GUEST BLOG: In this contributed blog post, Eleanor Bradley, MD of registry and public benefit at Nominet, explains how digital skills and competency must be the post-pandemic focus to ensure young people are prepared for a digital future.
When Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a second lockdown, he promised that all schools and universities would remain open for its duration. And news that a vaccine is on its way gave grounds for optimism. However, if coronavirus has taught us anything, it’s that there are no certainties – plans can change.
It’s hoped that children will continue to learn in their classrooms through the remainder of 2020, but we still must take on board the lessons we learnt in the previous lockdown to improve the lives of our young people. In short: they need digital skills, for today but also for tomorrow. The pandemic, for all its damage, does present us with an opportunity to press the restart button and reconsider the way our education system teaches digital skills and prepares our young people for life in a digital society.
The pandemic forced many people online and has certainly accelerated the digital changes that experts felt would have taken years – remote working, video calling, home schooling. As well as how we work and learn, the careers that are available will also change radically in the years ahead: the World Economic Forum estimates that emerging technologies will transform the world of work, generating 133m new jobs by 2022 in the place of the 75m that will be displaced by the pandemic.
Digital skills have, therefore, never been so important, especially for the future generation. While young people are well known for their digital entrenchment, for all their confidence and familiarity with digital devices and apps, they still need rigorous educational support to truly understand the tech around them and gain the skills they will need to thrive in the future.
Even jobs outside the tech sector require digital competency, confidence using things like social media or even an understanding of coding. We need to ensure school children have access to the resources and tangible learning opportunities to develop these integral skills. If young people are to have a fighting chance of securing good employment opportunities in a post pandemic world, these skills are a necessity, not a nice to have.
We must also consider those who are already in the world of work, at a time when having the right skills could mean economic survival. New research uncovered by the BBC highlights how young people aged between 16 and 25 are more than twice as likely to lose their job as a result of the pandemic, so ensuring they have the best mix of skills to find another is critically important.
Current education models around digital skills can be outdated. There can be too much focus on restriction, reducing time spent online or encouraging children to avoid certain platforms and behaviours. Instead, we need to be equipping them with the skills and capabilities to negotiate their own online experience, maximising the opportunities the internet provides while knowing how to keep themselves safe.
It’s vital to put learning tangible, applicable digital skills, of which online safety is a subset, at the forefront of the curriculum. The onus isn’t just on schools or Government; we can work in collaboration across sectors, and there are many businesses and charitable organisations already doing great work to support young people and their digital skills, whether by focusing on online safety or offering an initial taste of tech skills like coding.
For example, ChildNet runs a Digital Leaders programme, which empowers children and young people to champion digital citizenship and digital creativity and to educate their peers, parents and teachers about staying safe online. Nominet has supported this great programme with a funding boost to enable them to reach yet more young people with their work.
Another great example is the Micro:bit Foundation and their work to inspire young people to learn digital skills by coding with a pocket-sized computer. The micro:bit is already being used by millions of school children worldwide, igniting an interest and competency which our future workplace will need. Critically, teachers don’t have to be experts – there is a teaching support platform, Micro:bit classroom, to help them get started.
These are just a couple of examples of the broad range of initiatives that are in play across the UK to help our young people be inspired by the potential of technology and to feel prepared to face a digital future, with the skills and tools to succeed and the knowhow to keep themselves safe. That being said, more still needs to be done to ensure digital skills and learning opportunities are available in every classroom, accessible to every student and young person, whether online or from their school. Only then can we know that the whole of the next generation will emerge into adulthood with the tools and the mindset they need.