September 8 is International Literacy Day, created by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). This year’s theme, “Literacy in a digital world,” reflects the societal changes inherent in a world where technology plays an ever-increasing role. What does literacy mean in a digital world and, more specifically, in a digital workplace? Is it just reading and writing? What about information literacy or technical literacy? How can technology support the development of literacy among employees? Today is a day to reflect on these questions.

Reading and Writing Skills

According to a 2013 study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an intergovernmental economic organization, across 24 countries, “between 4.9% and 27.7% of adults are proficient at only the lowest levels of literacy.” The 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy found that 14 percent of Americans have “below basic” prose literacy, and UNESCO reports that even in “the digital world,” at least 750 million adults “lack basic literacy skills.” Many of these adults, as a recent Panopto blog pointed out, are employed.

Digital and Information Literacy

The ability to use technology effectively and to understand and manage information is increasingly important. As the International Literacy Day website states, “Those who lack access to digital technologies and the knowledge, skills and competences required to navigate them, can end up marginalised in increasingly digitally driven societies.”

It’s no longer sufficient to be able to read print training materials; employees must be able to navigate digital content management systems and e-learning modules – not to mention all of the digital information they are presented with in their day-to-day work. Having a workforce with digital and information literacy is critical in the knowledge economy.

Using Technology to Develop Literacy in the Workplace

National Research Council researchers wrote recently that “technologies can be designed and used to scaffold literacy growth in ways that may not occur in available forms of interaction between human teachers and students.”

Technology makes it easier to adapt learning to different levels of literacy, for example. It supports the use of graphics and video, sometimes minimizing the need to use text to teach. There are also specific programs that rely on technology to teach reading and writing skills and may provide features, such as automatic feedback and assessments, that can support developing literacy skills. The National Research Council also reports that “the integration of game components and literacy instruction seems destined to have a large future,” though the field is still relatively new.

Technology can also be used to help employees develop digital literacy. For example, research has found that many organizations believe providing digital tools and investing in new technology can support digital readiness in the workplace.

“Digitally-mediated knowledge societies are changing what it means to be literate, calling for new and higher-level literacy skills,” writes Irina Bokova, director-general of UNESCO. “At the same time, in return, technology can work to improve literacy development.” Technology offers both challenges and opportunities for developing employees’ literacy skills. While the definition of “literacy” has expanded thanks to digital media and tools, those same media and tools can also be used to develop more confident and successful employees. Today, on International Literacy Day, take a moment to reflect on what literacy means, its status at your organization, and the difference learning and development can make.