Despite a promising start, much more needs to be done to boot digital making for young people
For every child learning to make things with digital technology, more than 60 are left behind, according to a new report, Young Digital Makers, from innovation charity Nesta.
The report, authored by educator Oliver Quinlan, says that 8 million children are eager for opportunities for digital making, but only 130,000 opportunities were available outside classrooms. And warns that the UK is “neglecting its digital needs and the skills the economy will need in the future”.
It echoes the findings of the House of Lords’ Digital Skills Committee’s recent report, Make or Break: The UK’s Digital Future. Both reports call for more action and more support from organisations. The Young Digital Makers report found a very high level of interest among young people aged 8 to 18 but found that their needs were not being met when researchers attempted to match opportunities.
'We’ve got to convert the curiosity of today’s children'
Nesta and its partners in the digital makers 'movement' – organisations like Mozilla (the Firefox browser people behind the 'digital badges' initiative) – want young people in the UK to grow up in a culture that supports them to be confident creators and makers of digital products and services rather than mere passive consumers. But this new research reveals that while many young people report "dabbling" in technology (83 per cent say they have made something online), one third (33 per cent) do so less than once a week and 17 per cent have done nothing. Nesta feels they should be doing more, with stronger support.
The organisation's digital education director, Sylvia Lowe, commented: “We increasingly live and work in a digital world, yet the gap between young people’s interest in digital technologies and their skills to exploit them is still vast. We’ve got to convert the curiosity of today’s children in how our digital world works into a workforce ready and able to support the digital economy – whether they are at the forefront of the gaming world or trying to tackle social challenges with the power of digital.”
Nesta issued the 2011 Next Gen report with digital industry leaders Ian Livingstone and Alex Hope. This warned that without investment in the digital skills of young people, the UK’s creative industries would be disadvantaged, and was used to lobby for changes to the curriculum. Then education secretary Michael Gove MP obliged by 'out-sourcing' England's new computing curriculum to the British Computer Society.
While Nesta's new report acknowledges improvements in the interventing four years – like Computing curriculum and grassroots developments like coding clubs and the Scouts' Digital Maker badge, there is no sense the culture change needed. Particularly as the UK heads into a general election with little debate or rivalry on this topic.
What Nesta wants
What Nesta is calling for is "new organisations offering a wider variety of digital making opportunities, more volunteers to run activities with young people, and more help for parents, teachers and young people to navigate the opportunities available". There are seven recommendations (edited):
1. The high levels of interest in digital making amongst young people and parents need to be capitalised on further. The digital making movement has had a strong start, but there is a clear need to increase action, and address the current lack of awareness of parents and teachers, if the demand for digital making amongst young people the across the country is to be met.
Nesta wants: existing digital making activity given more support to grow, through the scaling up of existing work and the creation of new digital making organisations. We would also like to see more staff and volunteers to run activities and help for parents, and teachers to navigate the digital making opportunities available for children and young people
2. Young people need to be supported as digital makers across the UK, not just in London and areas that have high provision.
Nesta wants: digital making opportunities for young people increase across the whole of the UK, but particularly in the East and South East (where provision is especially low). We would also like digital making organisations to focus their work on geographical areas that are less well provided for
3. Non–professionals – such as volunteers, parents, teachers, and young people themselves – need to be mobilised. Face–to–face interaction with others is a vital part of developing learning in practical activities such as digital making. We simply don’t have enough technology professionals to work with young people at scale...
Nesta wants: resources and support targeted at skilling up non–experts in order to engage new groups of young people in digital making, beyond tech enthusiasts. The potential of peer–to–peer learning should also be tapped into.
4. There needs to be greater access to a variety of making opportunities catering for a wider variety of young people and their different interests, ages and genders. For instance, our survey showed girls are interested in digital making, but less interested in learning about technology for its own sake. Much of the public discourse has been around programming and fostering an interest in technology, and these are the most common activities provided by organisations. However, the demand from young people is to make things that are a culturally relevant part of their lives.
Nesta wants: opportunities for engaging with digital making targeted at a broader range of young people’s passions (for instance, music or fashion), rather than simply an interest in technology itself.
5. Clear pathways to excellence should be built to grow young people’s ambitions as digital makers and help them fulfil their potential, in and out of school. Many young people and their parents report confidence in computing, but some teachers do not think young people are reaching their expectations.
Nesta wants: digital making opportunities that take account of young people’s prior learning and aim to deepen their skills, providing regular activity and not just first– time experiences.
6. Schools must exploit their potential as a hub for digital making opportunities, work with informal learning organisations, raise parents’ awareness and recruit volunteers. Three–quarters of digital making organisations are already working in schools, but with very low teacher awareness of their activities there is enormous room for growth.
Nesta wants: teachers supported at all levels to provide digital making activities across the curriculum; extracurricular opportunities in schools expanded; and the provision of the space and resources young people need to collaborate. The continued expansion of professional development is also needed to ease this transition.
7. Digital making organisations need to be supported to grow sustainably through new and existing partnerships with grassroots organisations and private companies. Most digital making organisations are early–stage but promising, with huge opportunities for growth. They and their public and private sector partners have so far worked closely together with great success. As new organisations emerge, efforts must be made to sustain this collaborative approach.
Nesta wants: an increase in industry support – through finance, through sharing expertise and providing volunteers. Scaling the collaboration between digital making organisations and the wider industry will ensure that young people have a range of opportunities that are diverse but complimentary.
'The gaps are more striking than the successes' – Martha Lane Fox
In the introduction to the report Baroness Martha Lane Fox of Soho highlights the urgent need for action. She writes: "The internet now contributes roughly 8 per cent of the UK’s GDP – the highest of the G20 countries. But 10 million of the UK’s population lack basic digital skills and seven million have never used the internet. Only 30 per cent of small businesses make effective use of the internet for marketing and sales, despite the UK being home to the highest percentage of online shoppers in Europe. Only one of the world’s top 100 websites – the BBC – is British (despite the web being invented by a Brit). And 90 per cent of new jobs require digital know–how.
"The lack of digital skills in the UK needs addressing as soon as possible. This report reveals just how much is already happening, from the work of coding clubs to activities in the school curriculum to developments in online tools. But the gaps are more striking than the successes, amplifying existing inequalities and hierarchies rather than empowering more people. London has the best provision, but rural areas are being left behind. Many girls are defying stereotypes – but far too many are not engaging, and the gap in confidence between boys and girls is widening. Without radical steps, we won’t change the woeful numbers of women working in the tech sector, which currently stands at 17 per cent."
There is also a contribution from Tony Hall, director general of the BBC, who pledges support from the corporation's "Make it Digital" project. He writes: "The industry, teachers and parents have all repeatedly told us – and these findings support their view – that many people simply aren’t aware of the resources and local clubs available to them. This BBC is in a unique position to make a difference. We are the only public service that everyone uses and also provides a wider social benefit. Through our Make it Digital initiative, we plan to raise awareness of coding and digital creativity among all audiences, and amplify the vibrant ecosystem that already exists.
BBC – 'It’s a challenge for the nation'
"We are giving digital creativity a platform on a scale it’s never had before, using our hugely popular and much–loved brands to create new TV programmes, radio shows and digital content. This will enable all audiences to see how Britain has helped shape the digital world, why digital skills matter and their growing importance to our future. And we hope it will inspire people – young and old – to take their first steps in moving from digital consumers to digital creators...
"This isn’t a challenge just for the BBC, or just for the digital and creative communities – it’s a challenge for the nation. A huge part of the BBC Micro’s success in the 1980s was the collective drive and support from enthusiasts, hobbyists and those keen to explore their own potential. It’s precisely that spirit we need to capture for the digital age. We all have an opportunity to help digital creativity become as familiar and fundamental as writing, and I’m truly excited by what Britain, and future great Britons, can achieve."
The Young Digital Makers report is a free download from www.nesta.org.uk/young-digital-makers .
An online quiz to help parents discover what kind of digital maker their child is can be found at at www.nesta.org.uk/quiz/digital-makers
Manifesto for the Creative Economy, Nesta, April 2013
Research methodology for Young Digital Makers: Nesta commissioned TNS Global to conduct a regionally representative ‘online omnibus’ survey of children and parents across the UK. 1005 UK adults aged 16 to 64 and 1,005 children aged 8-18 responded to the survey between January 2 and 9, 2015. Surveys were conducted across the country and the results were weighted to the profile of all children/parents.