduction of the personal computer (PC) in 1981 and the commercialization of the Internet in 1994 (Norton, 1999).
The microprocessor switched the world from an ana
log to a digital mode in which virtually every person, company, and government is a customer for technology products, mostly because of the introduction of PCs in 1981. The invention of the PC thus rendered anything and everything subject to the power of the computer, while retaining the crucial dimensions of human scale, decentralized decision-making, customized design, and creativity (Chinien, Moratis, Boutin, & Baalen, 2002). Countries that were early adopters of the digital economic paradigm have deployed technology to create wealth and social progress. According to a recent OECD report, China has become the largest exporter of ICT goods, while India is now the largest exporter of ICT infrastructure and services (OECD, 2010). The e-skills UK Sector Skills Council noted that: “Digital technology is the single biggest lever for productivity and competitiveness across every sector of the economy” (e-skills UK Sector Council, 2009a, p. 5).
The imperative for Canada to embrace the digital economy was stated in the Speech from the Throne on March 3, 2010, and concrete action to create a national digital economic strategy was launched in May 2010 by a broad consultation of Canadians. The consultation paper on a Digital Economy Strategy for Canada defined digital technologies as: “tools, capacities or knowledge assets that can be embedded in business processes, products and services to help firms and individuals in all sectors of the economy become more productive, innovative and competitive” (Government of Canada, 2010, p. 11).Learn More
The globalization of the world’s economic systems and the rapid integration of information and communication technologies in the workplace have significantly altered job content and skills requirements for the workforce. In the nineteenth century, capital equipment was seen as the single decisive factor driving economic growth while knowledge and skills only played a supporting role. In this economic era, economic prosperity depends on brains rather than brawn. This transformation from a world largely dominated by physical resources to a world dominated by knowledge, implies a shift in the focus of economic power as profound as that which occurred at the time of the Industrial Revolution. The perception of the role of human intervention in economic transactions has also changed (Chinien, Moratis, Boutin, & Baalen, 2002). There is an emerging consensus that the “focus is shifting from appreciation of physical labour and the ability to coordinate and regulate to the ability to contribute to knowledge generation and application” (Keursten & Kessels, 2002, p. 1).
Human capital – defined as knowledge, skills, competencies, and capabilities that individuals acquire during their life to produce goods, services, or ideas – is not only beneficial to the well-being of the worker, but is also viewed as a competitive resource that gives a comparative advantage to a company. Human capital is also a key element in ascertaining a country’s national prosperity.Learn More
Digital technology provides widespread access to an information-rich environment. While this environment facilitates the free exploration of non-linear information, it also challenges some people in important ways, as a vast amount of information from multiple sources must be quickly processed: “the uncertain quality and sheer abundance of information pose large challenges for society” (Association of Colleges and Research Libraries, 2000, p. 2). Findings of a study conducted to assess reading behaviours in the digital environment indicated that: “with an increasing amount of time spent reading electronic documents, a screen-based reading behavior is emerging. The screen-based reading behavior is characterized by more time spent on browsing and scanning, keyword spotting, one-time reading, non-linear reading, and reading more selectively, while less time is spent on in-depth reading, and concentrated reading” (Liu, 2005, p. 700). The ability to plan the order in which the various chunks of information should be read, to maintain coherence between these chunks of information, and to structure the information being processed in an interconnected mental representation, is also of critical importance (Amadieu, Tricot, & Mariné, 2008, p. 1). Therefore to be successful in processing information in a digital technology environment, a person must be able to effectively and efficiently determine what information is needed, to access, organize, integrate, assess, and apply that information to create new knowledge. Much of these tasks are governed by the proper control and regulation of information reading.
While this abundant source of complex and nonlinear information is facilitating to some people, it can also be debilitating to others who do not possess strong self-regulatory and metacognitive skills to help them navigate and process information in the digital environment (Lee & Baylor, 2006). The nonlinearity of digital information is often disorienting to these individuals (Begoray, 1990), and causes them to lose all sense of direction and location in space (Conklin, 1987). This hampers their ability to make strategic navigational choices and wise selection of information sources (Jacobson, Maouri, Mishra, & Kolar, 1996). A key difference in processing information in a digital environment as compared to other more traditional ones is the need to understand how “different visually-organized semantic units relate to each other” (Lee & Baylor, 2006, p. 344) in order to make wise navigational decisions. The information processing demands imposed by the digital environment can become a cause of disorientation to people who lack the necessary cognitive skills to construct their reading sequence and establish coherence of unstructured information captured from various sources (Amadieu, Tricot, & Mariné, 2008). Scheele (Scheele, 1993) provided a strong metaphorical illustration of this problem, as encountered by some people: “in this age of information overload, it is easy to feel like a starving person with a can of soup but no can opener” (p. 13). Some people are challenged and overwhelmed by the need to evaluate and integrate information (OECD, 2009a). Eshet-Alkalai argued that “digital literacy involves more than the mere ability to use software or operate a digital device; it includes a large variety of complex cognitive skills…which users need in order to function effectively in digital environments” (Eshet-Alkalai Y. , 2004, p. 93). Recent observations made by OECD accurately summarize the issues discussed above:
Now, as information-based economies are succeeding industrial-based economies, literacy is again being transformed. A new form of text, digital text, makes increased demands on readers, and changes the ways in which text is used. The amount of information available and its uncensored nature emphasizes the abilities needed to connect, evaluate and interpret information. In addition, computer technologies have added new dimensions related to the nonlinear, recursive, and interactive nature of these environments. Because individuals now often move through the material in their own ways when searching for information, they very often create their own “texts” in the sense that the total set of information that each individual encounters is unique. Collectively, the skills required to effectively use digital information are less well understood than traditional print skills but suggest that we will need to expand our definition of what it means to be literate (OECD, 2009b, p. 5).
As digital technology becomes ubiquitous, workers will increasingly need an appropriate set of digital skills to access and process information using digital systems and tools. These skills will become as important as the ability to drive a car (Bawden, 2001) and are fast becoming part of the new literacies of the 21st century. The prevalence of digital technology, which gave people access to a vast amount of largely unfiltered information, created a need for a set of skills to access, manage, integrate and evaluate information. The increasing use of digital technology to perform routine cognitive and manual tasks caused a fundamental shift in workers’ roles in the production of goods and services to tasks requiring more complex information processing, critical thinking, and decision making that cannot be attributed to computers (Levy & Murnane, 2004). In this restructured economic and industrial environment, knowledge has therefore become intellectual capital. Information and knowledge that are quickly accessed, properly adapted, and broadly shared are key drivers of economic growth and social prosperity. Consequently, workers’ ability to acquire, store, process, use, and share information with the assistance of digital technology is becoming increasingly important. Verdonschot and Keursten (2006) have used the term knowledge productivity to describe the process of: “identifying, gathering and interpreting relevant information, using this information to develop new skills and to apply these skills to improve and radically innovate operating procedures, products and services” (p. 1). Canadian workers need a set of digital skills over and above the HRSDC “Computer Use” essential skill to function effectively and efficiently in digital environments.