Will the problems of digital illiteracy shrink as new generations of staff move through the workforce? I was asked this question yet again this morning at my daughter's baby shower. (Clearly, there's no escape!)
No, the problems won't shrink, because people are people. The problems will just keep changing. That's why training general staff in digital writing skills needs to be business as usual, not a one-off project.
Consider Ollie (62), Holly (42) and Polly (22). Their work backgrounds may be different, but they all have ICT challenges, and consequently they all generate accessibility barriers for the public and for their workmates.
- Ollie from Policy has postgraduate degrees in English literature and philosophy. He writes huge documents in an old-world academic style, developing arguments that we must follow through to the bitter end before the meaning becomes clear. Ollie disdains templates, he puts a preamble in the Summary field, he uses tables for layout, he plays with WYSIWYG buttons, he scorns what he calls dumbing down, and he never supplies alt-text or long descriptions for his intriguing diagrams. He has heard of the word accessibility, and regards that as the IT team's responsibility. He has never looked at HTML code or WCAG 2.0 and never will.
- Holly from HR (42) has a degree in psychology. She started work in 1995 when computers were common in the workplace, but it was only 10 years later that she became comfortable with the Web. She writes in corporate jargon, so keywords do not feature much in her writing. She is stuck in memo mode, never quite grasping the concept that web content stays around forever unless someone removes it. Years ago, Polly was told that headlines and titles in web content should be short, so she tends to write tiny generic headlines and subject lines such as Training. Scores of inaccessible PDFs lurk in her area of the intranet. She has never looked at HTML code or WCAG 2.0 and never will.
- Polly from Office Supplies is 22 and grew up with the Web, using Wikipedia as her main source for school assignments. Facebook is her natural home. She loves Yammer and she doesn't write, she chatters. She communicates with other staff over room bookings and stationery supplies. Anything she writes is totally devoid of structure and context, studded with lols and FYIs and emoticons. She has never looked at HTML code or WCAG 2.0 and never will.
Olly, Holly and Polly are all floundering in the digital work environment. They're intelligent and good at their jobs, but their proper concerns are with policy, HR and office supplies—not with writing for the Web. They have never even been introduced to business English or the proper use of MS Word, let alone information theory. So every day, they unwittingly wreck the web team's efforts to make all content accessible.
So when Lachlan Forster (born 1 January 2012) starts work, will he intuitively create accessible content? It's a lovely idea, but it's just wishful thinking.
P.S. Digital illiteracy is a big problem, bigger than most people dare to acknowledge. But Alice and I do have a solution.
Lachlan Forster, the first baby in the world born in 2012. Photo (c) Dean Kovanic, Fairfax