Equipping students with real skills

The UK is in need of a generation with digital skills. As such, education has a key role to play in preparing young people for the world of work

With the introduction of the new computing curriculum this September, we are on the right path, but how can we ensure we best help young people develop these talents? Debbie Forster, UK managing director of education technology charity Apps for Good, explores how hands-on experience is a large part of the answer.

Digital skills are more than just a tick box on a CV; they enable us to create, solve problems and drive forward the UK economy. The General Assembly’s European director, Matt Cynamon, recently remarked that a late 2013 study found that Britain will need 750,000 skilled digital workers by 2017. He said: “If we can’t support that growth, it could result in costing the UK as much as £2bn a year.” It’s vital therefore that we foster these skills in young people.

Joanna Shields, chairman of Tech City UK and UK Ambassador for Digital Industries, argues that the UK can be the world’s digital capital if technology skills are fostered nationwide. Logically, this process should start in schools.Now, England will be the first country in the world to make the computer programming a compulsory school subject at both primary and secondary level. And there is student appetite for it – as technology advances, it continues to excite the imagination of young people, our ‘digital natives’ who have grown up with it and genuinely want to use it. 

While the theory of computer programming is important to understand, the magic of computing lies in putting it into practice in a hands-on way. That’s how we will inspire students about what computing enables them to do – from making something exciting to solving problems – and help arm them with a wider set of skills needed for the workplace.

Most of us prefer to actually ‘do’ when learning something new: it’s easier to get your head around a concept when you get stuck in and you can realise the outcome. Engaging students in practical projects and hands-on activities is a motivating and thought-provoking route to experiencing computing and coding.

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It’s also about more than just IT skills; it gives students core personal skills for life. By setting challenges, encouraging discussion and development and sharing outcomes, it improves problem-solving and communication skills, drives self-confidence, encourages entrepreneurship and more.

Top tips for the classroom

From our experience working with teachers and students throughout the country, we’ve realised some points that we think can really help transform student progress. These include:

  • Let students lead the learning – Let students come up with their own ideas and solutions to problems to empower them to take control of their learning. Have the confidence to let them “fail” and find a solution themselves or from peers rather than quickly fixing it for them. Acting as the coach rather than the keeper of knowledge or the instruction-giver is a much more effective mode, improving learner resilience and preparing them for the workplace.
  • Incorporate their interests and passions – If learning includes something we are interested in, we pay attention. Let students focus on an issue of importance to them and show how coding can create something within this space.
  • Encourage group work – We know most students enjoy pair and group work. In the real world of work, particularly in IT, very few projects are completed alone. Collaborative learning is a natural method, so give students the chance to work in pairs or small groups to help develop core inter-personal skills.
  • Look for opportunities for peer learning – Some students might already be coding at home. Ask them to share their experiences with peers to become a ‘resident expert’ and boost their confidence. In industry ‘geek’ is now a badge worn with pride. Find your geeks, grow and celebrate these skills through peer learning.

If we can drive students with practical, hands-on learning, we have an opportunity to equip a generation with the skills to not just use technology, but to make it work for them.

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