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Training and Development

BT funds kids' tech schooling, asks big questions

Here in the United Kingdom we’ve all been getting frightfully, frightfully excited about the fact that Her Majesty the Queen will today become our longest reigning monarch with her more than 63-year reign surpassing even the epic innings of her great great grandmother Victoria. Just as the Victorian era was one defined by heavy industry, the modern Elizabethan or Lilibettian age could be characterised by the advent of digitised culture.

However, in 2015 we find ourselves at a crossroads as rising economies have redrawn the maps of who produces what hardware and software. Everyone knows that we need to have a new generation of technology-literate workers but how do we create a platform for that generation? Do we want them to be programmers, inventors, entrepreneurs or office jockeys? These are questions that telecoms giant BT is attempting to answer in the UK as it announced today new funding for the teaching of young children at school.

BT will expand its support for primary-school tech education from England to across the UK and add more cash and people to an existing fund but it acknowledged that creating a technology-literate Utopia is not as simple as simply providing funding. Research by Pineapple Lounge for BT, released to chime with the announcement, suggests that we have a conundrum. Parents are often keen to get their kids away from ‘anti-social’ devices, security and privacy fears are pervasive, girls often see coding as a geeky boys thing and teachers often lack the skills and infrastructure to provide adequate teaching. Then there is the question of what should we be teaching children: basic computer and software usage skills or programming and an ability to delve deeper into how things work? 

At an event at BT Tower in London, BT Group CEO Gavin Patterson said:

“There’s already a shortage of skills and technology is changing how governments govern, how communities are shaped, and how news is shared. Young people are surrounded by technology from an early age and are incredibly tech savvy, and yet they grow up and very few of them understand how the technology works. It allows them to feed their curiosity and yet when it comes to the technology itself they’re not as curious… they’re passive consumers, not active creators. It will take an effort to change because past generations took something to bits to see how it works but technology today is abstract in ways it never has been before. We need to rekindle that curiosity.”

I think Patterson is right. Basic computer skills are essential but not enough. If we can compete with Silicon Valley rather than call centres in the Philippines or Bangalore then we give everybody a better chance. That means taking apart code and computer internals… to pick apart and reassemble.

While technology vendors have long backed tech-friendly policies BT deserves credit for raising legitimate questions about where the UK should be focusing its investments in the digital economy. As the event moderator, broadcaster Clare Balding, noted, we need to ask bigger questions such as why we’re spending vast sums on a new rail network when more meetings are becoming virtual. If we don’t ask the tough questions now there’s every possibility we will repent at our extended leisure.

Footnote. In a related announcement, BT said it would provide STEM subject scholarships for 75 students over three years at the Institution of Engineering and Technology with a minimum 50% female quota. As part of the arrangement – a nice touch this –  the IET will open the Tommy Flowers room in recognition of the Colossus computer engineer who was credited with saving thousands of lives in the Second World War.

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Martin Veitch

Martin Veitch is Contributing Editor for IDG Connect

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