by Alice Bonasio

How can we plug the widening digital skills gap?

Sep 01, 2016
CareersEmerging TechnologyIT Skills

Collaboration is needed to tackle the increasingly urgent problem of equipping our future workforce with vital digital skills.

As anybody tasked with the challenge of recruiting IT talent knows, there is a severe and widespread digital skills shortage, which is impacting on businesses’ ability to compete in a technology-driven world. Education technology (EdTech) is central to tackling this. EdTech in this context refers not to the digital tools that help deliver traditional curriculum elements, but to facilitating a new system of education, where we learn about technology rather than just making use of it.

Teachers already acknowledge that technology is essential to the modern economy and plays a huge role in improving the quality of education. In the UK, coding has been part of the primary school curriculum since 2014, but in places like Estonia and Israel this has been happening for over a decade. Perhaps this is why the country was found to be lagging behind in terms of IT competence, with a recent report by Barclays showing that only 16 percent of workers in the UK would be comfortable building a website, compared to 39 percent in Brazil and 37 percent in India.

Many teachers lack the confidence to teach computer science at the higher levels required to address this problem. Bill Mitchell, head of the British Computing Society, says it could take another five years to up-skill the 14,000 teachers current ICT so that they can tackle more in-depth computing classes. The problem is made worse by the fact that math and computer science graduates are in high demand, making it harder to recruit them into teaching.

Many technology companies are so concerned about this issue that they started taking matters in their own hands. In addition to launching a program to help thousands of adults in the UK to improve their digital skills, Google invested £120,000 in a training initiative for primary school teachers in partnership with Code Club, a network of 2,500 after school clubs around the UK. The BBC micro:bit project also partnered up with companies such as Kitronik to provide teaching resources designed to deliver STEM-based lessons through their electronics coding kits.

In the U.S., IBM went a step further, setting up P-TECH (Pathways in Technology Early College High School) model schools, which give the option to ninth-graders to graduate six years later with both a high school diploma and an associate degree in computers or engineering. Rackspace even went as far as establishing its own training school, from which it hires two-thirds of the graduate output, with the remainder finding jobs in other companies.

This sort of corporate involvement is actually welcomed by teachers. A survey by the Varkey foundation — conducted in collaboration with the CBI and the Times Educational Supplement — recently found that 9 in 10 teachers would actively welcome closer involvement from companies such as Apple, Microsoft and Google to support student’s vocational training in schools. Marc Boxser, Chief Operating Officer of the Varkey Foundation — a not-for profit organization dedicated to promoting educational initiatives — says that such partnerships are crucial if we are to improve our digital skills base in the long term.

“In an age of disruptive innovation and digital advancement, those countries that prioritize greater understanding of digital skills will be the ones that thrive. If we continue to allow a generation of “computer illiterate” children to leave our schools, there could be grave consequences. As the growth of populism and anti-elite sentiment around the world shows, there is a divide between those “globalists” who have skills that the modern economy needs, and those whose jobs have been either downgraded or destroyed by technology.”

Indeed, a World Economic Forum report warns of a “Fourth Industrial Revolution” which will eradicate more than 7 million jobs as AI becomes ever more sophisticated and technology replaces humans. According to the WEF, 28 percent of the skills required in the UK will need to adapt before 2020 in order to meet the demands in new job sectors such as robotics and nanotechnology.

The greatest challenge we face in tackling the digital skills problem is not a lack of resources or creative solutions, nor a willingness from parents and teachers to embrace technology. The main issue we face is likely to be our outdated education system that restricts fluid and dynamic learning. There is a need to acknowledge — at a broader policy level — that the availability of information and the pace of change have rendered the concept of a fixed canon or permanent, universal curriculum grossly ineffective. A fit-for-purpose education proposition must be based around continuous learning and promote flexibility and curiosity.

The term “hacking” used to have negative connotations, yet nowadays it is closely linked to this concept of playfulness in relation to technology. Learning in this area happens through bold experimentation and iteration — and is as much a result of failure as it is of success. This is the fundamental shift that educators must embrace when incorporating technology into their teaching. There is no single solution to the digital skills gap problem. Rather, it requires a sustained collaboration between schools, parents and corporations in coming years. Technology is already an inevitable part of our lives, yet we must make a concerted effort to make it part of our education as well.