Learning is a lifelong process that must continue in the workplace, literacy, numeracy and digital literacy experts said last week. 

Taking part in a panel discussion, Literacy, Numeracy and Digital Literacy 101  What employers need to know, facilitated by the Ai Group Centre for Education and Training (CET), they said fear of failure that stemmed from childhood often prevented people from wanting to further their skills.   

As a result, workers were failing to reach their potential, Murdoch University Literacy Chair Denyse Ritchie said. 

“We hear this term all the time about being ‘lifelong learners’,” Ms Ritchie added. 

“I think it’s something that we don’t do well and something we don’t encourage enough. And a fear of failing test-based learning is something that doesn’t allow us to get the best out of our workers.” 

Australian Council of Adult Literacy President Jo Medlin agreed.  

“From a workplace context, if we want to future-proof our workforce, we have to encourage people to learn to keep learning and give them those skills,” Ms Medlin said. 

“We need to be thinking about how to help people to be agile and to take some agency in how they approach things.  

“That might be something around the culture of the workplace, to encourage people to be aware that they’re not expected to know everything, but they should be willing to put up their hand and say: ‘I need some assistance here; I'm not sure how this new technology works’.” 

In a 2018 workforce development needs survey, the CET found that 99 per cent of employers were affected by low levels of literacy and numeracy among their staff.  

The survey revealed:  

  • 55% of employers said there was a poor completion of workplace documents and reports  
  • 50% reported teamwork and communication problems 
  • 40% reported that staff lacked confidence and were unwilling to take on new work 
  • 35% said time-wasting was an issue 
  • 26% reported potential workplace injuries or unsafe work practices  

“For the workplace, we need to think of literacy as a little wider than just reading something that’s written down,” Ms Medlin said. 

“It’s about looking at graphics and signage and gathering information from all the different sources that you need your workers to understand. 

"You need to understand the communications that are coming to you and be able to bring your own knowledge to that and interpret it. That’s the literacy we need people to have.” 

Meanwhile, the Centre’s Skills Urgency report, released in April this year, found basic digital literacy was the digital skill that most needed to improve across the entire workforce. 

Jo Coldwell-Neilson, Associate Dean Teaching and Learning and Professor in the Faculty of Science, Engineering and Built Environment at Deakin University, said the concept of digital literacy was formalised in 1997.  

“Since then, our understanding has changed, and the underlying technology has changed dramatically,” Ms Coldwell-Neilson said. 

“What I’m using today will probably be obsolete next week. I’ll have to learn something new next week and I need to be able to do that without someone telling me how to do it.”  

Ms Coldwell-Neilson said digital literacy was not just about knowledge.  

“It’s about recognising when you don’t know something and having the skills and expertise to be able to address that, so the transferability of skills from one technology to another, one situation to another, is really important in this context.  

“Digital technology is simply a tool, and we need to learn how to use it effectively and efficiently. However, there’s often a lack of understanding of what the implication of that use is – the cyber security implications, the privacy implications, the information literacy implications.  

“All of those are significant components of digital literacy yet are often overlooked. To me, it’s all about being able to use the technology purposefully to solve problems in a given context, whether it’s your social activities, a learning environment or a working environment. It’s a lifelong learning process. 

“Being able to use the technology doesn’t make someone digitally literate, all it means is that they can press some buttons.” 

Dave Tout, Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Council for Educational Research, said it was a “no-brainer” to help people improve their literacy and numeracy skills. 

“It’s about what’s needed for the particular job in front of you, in terms of a workplace, and that will depend on the skills required and what skills that learner is bringing,” Mr Tout said. 

“What are the ways you can support a worker to be able to undertake the job successfully? That’s critical.  

“Don’t be scared of addressing numeracy issues. The only way to move forward is to identify that it’s an issue and to allow people to share their concerns.” 

It’s the same for literacy, Ms Medlin said. 

“The key is to have a workplace where you can talk about literacy and there’s no shame in saying ‘things aren’t working’,” she added.  

“Try to have conversations in a respectful way that doesn’t make your employees feel like they’re at risk of losing their job if they tell you they’ve got some issues.” 

Ms Ritchie encouraged workplaces to look at the past as well as the future for solutions. 

“In industry, we need to have more meetings where we have everybody together and discuss problems that we have – not just those in the future, but talk about what problems we had last week and how did we fix them.  

“That’s how people learn — by looking at what we did last week. How did we get round that problem? What did we have to think about? I think that’s something that’s lacking. 

“People sometimes feel like they’re an island and they don’t feel like they have enough of that cohesive discussion where we can go forward together.” 

CET Head of Education and Training Megan Lily said everyone had to acknowledge and address these issues.  

“It’s got to be done in a safe and respectful way,” she added. 

Ai Group members can join the Centre for Education & Training's Member Network which discusses and provides feedback on education and training issues which inform the thought-leading work of the Centre. Click here to find out more. 


Wendy Larter

Wendy Larter is Ai Group's Communications Manager. She has more than 20 years’ experience as a reporter, features writer, contributor and sub-editor for newspapers and magazines including The Courier-Mail in Brisbane and Metro, News of the World, The Times and Elle in the UK.