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BT and tech literacy 

BT and tech literacy 

Since the19th century BT has been at the forefront of scientific innovation; investing in technologies as they arrived or we developed them, and we’re designing and building the fibre infrastructure for the next generation. We are a major employer of tech talent, from our 1,700 apprentices and graduates to engineers and scientists at Adastral Park, our R&D centre. We believe in the transformative power of communications but we’re not about technology for technology’s sake, it’s what tech enables people to do that’s most important.

The UK has enormous untapped tech potential, and its future prosperity depends on harnessing it. But our ability to do that and ensure that the tech revolution does make a better, more inclusive world, depends on having people who are tech literate. And the reality is that we don’t have that yet. We see the urgency of this challenge, and we are helping to address it.

This is not just about a skilled workforce for high tech companies, though that matters too. This is about opportunities for young people in a world where their prospects will be shaped by tech. It’s more fundamental than just knowing how to use an app or upload an image, it means being fluent in tech thinking, computational thinking and problem solving.

What’s stopping the UK from realising its tech potential?

The nation faces a ‘tech literacy paradox’:

  • from an early age, kids grow up surrounded by technology: some scroll before they can walk
  • their world is ‘always connected’, with information and entertainment at their fingertips
  • they are tech consumers but they’re not tech literate; they’re confident with apps but they’re passive users, not active creators
  • too few know how it works, and too many have little interest in understanding
  • most don’t appreciate the impact tech will have on them and how it is shaping the world.

Technology can bring a whole host of opportunities if people have the capability to make the most of it

Technology advances generate growth and productivity. OECD data shows the productivity of a country is highest where tech capability is highest. Countries and businesses all over the world are calling for people who are tech literate.

Technology advances can provide solutions to some of society’s major challenges:

  • Social inclusion: new technologies are creating innovative approaches, for example, Australian hackathons developing apps to help integrate refugees into host communities.
  • Health: the phenomenon of people managing their own health in the developed world is exploding, with 1.5 million apps helping people do that. Patients are offering their experiences into a huge new dataset to accelerate medical research. Mobile phones are being used to prevent the spread of fake drugs across Africa.
  • New opportunities to tackle environmental concerns are being developed: from satellite technologies monitoring forests to citizen-led data joining to build the UK’s biggest network of flood sensors.

Technology advances can create more open government and more engaged citizens. Citizens now participate in decision-making about how local budgets will be spent. Pakistan has become a global pioneer in biometric data to improve financial inclusion for some of the poorest in society. And in England and Wales police forces are creating the first national overview of car collisions to improve road safety.

Why it matters: overcoming challenges

There’s a risk that technology could widen the divide between those who get left behind and those who get ahead. There’s already a significant economic and social cost to low levels of tech literacy; in its 2016 report, The Digital Skills Crisis, the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee found that tech literacy shortages cost the UK £63 billion a year in lost GDP. And Go.On UK revealed that 12 million people don't have the right skills to thrive in a digital world.

Technology is on the frontline of some of the biggest questions facing the nation. People are worrying about inequality, stalled social mobility and low productivity. Many believe technology is part of the problem and that automation will have a disproportionate impact on those already disadvantaged. Businesses and governments are wondering how to harness the tech revolution to benefit economies and societies as a whole.

How do we solve it? Building a culture of tech literacy

BT is convinced that the only answer to these challenges is to ensure everyone grows up with the know-how for the jobs of the future, and to shape a more inclusive society. We have made a commitment to build a culture of tech literacy with our first target to reach five million kids by 2020. That means helping young people to become curious about how technology actually works, in control of it, and ultimately active creators with it. It’s all about preparing the next generation to thrive in a digital world. Doing this can help create more open governments and more active citizens, and provide the basis for prosperous economies, competitive business, and improved life chances for individuals.

We need to start with the next generation, that’s why we’ve designed our tech literacy programme around the goal of supporting young people. We see three crunch-points where we should focus our collective efforts to build that culture of tech literacy:

  • early education and primary school, where we must harness the enthusiasm of young minds, and embed it as a foundation skill that’s as important as English and maths
  • teenage years, where we must inspire young people to want to build the tech skills they’ll need in a digital world, and empower them to be confident in navigating it
  • transition to work, where we must show young people that tech will be in every job, and is the new way to get ahead.

Tech literacy is a shared challenge, which can only be tackled by working together across sectors. Many organisations are now devoting effort to this, we need to join up those initiatives, to scale up what’s working well, to make sure each intervention is responding to real needs, and to share learning. We’ve taken that collaborative approach in everything we’ve done so far.

The Barefoot computing project for primary schools

One example of collaboration is the Barefoot Computing Project, www.barefootcas.org.uk which helps primary school teachers become confident with the tech literacy concepts through a combination of free teaching materials and volunteer-led face-to-face training. Barefoot was created in 2014 by a coalition of partners, including the Department for Education, the British Computer Society, Raspberry Pi and BT. It was only intended to a year-long project, but we saw it was working and picked up the baton. Now it’s reached 39,000 teachers and through them well over one million kids. Teachers give pupils the tools they need to achieve their aspirations. That’s why we’re committed to making tech literacy a new cornerstone of modern education in primary schools.

We worked with Ipsos MORI to study the impact of Barefoot. It found that:

  • teachers see tech literacy as vital for pupils’ futures, with 78% saying it’s as important as reading and writing, and 96% agreeing tech skills will be needed in all careers
  • 98% of teachers think kids should leave primary school tech literate, and 97% think it’s their job to prepare pupils for the digital world
  • but only 25% ‘strongly agree’ that they’re able to do that
  • research also found that teachers believe ‘computational thinking’, the building blocks of the digital world, helps kids with numeracy and literacy
  • 99% say it helps with soft skills like problem-solving.

Connecting to popular culture in the teenage years

Teenagers are voracious consumers of technology, and they take it for granted. Our research shows that many of them think tech know-how is boring, and not relevant to their future. It’s vital we demonstrate that tech is part of the activities that this age group loves, to bring alive the wide range of opportunities that can be unlocked by getting tech literate.

Young people think sports and TV are ‘cool’, but that tech is ‘geeky’, so we are using the excitement of sport broadcasts to show them how tech underpins our lives. Using BT Sport, we delivered a pilot project to 12 and 13 year olds at the Manchester Communication Academy. It used an outside broadcast truck to show how much tech it takes to bring the best sporting action to their screens. We’re now working on plans to take this concept out to more teenagers.

The BT STEM Crew initiative with Ben Ainslie Racing is another way we’re using sport to interest kids in the role tech plays in careers. It provides teaching materials that bring alive topics within the STEM curriculum through the lens of performance sailing.

Working together to help young people navigate life online

We are also focusing on helping young people to navigate the new digital world by working together with 5Rights, so that they can be:

  • engaged tech citizens, so they can, for instance, understand who has their personal data and what is being done with it; understand the emergence of citizen journalism and what it means and understand the opportunities tech know-how will bring in the world of work
  • able to manage risks for themselves, so they are alert to the threats of the digital world. As adults we can’t always be there, but we know it is an essential life skill for children to navigate the digital world.

Work ready for the transition to work

Our Work Ready programme helps 16-24 year olds, particularly from disadvantaged backgrounds, get prepared for work. Young people not currently in education, employment or training join BT for seven weeks of skills development and work experience in a workplace powered by tech. Over 2,000 have taken part in this initiative and have been supported to achieve BTEC qualifications.

Many go on to get jobs, either in BT or elsewhere. We’re also rolling out skills-for-work days aimed at those who still in school, but at risk of becoming unemployed when they leave. Our partnership with the Rio Ferdinand Foundation will help us reach even greater numbers of young, disadvantaged people. And we’re committed to collaborating with other major employers as a founding partner of Movement to Work, a coalition of UK businesses tackling youth employment.

Apprenticeships for the transition to work

Our BT apprenticeship ‘frameworks’ include computing, cyber-security, software, network engineering and digital media, which show just how important tech literacy is to our modern workforce. Our apprenticeship scheme has been in place for over 50 years. With EE joining BT we will be recruiting around 900 apprentices each year.

Working together to help young people thrive in the digital world

BT has for the past two years hosted a Tech Literacy Summit, bringing together business, education, government and youth engagement organisations to find new ways to improve tech literacy. We’ve also launched a new campaign microsite, www.techliteracy.co.uk, for stakeholders to share ideas and galvanise action.

We need young people to grasp tech, so that they can fully participate in the economic, social and cultural world around them. We must fight for tech literacy to be a modern cultural norm: a new cornerstone of modern education, powerfully represented in popular culture.

We know that BT can’t do this alone but we want to work in common cause with others. We must find new ways to help young people use the power of technology to shape their futures, because tech literacy isn’t just a skill for work, it’s about making the world work to your advantage.