The Digital Skills Gap

This post was written by Jon Tait @TeamTait.
 
 
There once was a time that students knew more about computers and desktop publishing software than teachers. It was a scary time when you saw students knowing how to produce amazing looking PowerPoint presentations with stunning looking transitions and themes that made your own professional development presentations look rather dull. These students knew all there was to know about the basic features of Microsoft Office and this started to make the standard IT curriculum that you found in most schools pretty stale.
 
 
At the same time, the prices of desktop computers were falling and most families were now in possession of a computer at home, many even had one in their child’s bedroom, meaning that the IT skills that were being taught in the classroom, were also being practiced and self-taught at home. The result was that far too many children did not feel challenged or engaged by their school ICT provision.
 
 
At this time, the Government would have been absolutely spot on if they’d have removed the ICT curriculum and replaced it with the current Computer Science curriculum. The need for something different was evident, combined with the building momentum that the young people of today needed a different set of computing skills to be successful in the digital future. We were all being told that students now needed to write programs and code computers rather than word process a letter.
However, in the time it took for the curriculum to actually change, the digital and technological habits of the human race changed so significantly, that the curriculum change has left our children with a huge digital skills gap….one that we never expected.
 
 
The last 10 years has seen such a shift in our digital habits and this has been brought about by games consoles and mobile devices. No longer do children have a computer in their bedroom (or if they do, it’s probably gathering dust), they have a games console and the majority of their computing experience outside of school now comes through this. Yes, our children are now able to communicate and collaborate via networks like Xbox Live, but how many of them are typing on a keyboard, rather than via a games controller?

 

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Think also about how you do most of your internet browsing and digital communication. Is this via a desktop computer or is it via a mobile device such as your phone? And how many times do you actually print a document at home? You may not even own a printer anymore? The need for printing has drastically reduced due to digital communication, mobile storage devices and cloud based storage facilities.
 
 
Ask any young person how they ‘message’ their friends now and I bet my bottom dollar none of them say they email each other? Far too much communication is now primarily directed through instant messaging apps such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and WhatsApp. Ask most young people to open an email client and attach a file, before sending it to multiple recipients and they suddenly start to struggle.
 
 
Primary schools in some areas have also inadvertently been part of the problem. The rush to introduce iPads and other mobile devices into the primary ICT curriculum and get children coding has only served to widen the basic digital skills gap. There is no blame attached here, mobile digital devices are cheaper, smaller, easier to store, quicker to boot up, have far more free and cheap apps and software; and ultimately engage students in different ways. But without a diet of high quality desktop software experience to go with it, this can be yet another reason for the shift in our digital habits.

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Put all this together and you find an environment where our children are not using traditional desktop hardware and software anymore and on the whole, are not being taught it in schools either. Yes we understand that there is a need for computer programming in our exciting digital future, but if our children can’t even produce a nice looking letter or CV to even apply for the job, then they are not going to be very successful computer programmers.
 
 
There is also the fact that, like numeracy and literacy, there is an expectation that our students are able to develop functional ICT skills that they can carry to every subject in their toolbox of skills. Lots of subjects expect students to be able to produce professional looking reports for GCSE submission or be able to present their ideas in creative digital mediums. However, more often than not, our students do not have the right skillset to be able to do this. They may know how to use algorithmic codes to instruct a computer to execute a specific task, but at what expense?
 
 
More and more teachers across the country are now facing classes of 11, 12 and 13 year olds who are asking “How do I save?”, “How do I print?”, “How do I move this text box?” and “How do I change the colour of this font?”. The very basics that we took for granted that students knew about 10 years ago have now been lost. The digital environment that they are now natives to, has changed our digital habits so much that it has taken away the very foundation of digital skills that had been built up over the previous 10 years.
 
 
Talk to the world of work and one of the most sought after skills in young people, after the ability to communicate effectively, is the proficient knowledge of Microsoft Office. Most jobs still rely on desktop computers for the majority of their day to day business and even the most creative of industries don’t do everything on innovative digital devices.
So, if our children are now facing a significant digital skills gap, one that hasn’t been this big since the early 1990’s, then are we really preparing them for the digital future?

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