5 barriers holding back tech literacy in the UK

Kids are surrounded by tech from an early age, but a significant number of young people don’t actually understand what makes the latest apps and software tick.

Last updated: 6 March 2019 - 10.17am

Kids are surrounded by tech from an early age. Many can swipe a tablet before they can walk. But a significant number of young people don’t actually understand what makes the latest apps and software tick. And they often don’t get the importance of tech skills for their future careers.

We call this the tech literacy challenge – and it really matters to the economy. Experts believe that digital technology could boost the nation’s productivity 3 to 8 times more than any other form of investment. Our future competitiveness depends on being active creators rather than passive consumers of tech. Yet a skills gap is already opening up, as over 40% of businesses struggle to recruit employees with the right tech capabilities. And finally, it matters for us as individuals, living in a society where digital technology underpins every aspect of life today. Being more tech literate will help us to stay safe and succeed in our ever more tech-enabled society.

As part of its commitment to helping to build a culture of tech literacy in the UK, BT has commissioned an in-depth study from kids’ research experts The Pineapple Lounge to find out what’s holding the nation back from fulfilling our tech potential. Here are 5 blockers:

1) Kids are getting mixed messages about their use of tech – While teachers stress the importance of learning new skills like coding, at home they hear a different story, as many parents say they actively encourage their children to limit the time they spend on their device. So the question is: how do we ensure a more consistent ‘stance on tech’ that recognises the need to stay safe, enjoy family time, while keeping hold of the many positives that experimenting with tech can bring?

2) The demise of ‘tech tinkering’ – the slicker tech gets, the more it erodes kids’ curiosity of how it works. The older, analogue devices some of us will remember used to require more human interaction and ‘tinkering’ – whereas closed touchscreen devices are so easy to use that they render the tech that powers them invisible. So we need to inspire curiosity and encourage more to kids to get ‘hands on’ with tech.

3) Tech language is a turn-off – many kids don’t see the world of tech as dynamic and exciting because the words that describe it can be so dull. Young people see ‘coding’, ‘programming’, and ‘algorithms’ as boring and geeky rather than fun and appealing. So we need to find a new language that creates feelings of ‘exciting, cool, fun, relevant’ NOT ‘complicated, dull, niche’.

4) There’s too much focus on coding and programming – this emphasis has skewed perceptions of tech skills and where they can take you. Younger kids find specialist disciplines like coding hard, which jars with their view of themselves as tech gurus. And parents often view these jobs as isolated and anti-social. So we need make tech more accessible while making sure we don’t lose any potential future stars.

5) We’ve lost the human story – all kids get excited about tech when they see its application in the real world. Kids want to learn about technology as it relates to human needs – how it can make life easier, and solve big social problems in the real world. The focus on products and not what you can do with them has meant we’ve lost some of this power to inspire. So we need to shift kids’ perceptions from tech literacy being about coding to being about ideas and problem solving.

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