‘Young people are surrounded by tech from a very early age – yet very few understand how it works’

As a nation, we need to be working towards making tech literacy universal, starting with schools and pupils, writes the chief executive of BT

Gavin Patterson

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At the heart of our increasingly technological society, there’s a paradox. Young people are surrounded by tech from a very early age. There’s hardly a toddler in the country who doesn’t know how to swipe a smartphone screen. But as they grow up, very few of them actually understand how the technology that surrounds them works.

So, on the one hand, technology enables young people today to feed their curiosity in a thousand way: to find new music, to connect with new friends, to ask and answer just about any question they can think of. And all of this instantly and effortlessly. And yet, when it comes to the technology itself, they’re not so curious. They’re passive consumers, not active creators.

We’ve been talking about this challenge as the "tech literacy paradox". It’s a gap in a whole generation’s understanding – and it represents a major problem for society.

A year after computing was introduced to the national curriculum in England, it’s important to look ahead to where more focus is needed. But let’s also be clear why tech literacy matters at all.

The practical problems are well documented: there’s already a shortage of tech skills in the UK, with employers saying they’re struggling to find people with the tech skills they need. And we all know from our own experience that tech is now interwoven into every single aspect of our lives – into how we work, play, socialise, think, learn. It’s changing how governments govern, how communities are built and how news is shared.

Boosting levels of tech literacy, then, isn’t just about skills, jobs and the economy. It’s also essential for young people as citizens of an ever-more tech-powered society. It gives young people the tools to negotiate the evolving realities of the digital world, to protect their data, make intelligent decisions, understand the new norms and social dynamics – and to engage in this new world, both actively and consciously.

Skills such as computational thinking don’t just help pupils to become better with computers, they enable them to become better at solving problems, at breaking down and developing new, creative solutions.

Bringing computing into the curriculum last September was a landmark step – a world first for primary education. It was an enormously positive step, and one that BT campaigned for and helped to shape. But it’s clear – one year on – that there’s more to do to enable teachers to teach it, and to help parents and pupils to see its relevance to the real world. In some instances, teachers believe we’re quite far from this.

We want to help. In March this year, I launched a long-term commitment by BT to help build a culture of tech literacy for the nation. Our goal is to help improve the tech literacy of 5 million young people by 2020.

We want to help young people to move beyond being passive consumers of technology. So we launched an ambitious programme to inspire a generation about the possibilities that being tech literate can unlock, enable teachers to teach the new computing curriculum, and equip schools with greater access to technology and the support they need to get the best from it. This included picking up the baton from government by funding the Barefoot computer-training programme.

We commissioned a new piece of national research with teachers, pupils and parents to understand what support they need and where we could make a contribution. The research found:

  • Many teachers lack the confidence and knowledge to bring alive the real-world relevance of classroom computing. In many schools, technology remains an isolated subject divorced from the rest of the curriculum
  • The majority of schools lack access to the right technology and support to get the best from it. Teachers report that technology is more often a disruptor than an enabler of teaching and learning in the classroom.
  • Children, especially girls, find computing lessons dull and difficult; they are receiving conflicting messages about their use of technology from parents, who are actively encouraging less use, and teachers who are telling them they need to know how to code
  • Parents do not see computing as an important skill and have a narrow – in some cases, negative – perception of the careers it can lead to
  • The study also highlighted a cultural paradox caused by advancing technology: the better technology gets, the more it erodes children’s curiosity about how it works; here's an example of where the tech industry can play a role

In response, I can announce today a major programme by BT to boost tech literacy among UK primary school children. We will more than double our commitment to supporting teachers by expanding the Barefoot Computing programme beyond England to the whole of the UK, between September 2015 and July 2016. Teacher-training opportunities will be created for more than 15,000 teachers to reach over 400,000 primary school children in the UK in 2015/16.

We will also make available new teaching resources to bring alive tech concepts in computing lessons and across the curriculum. And we’ll work with schools to see how technology can be applied to improve school life, for example, by harnessing BT Tute, a digital tutorial platform to extend classroom support for teachers.

We’re starting with primary schools because we see this as a crucial window in young people’s development and openness towards Stem subjects; levels of enthusiasm are typically high and children tend to positively associate tech with play, creativity and experimentation.

However, creating a real step-change in UK tech literacy will naturally lead us to look beyond primary school – and indeed, beyond school altogether. In time, we plan to engage parents, harness peer-to-peer networks to get kids curious about tech and use BT’s consumer power to shift cultural attitudes to tech.

We absolutely know we can’t do this alone. Since we launched the tech literacy programme back in March, it’s become really clear that many people share our belief – that cracking the UK’s tech literacy challenge is critically important – for individuals, and for the UK as a whole.

Tomorrow, at BT Tower in London, we will bring together everyone from technologists, educationalists and gamers, to parents and policy-makers, and from all corners of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, to share knowledge, explore new ways to work together and brainstorm solutions to shared challenges

I believe how we best harness the transformative power of technology will be one of the defining topics of the next decade. Ensuring we have the right physical infrastructure and regulatory environment is an important part of this, but it is not enough. After all, it is not just the technology that matters but what everyone can do with it. The UK needs people who understand how technology works – who are tech literate – if we are to make this a reality. 

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Gavin Patterson

Gavin Patterson, Chief Executive, BT

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