What computer skills can do for you

by Andreas Schleicher
Director, Directorate for Education and Skills

Information and communication technologies (ICT) permeate every aspect of our lives, from how we work, to how we “talk” with friends, to how we participate in political processes. But what are the returns to “digital skills” – the capacity to use digital devices and applications to access and manage information and solve problems – on the labour market? Do they help land a job or earn higher wages?

Our new OECD report, Adults, Computers and Problem Solving: What’s the Problem? provides first-of-its-kind answers to such questions. Based on results from the 2012 Survey of Adult Skills, a product of the OECD Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), the report demonstrates the impact of the ability to use digital devices to solve problems in everyday life and at work on the likelihood of participating in the labour force and on workers’ wages.

Does having greater proficiency in solving problems using digital devices increase chances of participating in the labour force?

The labour force participation rate among adults with the highest levels of skills in solving problems using digital devices (Level 2 or 3 in the 2012 survey) was 6 percentage points higher than that among adults with the lowest level of proficiency in those skills (below Level 1), on average across participating countries. At Level 2 or 3 adults can complete tasks like evaluating search-engine results against a set of criteria, solving a scheduling problem by combining information from an Internet application and several e-mail messages, and transforming information in an e-mail message into a spreadsheet and performing computations with it.

In turn, adults with the lowest level (below Level 1) of proficiency in solving problems using digital devices and applications had a higher rate of labour force participation – 15 percentage points higher – than adults who had no experience in using digital devices at all, even after accounting for various factors like age, gender, level of education, proficiency in literacy and use of e-mail in everyday life. Those adults can still type, manipulate a mouse, drag and drop content, and highlight text, but they have very little capacity in using these skills to solve common problems encountered when working in digital environments, such as browsing the web for information. Clearly, the labour market advantage of having even basic digital skills is huge.

What about the chances of earning higher wages?

Workers who have no experience in using digital devices earn 6% less per hour, on average, than those who perform at the lowest level in solving problems using digital applications, even after accounting for factors such as age, gender, educational attainment, proficiency in literacy and numeracy, use of e-mail at work, and occupation. So workers with no experience in using digital devices and applications suffer a serious wage penalty. Just over 9% of adults reported that they never use digital devices, such as computers or tablets. This ranged from around 2% in Denmark, Norway and Sweden, to over 15% in Italy, Korea, Poland, the Slovak Republic and Spain.

In contrast, 26% of the wage premium associated with workers who are the most proficient at problem solving using digital applications, compared with those who are the least proficient, disappears when those factors are taken into account. In other words, the wage premium associated with the highest level of proficiency is largely due to other factors, such as workers’ educational attainment, proficiency in literacy and numeracy, and the use of e-mail at work, rather than their greater proficiency in solving problems in digital environments.

Does it matter how often these skills are used at work?

It seems that frequent use of digital applications in the workplace also pays off. The labour force participation rate among workers who use e-mail frequently in their jobs, for example, was nearly 6 percentage points higher, and these workers earned 9% more per hour, on average, than workers who are equally proficient in literacy, numeracy and problem solving using digital technologies, but who rarely use e-mail. So, digital skills must be put to frequent use in the workplace if they are to make a difference in labour force participation and wages.

Given the findings from our new report, it’s clear that governments, education providers and business need to ensure that all adults have access to digital technologies and networks, and are given opportunities to develop their proficiency in using them. Opting out of this increasingly wired world is no longer a viable option.

Adults, Computers and Problem Solving: What's the Problem?
The Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC)
Adult Skills in Focus No. 1: Does having digital skills really pay off? by William Thorn and Ji Eun Chung
Adult Skills in Focus No. 1: Les compétences numériques : un investissement vraiment rentable? by William Thorn and Ji Eun Chung
Image credit: © OECD

Are we getting returns on our investments in education?

by Daniel Salinas 
Analyst, Education and Skills Directorate

Countries and economies participating in PISA have invested substantial resources and used a wide variety of strategies during the past ten years to improve the quality of their schools. Have these efforts paid off? Yes and no. As this month’s PISA in Focus explains, schools are better-staffed and better-equipped today than they were a decade ago, and the learning environment in schools has improved as well, particularly when it comes to teacher-student relations. But other aspects measured by PISA in 2003 and 2012, such as the degree to which low- and top-performing students or socio-economically disadvantaged and advantaged students attend the same school (i.e. schools’ academic and social inclusion, respectively), show no clear progress across OECD countries during the period.

OECD countries significantly increased their expenditure in primary and secondary schools during the past decade, and a significant part of this investment has focused on teachers. For example, in 2012, 17% of students across OECD countries attended schools whose principal reported that a lack of qualified mathematics teachers hinders instruction; in 2003, 22% of students attended such schools. In 29 out of 38 countries and economies with comparable data, the quality of educational materials available to schools, such as laboratory equipment, textbooks and computers, also improved during the period. The improvements were particularly striking in Poland, the Russian Federation, Turkey and Uruguay. And the quality of schools’ physical infrastructure, including school buildings and heating and cooling systems, also improved significantly during the past decade, on average across OECD countries.

PISA has shown that without positive learning environments, improving the quality of resources will not yield higher student achievement. The good news is that during the past ten years, the learning environment in schools has also improved in many ways. For example, teacher-student relations were better in 2012 than in 2003 in all the countries and economies that participated in PISA in both years, except Tunisia. Discipline in class also improved, and the incidence of student truancy fell.

But countries and economies still have work to do to make their schools more inclusive. The degree to which students from different socio-economic backgrounds attend the same school did not change between 2003 and 2012, while students with different academic abilities and needs were less likely to attend the same school in 2012 than they were in 2003, on average across OECD countries. Schools became significantly less socially inclusive in Hong Kong-China, Latvia and New Zealand, and significantly more socially inclusive in Italy, Japan, Korea, Switzerland and Turkey.

So two thumbs up and one thumbs down: better educational resources and better learning environments will necessarily have only limited impact if disadvantaged and struggling students don’t have access to them.

PISA in Focus No. 52: How have schools changed over the past decade?
PISA in Focus No. 52: Établissements d’enseignement : quelles évolutions au cours des 10 dernières années ?
Photo credit: Chalk drawing of hopscotch game with dollar signs / @Shutterstock

It's a matter of trust

by Andreas Schleicher
Director, Directorate for Education and Skills

The world is rapidly becoming a different place, with globalisation and modernisation imposing huge challenges to individuals and societies. Schools need to prepare students to live and work in a world in which most people will need to collaborate with people of diverse cultural origins, and appreciate different ideas, perspectives and values; a world in which people need to decide how to trust and collaborate across such differences, often bridging space and time through technology; and a world in which their lives will be affected by issues that transcend national boundaries. These days, we no longer know exactly how things will unfold; often we are surprised and need to learn from the extraordinary; sometimes we make mistakes along the way. And it will often be the mistakes and failures, when properly understood, that create the context for learning and growth. Resilience has become key to success, the capacity to cope in an imbalanced world, recognising that the world exists in constant disequilibrium – trying, failing, adapting, learning and evolving in endless cycles.

Studies show that interpersonal trust is fundamental for promoting the resilience of our societies, but many individuals say that they have little trust in others. Just released work on the Educational Roots of Trust finds that, on average across the communities that participated in the 2012 Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC), only around 2 in 10 people across participating countries reported that they trust more than just a few people and even fewer disagreed with the statement that unless they were careful, people would take advantage of them. Levels of interpersonal trust are highest in the Nordic countries and lowest in the Czech Republic, Estonia, Italy and the Slovak Republic. Low levels of trust in society could have a negative impact on communities and interpersonal co-operation.

What explains the level of trust? Some forms of diversity, such as income inequality, are negatively associated with overall levels of interpersonal trust (i.e the greater the inequality, the less trust between people); but others, including immigrant background, are not. Our new report shows that education systems can play a role in fostering high levels of interpersonal trust even in uncertain times. Communities with higher levels of literacy enjoy higher levels of interpersonal trust than those where adults are less proficient in literacy.

The report uses data from the Survey of Adult Skills to show how and why education matters in building interpersonal trust. First and foremost, education can enhance cognitive skills to the extent that individuals feel they can then trust others, in general, because they believe they have the capacity to distinguish between trustworthy and untrustworthy people or institutions at any one time. In addition, specific education pathways may give individuals greater knowledge of, and insights into, how groups and communities operate. Different levels of educational attainment may also be associated with different occupations, where individuals exercise different levels of autonomy, and hold different expectations for working with and trusting others.

Ultimately, this report shows that when education systems are not inclusive and perpetuate the large disparities in skills that are related to socio-economic status, not only do they inadvertently hamper economic and social mobility, but they hinder social cohesion and the development of the next generation’s social capital. In other words, they undermine their society’s economic and social well-being. As our countries emerge from the economic crisis, we have to do more to strengthen the social contract among individuals, particularly as growing inequality threatens to tear societies apart. Education systems can do their part by helping all students to acquire the skills they need to prosper in 21st-century societies, and to build strong, trusting relationships with the people and institutions around them.

The Educational Roots of Trust, OECD Working Paper No. 119, by Francesca Borgonovi and Tracey Burns
New Approaches to Economic Challenges (NAEC)
Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC)
Survey of Adult Skills
Photo Credit: Boys athlete acrobats perform acrobatic figures in the arena / @Shutterstock

No one left behind?

by Dirk Van Damme
Head of the Innovation and Measuring Progress division, Directorate for Education and Skills

Average annual growth rates in below upper secondary and tertiary education 2013

When societies move forward, not everyone benefits in the same way or to the same extent. Some social groups change faster than others, while other groups risk falling behind. Change in education is no exception. In understanding social change it is critically important not only to look at the average change, but also to look at how change affects the entire population.

The rapid expansion of education opportunities in OECD countries over the past decades was most visible at the top of the distribution, that is, in the growing share of tertiary-educated adults. But education opportunities also opened up at the bottom of the distribution and, as a result, the number of low-educated people decreased. In other words, the entire distribution of educational attainment moved upwards.

However, the speed of change can be different at the two ends of the attainment distribution. If the change at the top exceeds that at the bottom, then inequality in educational attainment increases. When people are left behind as access to education expands, social cohesion is threatened. There is ample evidence that educational exclusion comes with huge risks to health, employment, income, and even such intangible outcomes such as interpersonal trust, tolerance and adherence to democratic values. A lack of education opportunities also seems to be one of the main channels through which poverty and social inequality are transmitted from one generation to another.

By contrast, a process of inclusive growth, with equivalent growth at both ends of the spectrum, or when the bottom end improves even faster, seems to be a good thing in itself. When societies become highly educated, education and skills become the main route towards many other opportunities in life.

The new Education Indicators in Focus analyses the growth of educational attainment at both ends of the distribution between 2000 and 2013 in OECD countries. The share of tertiary-educated adults grew by 3.1% per year on average, while the share of people without an upper secondary education decreased by 2.9% per year on average. So, on average across OECD countries, the educational attainment distribution widened slightly.

But, as is clear in the chart above, the differences among countries are huge. The chart shows the average annual growth rates at both ends of the distribution and compares the extent of both. At the left are Sweden, Finland, Israel and Canada, where the average annual rate of reduction in the share of people without an upper secondary education was more than 2 percentage points greater than the average annual rate of increase in the share of tertiary-educated adults. Over this period, these countries prioritised reducing the number of low-educated individuals over increasing the number of high-educated individuals, partly because they had already expanded the top end of the distribution. In these countries, the breadth of the distribution of educational attainment narrowed.

At the other end of the distribution are Portugal, Turkey, Italy and Switzerland, where the average annual rate of increase in tertiary attainment was more than 2 percentage points greater than the average annual reduction in the share of people without an upper secondary education. In these countries, the distribution of educational attainment widened. Denmark is a special case because it is the only country in which the share of people without an upper secondary education increased between 2000 and 2013. Still, with increases at both ends of the spectrum, the distribution widened in Denmark too.

The total length of the two bars provides an indication of the overall growth in educational attainment. The greatest change took place in the Czech Republic, Luxembourg, Poland and the Slovak Republic, closely followed by Ireland and Korea. In contrast, the overall change was smallest in Mexico, New Zealand and the United States. But the size of overall change is unrelated to differences in the annual rate of growth at each end of the spectrum. This suggests that it is not the speed of change that determines whether the expansion of educational attainment is more or less inclusive.  Rather, it is the policy environment around educational change that determines whether individuals at the bottom of the distribution also see their education opportunities improve.

Countries that are in the process of becoming higher-educated societies, where education qualifications and skills determine income, well-being and many other life chances, should invest in improving opportunities across the population, not only among the most educated. With the right inclusive education policies in place, no part of the population risks being left behind and out of reach of the social and economic benefits that accrue to more educated people.

Education Indicators in Focus, issue No. 32, by Dirk Van Damme
Education Indicators in Focus, issue No. 32, French version
On this topic, visit:
Education Indicators in Focus: www.oecd.org/education/indicators
On the OECD’s education indicators, visit:
Education at a Glance 2014: OECD Indicators: www.oecd.org/edu/eag.htm

Chart source: OECD Online Education database, www.oecd.org/education/database.htm

Lessons learned in Lyon

by Andreas Schleicher
Director, Directorate for Education and Skills

At the OECD, we tend to look at French education through the lens of statistics. These show one of the largest gaps between the learning outcomes of children from poor and wealthy families. And the opportunity gap keeps widening.

And yet, local initiatives can win against all odds. I just saw one of the most amazing shows in the Maison de la Danse in Lyon, performed by amateurs from one of the poorest neighbourhoods in the city. Some of the actors, aged 4 to 92, had never before set foot in the place, and even fewer would have attended a classical music concert. And yet this past Sunday these artists danced to music from Mozart, which they interpreted from their own cultural perspectives. And they did so with a level of tolerance and recognition of the cultural identity and aesthetics of others that reveals what can be possible if we see the diversity of cultures, generations and social backgrounds not as the problem but as the potential of 21st-century societies. Finding a way to fuse hip-hop and breakdance with contemporary jazz dance may be nearly unimaginable for many young people, yet these performers tore down the cultural walls that keep people apart.

Given a history of poor participation in educational and cultural activities in this district of the city, the organisers had recruited 200 volunteer performers in the hopes of ending up with 100. But no one dropped out and an additional hundred showed up spontaneously after news of the project spread across the city. So the project had to be creative in accommodating 300 actors. Some of the young performers may have never received a passing grade in school or heard an encouraging word from their teachers, but that night they received an ovation from an audience of well over 1,000 people, none of whom remained untouched for very long.

The magic of this initiative is its simple formula for success, one that could and should inspire education everywhere. This formula is about using artistic expression to overcome rigidities in our identities and minds that keep people apart; uniting the best and most inspiring professionals with amateurs to show to those who may have the skills, but not yet the confidence, that they too can play a role; demanding rigour in practice and setting the highest aspirations for everyone involved to bring about artistic perfection; working with choreographers who don’t insist on their own ideas, but rather are capable of helping the participants to see and develop co-ordination and interaction that express their own ideas; and integrating all this into a grand design that instills a desire in everyone to work together for over a year until every detail fits perfectly together. The budget for all this seems so incredibly small compared with the result and its impact, and many times smaller when judged against the social cost of leaving people on the street without the hope and motivation such projects can generate.

What impressed me most when speaking with some of the actors, choreographers, social workers, teachers and school leaders involved was learning how this work is creating ripples in the wider community. Every participant I spoke with told me how much the work had helped them grow; and the words I heard most frequently were tolerance, identity, respect, fairness, social responsibility, integrity and self-awareness—precisely the kinds of things that school systems are now looking to cultivate in their students. A parent who said how reluctant he was to send his daughter to this social experiment explains how much his daughter developed because of it. Other parents worried that the time their children spent practicing the arts would cut into their school work, only to find that their child’s academic performance improved over the year. And a primary school teacher described how much her class was inspired and how much her own teaching was enriched by working with non-teaching professionals.

On my way back in the train to Paris, with the world and all its real problems passing by at  breathtaking speed, I wondered how the French education system can and will respond to the mounting challenges it faces, and how open it will be to such innovative experiences. There are few other things that will be as important for the future of France – a future in which schools need to prepare their students to live and work in a world in which most people will need to collaborate with people of diverse cultural origins, and appreciate different ideas, perspectives and values; a world in which people will need to decide how to trust and collaborate across those differences; a world where what happens half a world away may affect their own lives. Of course, having certain key knowledge and skills will always remain the cornerstone of success in life, but these are no longer enough. The future will judge French schools on their capacity to help students develop autonomy and an identity that also recognises the reality of national and global pluralism, to equip them to join others in life, work and citizenship and to help them transition from situational values – “I will do anything the situation allows me to do” – to sustainable values.

Links: www.babel83.com/

Photo credit: © Christian Ganet