Improving Digital Skills: A Q&A with Emma Weston, CEO, Digital Unite

We were delighted to welcome Emma Weston, CEO of Digital Unite, to our event about Improving Digital Skills to Increase Inclusion . Her talk generated many questions from the floor which we have followed up with here in this article.


Research shows that 3.9 million people have never used the internet (ONS) and 11.9 million people are without the Essential Digital Skills for day to day life (Lloyds Consumer Digital Index). Finding alternative and sustainable ways to support people with improving digital skills needs more attention.

With 24 years of delivering digital skills support under her belt, Emma’s presentation focused on the way Digital Champion models are proven to support organisations embed long term digital inclusion. These include local authorities, social housing providers, unions and charities, many of which are using Digital Unite’s Digital Champion’s Network (DCN) as a foundation for their Digital Champion projects.

Emma explains more: “The great thing about Digital Champion models is that they can be applied to any and all groups of people and all types of need – where having digital skills would help with the outcome or activity. People don’t learn digital skills for digital skills sake, they acquire digital skills to do things and to get stuff done; finding things out, learning, shopping, working, transacting with the state.


“Delivering digital skills has evolved significantly from bringing people into a classroom or training centre and sitting them down to learn. To engage people with low or no digital skills and improve their understanding of aspects like staying safe online, how to manage their digital footprint and their digital privacy – we have to get to them. The model requires mobility and creativity. This is where training Digital Champions (DCs) and creating DC networks in the communities and in the workplaces where people are works.”

Q: So Emma, do you generally find that there is a willingness to learn digital skills?

EW: I am not sure whether this is in an individual or organisational context. I will answer both!

For the learner, it’s all about context. Selling the idea of better digital skills without that context is hard and also it makes very little sense. People are far better able to understand why digital skills would be useful/good if they can understand why. If you get the why, the how what and when will follow logically. Years ago, in the beginning of time we used to talk about as ‘selling the sizzle’ (as in ‘sell the sizzle not the sausage’!) and, like all good things, it still rings true. So, for example, training billed as ‘learn how to save time and money by shopping online’ is far sizzlier than ‘learn how online shopping and banking works’.

On an organisational level, this is usually a slightly different thing. There is rarely what I could call ‘unwillingness’ but there is very often an inability to see or understand how better digital skills for individuals delivered through champion networks will deliver other, wider and accrued benefits for the organisation. In relation to the potential the organisation as an employer has, I’ve written on this elsewhere.

When it comes to investing in the individuals’ digital skills in relation to the workplace, there are of course the ROI arguments and they are easy/ logical to state. What is definitely harder is making that case contextual for every organisation because every organisation is different. That’s why we are always keen to encourage organisational clients to think very carefully about their measurement frameworks, encourage them to ‘define success’, support them to create logic models. This stuff can sound far more complicated than it is. What often proves complicated is the clarity of thinking that is required to keep it simple and keep it SMART. But the sense of weightlessness when these careful foundations are laid is priceless. A little bit of rigour can set you free, that’s not a DU saying but it should be.

Q: Thanks for that comprehensive response, Emma! And so what about mapping the needs of learners?

EW: Again this is a slightly contexty question, depending on whether we’re thinking about an amorphous mass of learners, or whether the learners are already somehow segmented by a common characteristic or theme.

It might be the case that characteristics give you hints about possible additional needs, e.g. age, ethnicity, language etc., or that characteristics of a cohort’s need, e.g. skills for work, for returners to work, digital life skills (as in managing everyday life in a digital world) might influence the set of learning needs to be mapped out.

We also need to consider the Point of view of a Digital Champion (DC) ‘in the field’, and of an organisation needing to define a digital skills learning framework. For the DC, there is a lot of guidance in our Digital Champions Network training on this, and they are then encouraged to apply that to their individual circumstances. From an organisational point of view then we work in partnership with expert, Elizabeth Marsh, on workplace digital skills and she has devised some excellent tools for this sort of mapping. The workplace DC course includes guidance on thinking about and setting up mapping and measuring.

Q: It’s great that you have already developed so many resources around this. Given the importance of local authorities in facilitating access to digital skills, do you work with county councils?

EW: Yes, we do. Some of those we have or are supporting include Nottinghamshire County Council, London Borough of Waltham Forest, West Lothian Council, Southampton City Council (via their libraries), Breckland District Council, Buckinghamshire County Council, Scottish Borders and Broxtowe Council. Through partners i.e. Citizens Online and Clarion Futures we also work with Dorset County Council, Harrogate Borough Council, Surrey County Council, Epping Forest DC and Westminster Council.

Q: When thinking about how far along people are in their skills development, how would you define ‘digitally mature’?

EW: This term can be difficult to explain, but it’s about ‘maturity’ in respect of approaches to digital skills. This is how our evaluators approached it:

“We asked, Which description best fits your organisation’s current approach to supporting basic digital skills for your staff, volunteers or service users?

1. Just starting – we are only just becoming aware that basic digital skills support is relevant for us

2. Early – we know we need to provide basic digital skills support, but we do not have a plan about how to do it in a structured way

3. Developing – we have a plan about how to provide basic digital skills support, but we have not implemented it yet

4. Established – we have begun implementing basic digital skills support in a structured way

5. Mature – we have been supporting basic digital skills in a structured way for some time.

There are quite a few maturity scales relating to digital out there, but none of them had a narrow enough focus on digital skills for our purpose. So we developed this one, referencing others in use, including mapping it across to the one Citizens Online use in their baseline work.”

Q: But we know that not everyone is a fan of the phrase ‘digitally mature’ because there is a risk of it encouraging complacency. Shouldn’t organisations, and individuals, always be developing?

EW: Yes, very good point. Nomenclature is always a challenge and I have always thought that language can in fact exacerbate issues and exclusion itself. It becomes exclusive! ‘Digitally mature’ is very much in current debate. It would be better to call it ‘digitally confident or comfortable’ perhaps: it describes the characteristics of an organisation that is ready to adapt and embrace digital as digital trucks on by. And we could usefully consider that tweak when speaking about ‘maturity’ in relation to digital skills.

Q: Good to know there is an ever-evolving thinking around this. So, going back to the need to really extend digital skills to those either already marginalised or at risk of marginalisation, do you work with gypsy and traveller and other minority groups?

EW: No, we don’t – yet – but the beauty of our Digital Champions Network and the methodology behind it is we can apply it to any group, anywhere. If you’re reading this and thinking, “I could help these groups!”, then we want to hear about your expertise. Get in touch with us to let us know your needs and requirements, and we can match that up with our processes to discuss fitting the DC engine to your context.

Q: Sounds great! I’m sure a lot of people will appreciate the collaborative approach. Thinking about minority groups, what languages do you have resources available in? And does your current model allow for Digital Champions to count/track the people they’ve helped?

EW: Yes some of our courses are also in Welsh. And yes, a DC can track numbers of learners, we have end learner counting and tracking tools available as an app and through the web interface.

Q: That’s really useful, thanks. So what are the general costs of a DC programme?

EW: Well ….. how long is a piece of string?! First very important point. Membership of our Digital Champions Network gives you one element of a successful DC programme. It is a super integral element and it will help you deliver, manage and track your DC programme, but you still have work to do, and to pay for. Some people co-ordinate Digital Champion activities, others have proactive Champions. How that is configured in your organisation will be particular to you but do seek out and read about what others have done. For some ideas take a look at Digital Unite and also One Digital. As to how much does the Network membership cost – various price points/ packages see here. More details on the workforce Digital champion training can be found here.

Q: Is there a way for organisations to get help with funding for this?

EW: Our Network membership is currently subsidised by the Lottery, until early 2020, so get your skates on to take advantage of that – more details here. And thereafter, my advice would keep an eye on the Lottery Good Causes page and sign up to newsletters from people who will know about funding if and when it appears, like Digital Unite, and Citizens Online. Good luck!

Q: Exciting times! So for a few final (hopefully) quick fire questions. Are the trainers staff or customers?

EW: Both, and either! Start with thinking about what you are wanting to do, what does success look like and work back from there to understand how best to structure your Digital Champion programme. Follow the links above to read through some case studies from Digital Unite and One Digital to get some ideas.

Q: What’s the impact of digital credentialing for employers?

EW: Interesting question.

Q: Yeah sorry, perhaps not so quick fire!

EW: I think digital credentialing is still somewhat immature as a ‘currency of qualification’, though definitely gaining. Our report highlighted the fact that digital badge recognition is important for both employers and the DCs themselves. When analysing DCs use of our Network resources, it is striking that the guide to using Open Badges is very popular. Several of the organisational interviewees the evaluators spoke to in our 2019 evaluation mentioned badges as contributing to the appeal of the DC training for potential recruits. We also see DCs touting their badges on Twitter and LinkedIn so that ‘social, shareable’ currency also gaining in momentum.

Q: Fantastic. So which elements of the learning ecosystem are most used?

EW: Well, for DCs it’s predominantly online courses and learning management. Then also expert interaction, teaching resources, learning pathways, recording teaching and peer-to-peer learning. For project managers, it’s more about managing their DCs, measuring project impact, and developing their own skills and knowledge. It will be very interesting to see if or how the newly launched workforce DC training starts to change those stats if or as workplace DCs use the Digital Champions Network differently to community DCs.

Q: That’s interesting. And finally, can organisations request a platform demo with you guys?

EW: Yes absolutely any time – just drop an email to – we will happily provide remote tours and talk people through the platform and answer questions.

Q: Thanks Emma! We look forward to catching up in 2020 and discussing ongoing developments!

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