Should digital literacy begin with phone numbers?

I’ve seen quite extensive coverage this week of the topic of Digital Literacy in the education system in the UK over the past few days. It stems from the publication of a report by the House of Lords Committee on Digital Literacy, and most has been framed in a simple way: should digital literacy be given the same status as arithmetic and literacy in our schools and Universities?

Throughout the coverage, and from my own quick scan of the actual report, there appears to have been little discussion about what is actually meant by Digital Literacy. Digital is a term that is remarkably broad in its definition. I speak as a sometimes self-styled “Digital Transformation Consultant” – a title that gives me licence these days to talk with clients about just about any subject they wish.

The challenges of defining digital literacy have become crystallized for me in the past 24 hours out of the back of one of my (not so) occasional Grumpy Old Tweets. It was on one of my bugbears – the way in which most people in the UK appear unable to understand how to correctly format a telephone number. The specific issue I have is when a number is written in the form +44 (0) 1234 567890. It’s a format that has become a convention unique to the UK. If you are in the UK you can dial 01234 567 890, and from outside of the UK whatever is the local route to dial an international number (a + sometimes, or two zeros or whatever). The standard defining all of this ITU’s E.123.

The format that most people write is one that is unintelligible to a normal telephone, and also still to Android devices (although apparently iOS and Windows Phone can parse the format OK). If I tap on your phone number on my Nexus, and it’s in the (0) format, it doesn’t complete the call.

My tweet resulted in two sorts of response. “Absolutely” from some very smart, intelligent and probably good looking folk. And “The machines should have the intelligence to deal with it” from others. I have sympathy with the latter point, but I don’t agree. And this for me is a little microcosm of the “What is Digital Literacy?” debate.

You see the thing is that standards (in this case +44 1234 567 890) are there for a reason. In the world of programming, standards and arcane formatting are everything. If you are a programmer who doesn’t religiously follow such standards, you end up creating code that at best will probably not work very well in the future, and at worst will not work at all. You are also probably called a Web Designer. (Sorry, that’s a joke for any Computer Scientists reading this, and is terribly unfair).

On the other hand, we are people not machines. We shouldn’t as people have to follow such arcane rules and regulations. But that path of Digital Literacy leads us unswervingly down the path of a National Curriculum of “How to use Facebook”.

If as a nation we can’t even get our heads around a relatively simple thing like how to correctly write down a phone number, what hope is there when the national debate turns to a slightly more challenging subject like, say, public key encryption? No wonder the press and the politicians are all getting so confused.

I’m not advocating a path necessarily of everyone learning to code. Understanding how to code is an important skill, but so is learning how to play the saxophone. I’ve learned as much in my life from having acquired both skills over the course of my years. On rare occasions both have been useful at the same time.

I’m certain that as a nation we should be equipping ourselves with the skills, knowledge and critical faculties that are necessary to be a human in 2015 and beyond. That in itself will be a lifelong process for us all. Part of that ultimately is the importance of good data – and good data standards. But there are a huge stack of issues about what will be important or not as part of that programme that we should be debating.


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  1. The music analogy is a good one but I think it’s more interesting to draw it from the point of view of a score: everyone should know enough about how to read music that they understand what the treble clef is and that Every Good Boy Deserves Football. They don’t have to learn the piano or the bass clef, or the alto clef or whatever unless they have the aptitude and are interested. Recorders or violins were used to teach that at my school and it was only compulsory for a couple of years.
    So it is with so-called “coding”. The “anti-coding” people seems to fall into the same category as all the people in the middle ages who thought that reading and writing were useless, academic skills that they didn’t need to know because they were “just” peasants or famers, their families had been for thousands of years and they didn’t see any other way of life. Giving people the skills of reading and writing *allowed* them to see beyond that and gave them access to the alternatives.
    Programming computers is important in a similar way because computers are devices which are becoming central to interacting with the rest of the world. Even if people “only” know what is *possible* through programming, can write a few Visual Basic Macros and maybe do a bit of Excel, giving people the ability to influence their tools rather than be entirely influenced and led by them is an important part of changing the “passive & powerless consumer” model that most people are being accostomed to interfacing with society through.

    As for phone numbers, + 44 (0) … format perplexes me too: the (0) means that the number, as written, cannot be literally dialed from anywhere, either inside or outside the country.
    Traditionally, as I understand it, a single (in the UK) a leading zero trampolines you outside your local exchange and another zero trampolines you outside the trunk / long distance system into international dialing. This is a very landline centric view of the model. Mobiles have never been tied to an area code in the same way: I’ve never known it be possible to omit the area code on a mobile, even if the destination is another mobile in the same number range. Moreover, cells (used to?) broadcast the local area code and some used to display that on the screen under the operator logo (remember that in the mid-90s?). Even in those cases it wasn’t possible to make a call from the mobile to “local” numbers in that range without including the area code.
    However, mobiles do support “full international” dialing, even of UK numbers. If I dial +44 … from a mobile in the UK then I’ll only be charged for a regular call; not an international one to my own country.
    …so perhaps it’s time to drop the 0 notation all together and just use the +44 … one everywhere?

    Surely all the “Old” landline users should have enough experience now to understand how the zeros work and what all the “touchtone” beeps mean. 😉

    Digital Literacy Gone Mad??? 😉

  2. Matt,

    Wicked article, the PHONE NUMBER THING IS SO UNBELIABLY ANNOYING – so glad to hear it annoys other people – it’s ridiculous – you didn’t even start on how people read numbers out!!!!!!!!

    Get the sense from your blogs life is going a) very well and b) very busy – but if you have time let’s get together for food/drink/chat etc…..

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