Are digital literacy certifications obsolete?

Tying your shoelaces

Recently, I spent some time looking at "foundation-level" IT certifications in order to put them into a more modern perspective. Given the level of technology immersion and computing education found in today's preschool and K-12 kids, many of these credentials may be losing prestige.


I discussed one repercussion of the rapid evolution of computer fluency in a prior article where I proposed that some certification exams should probably be open-book, or even that candidates should be given the ability to consult the Internet during the exam.


In this same vein, I've taken a look at some currently active "IT literacy" certifications, and wondered what their relevance is in 2015. Here are some examples of what I consider to be IT literacy certifications:

- CompTIA IT Fundamentals
- Certiport IC3 Digital Literacy
- British Computer Society ECDL 

You could arguably include the Microsoft Technology Associate (MTA) designation in the above list, especially for the Windows Operating System Fundamentals exam (Exam #98-349) which has a "Skills Measured" outline that is somewhere between a modern, everyday Windows user (how to manage devices; understanding file and print sharing; configuring desktop settings) and more of a power-user or very junior technician (understanding file systems; using system maintenance tools).


The other MTA specializations are more in line with other foundation-level certifications, but in today's world, the Windows OS Fundamentals specialization is definitely more at the "what every Windows user should know before entering the workplace" knowledge level.


When modern high school-age (and younger) kids are achieving foundation-level certifications like CompTIA's A+ or Cisco's CCNA designation, what is the place of IT literacy certifications in our current technology-heavy world? The more obvious candidates for IT literacy certifications are older career-switchers who did not have the benefit of computer education in grade school, and didn't have access to technology at an early age.


Except, do these people exist anymore? 


If you are turning 50 this year, then you were born in 1965. You may not have had a home computer when you were a kid, and you probably didn't get much (if any) access to computers in school. You were only 20 years old, however, when Microsoft Office was released. You were 30 years old when Windows 95 was released. You have lived through the Internet revolution, the mobile device explosion, and the accelerated evolution of the digital age. Are there a large number of 50-year-olds out there who don't already have a decent level of IT literacy?


I don't think so, but even if there were, the value of an IT literacy certification for such a person would be highly suspect. Showing one of these certifications to a modern hiring manager would be the equivalent of producing a diploma in shoelace-tying comprehension.


Today's career switchers would be far better served by looking at software-specific certifications, like the Microsoft Office Specialist (MOS) family, or the Adobe Certified Expert (ACE) designation, which is available for many Adobe products. These designations show a potential employer that you are well-versed in one or more of the applications used in their enterprise.


Alternatively, career switchers should look at certifications which build on their existing career experience and skills. For example, if you have experience managing projects, build on that with the Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM) accreditation from the Project Management Institute.


Another potential audience for IT literacy certifications are people who, due to their economic circumstances, have not received any exposure to computing technology. This group isn't solely made up of people from third-world countries, either. In 2012, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that almost 20 percent of American children officially live in poverty, as it is defined by the U.S. government. Many of these kids live in regions where badly underfunded schools have never received computers for student use.


I have doubts, however, about the value of an IT literacy certification to an impoverished individual. For children in this position, the issue of reading and writing literacy is far more critical. This is not to say that these kids wouldn't benefit from basic computer use training — we are nearing (or have reached) the point when everyone looking to enter the workforce is going to be expected to know how to use some form of computer terminal or portable device.


Again, however, as with our career switchers, the value of an IT literacy certification is limited by a potential employer's expectations. While any education gained by someone coming from an impoverished background is laudable, modern employers generally equate grade school experience with computer literacy. An additional accreditation in IT literacy is not going to further sway very many of today's hiring managers.


Eventually, it is likely that the market will speak for itself, and the current slate of IT literacy certifications will fold their tents. If one of these designations wants to stick around, it will need to be retooled and repositioned in order to remain relevant in an increasingly computer savvy world.

Would you like more insight into the history of hacking? Check out Calvin's other articles about historical hackery:
About the Author
Aaron Axline is a freelance technology writer based in Canada.

Aaron Axline is a technology journalist and copywriter based in Edmonton, Canada. He can be found on LinkedIn, and anywhere fine coffee is served.