Equality through digital transformation

Nominet Trust are funding an initiative to ensure that education is accessible to all through digital technology

By Vicki Hearn, Director, Nominet Trust

Digital technology has played a key facilitating role in the drive to raise standards in UK schools. We can justly claim to be one of the leading world nations seeking to harness new technology to improve teaching and learning in the classroom, with UK schools widely reported to be spending an estimated £900m per annum (and rising) on educational technology.

Despite this investment, in its 2016 report “Digital Skills Crisis”, the House of Commons Science & Technology Committee concludes that we’re in the middle of a digital skills crisis, with the UK needing 745,000 additional digitally-skilled workers (from 2013 and 2017) to meet demand from employers – and almost 90% of new jobs demanding some level of digital skills. It’s becoming clear that, although the overall quality of education is improving for those who can access it, there remain disadvantaged UK communities and individuals that are missing out. This loss of talent is fuelling the digital skills crisis and having a damaging effect on the UK’s global economic ranking.

Fortunately, there are many ventures embracing digital technology to help democratise education, several which were celebrated in the 2016 Nominet Trust 100 (NT100), an annual celebration of 100 of the most inspiring tech for good ventures from around the world. The aspirations of EduKit Solutions, the BBC, OpenUp Music, Kiron and Digital Citizen Foundation are representative of this ‘tech for good’ movement.

Social enterprise EduKit Solutions Ltd provides a free online platform that matches UK schools with highly rated youth programmes to support pupil development, helping to raise attainment. An incomplete education and lack of career opportunities can lead disadvantaged young people, particularly from inner-city areas, to lose hope for their futures, become more susceptible to depression, or succumb to negative social pressure. It is this group of disengaged, typically under-privileged, young people that EduKit Founder, Nathalie Richards, wants to help empower and inspire. Supported by funding from Nominet Trust, EduKit has built a database of over 1,000 organisations tackling every aspect of inequality in education, from improving STEM skills and offering sports training and mentorship, to their analytics tool which tracks Pupil Premium budgets and outcomes, including student wellbeing. 

Another 2016 NT100 project tackling the digital skills crisis head on is the BBC micro:bit. The micro:bit is a pocket-sized, codeable device that lets you customise and control devices like smartphones and Raspberry Pi; indeed Nominet’s own researchers have helped to connect micro:bits to the internet, making it a true “Internet of Things” (IoT) device. The BBC hopes the micro:bit will inspire young people to get creative with digital and develop core skills in science, technology and engineering. In 2016, one million micro:bits were freely provided to Year 7 pupils across the UK in a bid to inspire a new generation of young coders; there are aspirations to expand globally.

At a global level, we’re witnessing the biggest refugee crisis since the 1940s, which is impacting upon the education of a whole generation of young people

Outside of the education system, Bristol-based OpenUp Music is helping break down the barriers that prevent young disabled people from learning to play music. OpenUp Music has used cutting-edge technology to develop a digital instrument – the Clarion – that can be played with any part of the body, including the eyes. This has been life-changing for musicians like 21-year-old Bradley Warwick who has cerebral palsy and extremely limited mobility. The pioneering work of OpenUp Music has been furthered by the creation of the South-West Open Youth Orchestra (SWOYO), the UK’s only disabled-led regional youth orchestra, who played live on BBC Radio 3 in June 2016 to millions of listeners as part of BBC Music Day. With funding from Nominet Trust, OpenUp Music is piloting 16 Open School Orchestras within special schools across the England, breaking down inequality; their ambition is to create a National Open Youth Orchestra.

At a global level, we’re witnessing the biggest refugee crisis since the 1940s, which is impacting upon the education of a whole generation of young people. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, less than 1% of university-aged refugees of all nationalities are in tertiary education. Social start-up Kiron enables access to higher education for underprivileged groups through digital solutions. The two founders were inspired to create Kiron while volunteering with the refugee community in Germany. Their “online university” provides free two-year courses in mathematics, sciences, business, social sciences and architecture. Over the two years, students can improve their language skills, demonstrate academic ability (and assemble ID documents) so that they can transfer to one of Kiron’s 18 partner universities (including Harvard and Stanford) in year three, from where they officially graduate.

Digital Citizen Fund was founded to help girls and women in developing countries to gain an education through digital literacy and community building. In Afghanistan, UNESCO estimates that 83% of women are illiterate, with a combination of factors preventing girls from attending school. Digital Citizen Fund has set up IT training centres that provide a safe environment to teach young women aged 12 to 18 the basics in digital and financial literacy, coding and social media. The initiative has so far provided 55,000 girls with internet access and over 9,000 students have enrolled in classes. Operations have recently expanded into Mexico.

These are just a few examples of UK and international ventures enhancing education through the imaginative use of digital tech, reducing inequality and extending opportunities to all – regardless of background. To find out more about these and the other inspirational NT100 projects, click here.