Q&A: How online learning leads to lifelong digital literacy skills

“Digital literacy is a key underpinning to the ability to communicate and find answers to the questions being asked,” said Dora Kingsley Vertenten, professor and program coordinator for the Master of Public Administration online program at the University of Southern California. Credit: University of Southern California.

BARCELONA — During an era in which new technologies are constantly evolving and entering the workplace, there has never been more emphasis on being digitally literate. Whether it’s assessing spreadsheets, analyzing satellite imagery for aid mapping, or collaborating on online projects, professionals in global development, as with any other profession, are required to have some skill set allowing them to operate in the virtual workspace.

“Digital literacy is a key underpinning to the ability to communicate and find answers to the questions being asked,” said Dora Kingsley Vertenten, professor and program coordinator for the Master of Public Administration online program at the University of Southern California.

“Professionals need to be aware that the plans they make today are not necessarily going to be applicable in 10 or five years, or even in the short term, as the world pushes toward efficiency and automation.”

— Dora Kingsley Vertenten, professor and program coordinator for the Master of Public Administration online program, University of Southern California

Learning online can give students a way of building their online skills and expanding their technological capabilities for life after graduation while studying new subject matter, she added.

Speaking to Devex, Vertenten discussed the importance of technology for today's development professional, how an online course can improve digital literacy, and how those skills can be nurtured throughout a career.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What do you see as some of the benefits of online learning for those working within the global development space?

The mere fact that we're online and have a huge array of platforms means that you're getting an education on two levels, by virtue of the fact that you've picked an online program versus an in-class experience. You’re learning the curriculum of the program but also learning how to use the platforms by submitting homework assignments and giving feedback online.

The USC Price MPA, as a top online program, doesn’t duplicate the classroom experience or replicate three-hour lectures. There are online programs that do just the conference call and synchronous coursework instead of classroom time. We are not just replicating a classroom. Instead, our program provides engagement between faculty and students, student to student peers, and students to professional contacts through a series of experiences, research, and fieldwork, which are supported by numerous digital technologies that enhance peer-to-peer and peer-to-expert access, engagement, and communications — not to mention advances each student’s own professional development.

The second thing that's really critical is the ability to have virtual teams. It’s rare in the workforce today that you're not working with somebody who isn't co-located with you. You're doing your job over the phone, working with a teammate in a regional office, and considering impacts for people far away. Online programs give us an ability to mix and match students in an array of programs in a way that replicates that same working experience. The need to build a relationship, to build trust, to build strong communication skills over conference calls or shared documents is an additional benefit.

The third benefit is in the area of cultural competency. We know that diversity influences us in positive ways, and an online program offers the ability to get an education in a profession at the same time you're getting an education in a wide range of cultures, traditions, geographies, and jurisdictions. In our case, we're teaching public administration, and not all laws are the same. That ability to develop a cultural competency — the sense of working in diverse environments with diverse people and the sense of maintaining an equilibrium and a social equity — is a really critical benefit that the online program offers that most campus-based undergraduate and graduate educations can't offer.

Can you explain the importance of technology and digital literacy for today's global development professionals?

What's important in the graduate program that we're teaching is that we're looking to teach enhanced technical and analytical skills that will prepare tomorrow's workforce to be problem-solvers managing two things. First, the workforce — so just how we think about managers today. Second are the machine assets, which are quickly being developed and taking over our lives. I know that sounds a little “2001: A Space Odyssey,” but if you think about database accessibility — how we manage technology, how many agencies need to move away from legacy 1970s technology, how the United States federal government is looking to use the cloud — managing all of the machine assets are skills we haven't taught in the past. We need to teach them to tomorrow's workforce so that they can be problem-solvers and be clear about managing those digital components no differently than we've managed human components.

What specific technology skills do you see global development professionals needing now and in the future?

They fall into a few different baskets. The first would be artificial intelligence and automation. Many of the ways we used to do development was based on developing information about a particular area, business, or set of humans. Much of that is now automated. Professionals need to be aware that the plans they make today are not necessarily going to be applicable in 10 or five years, or even in the short term, as the world pushes toward efficiency and automation.

Organizations that University of Southern California alumni have gone on to work for:

► Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians
► U.S. Department of Defense
► U.S. Department of Commerce
► Cedars-Sinai
► Rand Corp.
► Cystic Fibrosis Foundation
► Salesianum School
► GreenLight Fund
► The Sacramento Bee
► Blue State Consulting
► Ecolab
► State of Maryland

The second is the ability to data mine and aggregate civic data. If information is the fundamental unit of trade — as is often the case in global development — for decisions to be made at any scale, it's important for professionals to know how to mine that information. You're looking for the hidden assets and, as data continues to be aggregated, it will need to continue to be mined. That gets back to whether you understand how machine assets work and how to unpack data in ways that make sense, or conversely, how to combine datasets in ways that will illuminate the information you're looking for.

As we develop new technologies, the fragmentation of data science is key. As time goes on, there are more and more programs that do more specific, tangible things. If you're working in a field with old tools and you're competing on development issues with somebody who has better tools, access, or understanding of those, that makes a huge difference.

How can people continue to nurture these skills throughout their career?

The ability to ask the right questions is key. Lifelong learning is something that's talked about frequently and is a cliché that gets thrown around. The truth of the matter — for a professional graduate degree — and the thing the students report most often after completing our program is they've learned how to ask the right questions. What don't I know? What is my liability? What do we do about this? How does it apply to the goals that we've set? How do we save people from harm?

Obviously it's nice to go back and learn new technologies and stay up to speed — and anybody who's in a profession gains more expertise as they mature in their career — but I think the fundamental ability to ask and answer the right question is the thing that continues to nurture all of these skills throughout their career.

Devex, with financial support from our partner 2U, is exploring the skills and education development sector professionals will need for the future. Visit the Focus on: DevPros 2030 page for more.

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