Bridging the digital skills gap: The importance of STEM in education

Jamie Lee Brett (The Prince’s Trust) and Spencer Ayres (Freeformers Ltd)


  1. The digital skills gap
  2. Preparation for the digital economy
  3. Future of employment

The Digital Skills Gap Is it a problem? It’s definitely a problem from the industry side of things. Richard Gerver said yesterday, ‘Programmers are 10 a penny’. However, this is not the case. Lots of businesses do struggle to find high quality programmers.

The danger of code academy and the focus on coding in schools is that people learn coding skills in a specific, walled environment (classroom, online learning course). However, in the work place these skills can become lost in transference. Pupils will need opportunities to apply their skills and understand the real world application of these skills in industry.

STEM, STEAM, STEAMED…whatever the term, whatever the subjects you consider to be within them, the most important part of this area is defining a problem and articulating a problem before designing a solution.

Developing entrepreneurial mindsets in young people is crucial.

Preparation for the digital economy Businesses who haven’t embraced entrepreneurialism and technology in their industry have disappeared. Yesterday, Sir Ken Robinson mentioned Kodak and today companies like Woolworths and HMV have been noted. Businesses of the future require employees who are digitally capable. If they don’t have the workforce to solve the problem of digital, they won’t survive.

The problem with online learning is that there is no current way of formally tracking it. MindField is a potential answer to this (Spencer Ayres is developing).

Pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds need to be given the opportunity to do something different and something special. Jamie Lee Brett exposed his personal educational experience and told his story of how he overcame many obstacles by solving a range of problems in his own way to find great success. This highlights how young people can become disenfranchised with their learning, which can restrict their possibilities.

Future of employment The Channel 4 drama ‘Humans‘ portrays a possible future full of ‘Synths’: human looking devices that begin to take the jobs of humans. Yesterday, Sir Ken Robinson touched on the potential of future technology in becoming ‘at one’ with humans. Again, this talk highlighted the need for us to truly begin to comprehend and realise that employment in the future will look completely different.

Young people need to see ‘big picture’ jobs. Barriers need to be removed such as the need to be ‘realistic’ in considering what jobs young people want. It is worrying that we can put caps on young people’s ambitions by pushing them to be more ‘realistic’ when they define what they want to be.


Tim Rylands: Out of this world: Tech to inspire

‘The best teachers have bite marks on their tongues’

Tim and Sarah shared a huge range of digital tools/websites/resources/apps all of which are available here and here.

Some of the best bits:

Dan Roberts: Empowering students, teachers and parents to access technology to impact learning

Dan Roberts, (soon to be) Head Teacher, Devonport High School for Boys

Dan began looking at the last few years in education in terms of news stories and how the purpose of education and role of teachers has been perceived. From Gove’s appointment to Morgan’s recent coasting schools announcement, the situation can be seen as quite depressing. Potentially, these are the conditions for destruction and frustration. Despite the negative aspects of this publicity, there is still reason to be optimistic. And in fact, Dan explored, there is a lot of positive practice happening and being developed in schools and education systems around the world. These times call for brave leadership. This is a really important point that particularly resonates with the messages of bottom-up disruption from Sir Ken Robinson’s talk yesterday. By  leadership, it is not just head teachers that can make a difference. Leaders at all levels (teachers, subject coordinators, middle and senior leaders…everyone!) can be the driving force behind positive change. 

Why do you do what you do? An important question for all teachers to consider. What is the motive behind your decision?


Embrace social media Parental engagement increases. As an additional benefit you raise awareness of your school in potential employees. We are facing a recruitment crisis in schools so now is the time to use this opportunity.

Accessibility for all DHSB have used Pupil Premium funding to fund tech projects and develop hardware for pupils at school. These have included purchasing an iPad and supporting broadband costs.

Brave teachers Teachers should be encouraged to embrace and be open to new technology. The culture and ethos of the school must support this.

Collective capacity Teachers need to work together, connect and share good practice. Twitter is an excellent tool for this. A ‘Market Place’ has been developed at DHSB. Teachers pick an area of practice they want to develop and work on this area, carrying out a research project. Towards the end of the year they share the outcomes of this in the ‘Market Place’.

Blogging Get pupils and staff to blog. David Mitchell (@deputymitchell) is an advocate of this and the man to speak to if you want to get started.

The right tool for the job Take a Swiss Army Knife approach. The use of ICT must impact on learning. If it doesn’t, don’t use it.

Social enterprise Pupils at DHSB have approached staff with digital solutions to problems or opportunities. These have been used to improve practice at the school. These include a house group display/tracking system and a flipped learning approach that supported teachers with their marking (using Flubaroo). Some amazing stuff in this area: have a look at Thinkspace (developed by pupils in Plymouth) and Space Lounge (a start up company created by an A Level student).

Every teacher and every learner has a legacy. What is yours going to be?

Sugata Mitra: Self-organising systems and the future of learning

Day 2 at the Digital Education Show kicked off with Sugata Mitra. The following is a brief reflection on the thoughts shared by Mitra. The italics are my reflections. The roman is Sugata Mitra’s comments approximately paraphrased.

Self organising systems in future schools

The hole in the wall project was 16 years ago. It was an experiment designed out of curiosity with far reaching and unanticipated impacts. Under the right circumstances, children are capable of learning maths and computer science, the pronunciation of English words, and even biotechnology. All of the results of these experiments are well documented online. Mitra went on to discuss his work with the Uruguayan government who interestingly, a long time ago now, gave every pupil attending a state school a laptop

The Hole in the Wall and Gateshead experiments began to tell us about a new kind of learning process.

There is nothing [Sugata] has found to prove this wrong.

The Granny Cloud Sugata found that in the process of children finding out ‘stuff’ for themselves, you could, as an adult, improve the process. If you have a friendly, non-threatening adult who encourages the process of self organised learning, the process seems to produce better results. Here, the future role of ‘teacher’ is important to consider and to question. The adults on the Granny Cloud can be connected to classrooms where adults can’t or won’t normally go. Teacher migration is an issue for the Indian government. How are they going to address the problem? With teacher training. The aim is to improve the quality of the teaching in remote towns and villages where the migration issue is most problematic. However, improving teachers will just enable more to move away.

Density of council housing plotted against GCSE scores in England relate to the same downward curve Sugata found in India. In India it was a geographical problem. In England it was social. The same problem appeared in a different guise. Looking in other countries, the same problem exists. There are some places in the world where good teachers cannot or will not go. These places remain there for a number of years and then you get trouble. The solution was to find a way to not use teachers in these places.

Self organised learning Self organising systems is a term from maths and physics which talks about ‘chaotic’ systems. They are ‘spontaneously’ ordered. These systems are not organised! Sugata explored an example that helps him explain this to other people. The synchronous clapping experiment is an activity where you ask a group to clap at the same time and then question them in order to help them see the random organisation. Who synchronised the claps? Who decided on the frequency of the claps?  Nature uses these systems all the time. So why not learning?

SOLE Self Organised Learning Environments

How do you get collaboration automatically? If you restrict resources the collaboration happens. Don’t ask children to make groups as you bring in bias. Ask children a big question and allow them to group themselves. In one example of this in the classroom, one child, within 25 minutes, was presenting to the rest of the class at an undergraduate level. However, while she had prepared a script and was reading the information clearly, I would question whether or not she truly ‘understood’ the concepts in the sense that she could explain them in her own words and apply them in a range of contexts. Obviously, this would take more learning time. 

Mitra took us through the results of testing 8 and 9 year olds on GCSE questions. After a couple of months, the children were retested and the percentage scores increased. This is evidence that I aim to investigate further. 

The challenge of assessment The preindustrial, pre-machine way of running the world required people to fill it. In order to find these people, schools were created. If you were an assembly worker, what would I teach you? I would teach you to do the same thing over and over again; I would teach you not to ask questions; and I would teach you to never be creative. Children are being prepared for a world that doesn’t exist anymore. In order to prepare children for a role in this world, shouldn’t exams look different? The existing school system pretends that the internet doesn’t exist. Although I am sure that there are many schools still putting up walls with regards to access to the internet, I think this is a big claim. I think that actually there are a number of schools who have, for a number of years, been thinking more progressively that this. However, I do agree with Sugata that this should be spread widely.


Taking us through a range of GCSE questions, Mitra posed that the internet should be allowed in examinations if they are to better reflect the world that we live in. Each question could be answered within seconds, if the internet was made available and it could be ‘Googled’. Inevitably, there are deeper philosophical issues here related to Google’s ownership and control of data. And there are issues of trust and accuracy related to websites and information. However, this is an important point that needs considering on a wider scale in education systems. 

School in the cloud The idea was to bring SOLE and the Granny Cloud together into different kinds of cultural and socioeconomic settings. To build seven schools in the cloud in a range of social backgrounds.

Mitra took us through the current schools that he has created as part of his Schools in the Cloud project. 

The School In The Cloud: Trailer from Docs & Pieces on Vimeo.

Teachers have implemented SOLEs all around the world and have been blogging about the impact. Their results are extraordinarily positive. SOLEs are out there. But they are struggling against an outdated education system. The need for change is now. 

Current results


 The reaction of students who have been through a SOLE project as part of undergraduate studies was interesting. When completing an evaluation they said things like ‘we need more regimentation’, ‘it was awful, we had to do all the work ourselves’. The long lasting impact of our system is destructive. 

At the end of the talk there was a question from the audience related to filtering. If children are given access to a device with a big screen, they are less likely to purposely access inappropriate information. Sugata explained that there are a number of social ‘natural’ controls that can help to filter. If there is a firewall, a child will want to know what is behind it.

This was a fantastic, pragmatic talk and a great way to start the second day at #DigitalEducationUK. Real evidence of real outcomes of a real definition of the potential future of schools. 

#DigitalEducationUK Keynote: Leading a Culture of Innovation, Sir Ken Robinson

The following is a reflection on the thoughts shared by Sir Ken Robinson at the Digital Education Show. The italics are my reflections. The roman is Sir Ken Robinson’s comments approximately paraphrased.

Sir Ken Robinson opened by discussing the education debate in UK and exploring the connections with other countries around the world. For example, the No Child Left Behind policy in the US. He reflected that politicians are looking for a quick fix. Education has become strategic; politicians have realised it is the key to competitiveness. He moved on to discuss the comparative nature of the debate suggesting that PISA has almost become the Eurovision Song Contest – “and we all know what the Eurovision Song Contest has done for popular music.” The danger with comparing schools is that we can forget the individual contexts of the pupils within the schools and forget the personal nature of education. People are different. People learn differently. We cannot continue to compare schools and whole education systems without taking into account the wide range of contextual factors that influence their effectiveness. Basing a whole education system on comparisons is dangerous. 

Businesses look for adaptability and creativity. We are living in times of unique challenge and perplexity – challenges we have to confront that have never had to be dealt with before. We must think differently. Therefore, we must do things differently. Few have been able to predict how times would change as accurately as HG Wells who said: ‘Civilisation is a race between education and catastrophe.’ In discussing what innovative businesses look for, Sir Ken highlighted the importance of beginning to recognise this in education systems. 

The discussion moved on to discuss the comparison between the amount of technology available to people currently and in the past. Even in the last 10 years, technology has moved on hugely. Most of the technology we think is essential, didn’t exist 10 years ago. Most of this technology has unprecedented impacts. When Gutenberg invented the printing press to create copies of books more rapidly, he did not anticipate the Protestant reformation! As more and more technological developments occur, the outcomes of the impact are increasingly more difficult to predict. A future that cannot be predicted needs to be full of people who are able to adapt to the unprecedented change experienced in the world. 

The conversation moved on, briefly, to population growth. In last 30 years population of the world has more than doubled. We are using up our world’s resources. But the world will be fine. We are the ones who need to think differently in order to survive. The way we are living on the planet…we are putting ourselves on a collision course with our own environment.

Human innovation is a constant feedback loop of people’s ideas. Sir Ken moved on to explore the thoughts of Ray Kurzweil and explain that the future could see the merging of information systems with human consciousness. What was impossible yesterday, we take for granted today. Culturally we do adapt quickly with the changes in technology. If we don’t adapt, then we become outsiders to change.

Kodak Brownie Camera was revolutionary in the early 1900s. It was the giant of camera companies. It went bust recently. It went out of business, not because people have stopped taking photographs, but their business was in the chemistry behind photographic development. They didn’t adapt to the new environment of digital. If we don’t adapt to the culture, we swamp. This is an important message. If schools do not adapt to the changes in our culture, they will not survive. While this is not a new message, it is an important one. Schools must begin to adapt in line with technological and cultural developments if they are to actually empower their pupils to find success in their unpredictable futures.

Sir Ken moved on to explain his belief that there is much more room within systems for innovation than people think. Government control is not so big that change can’t happen. Again, this is an important message for teachers who are leaving the profession in their droves, if not the most important message of the morning. A bottom-up process of innovation is possible. Real changes bubbles up from the bottom.

At the point, Sir Ken offered three of his beliefs (or principles) that support what he things schools should be doing. Diversity, creativity and organic growth.

Everyone is different. We need a system of education that celebrates this diversity. It was discussed that the system of education we currently have does not reflect the uniqueness of its users. Part of the problem, it was discussed, is testing. The testing industry in America is a billion dollar business. NFL – $9 billion. Cinema box office – $11 billion. Testing industry – $16 billion. People are making profit out of children. They are looking constantly for places to drill new kinds of test. This is having a detrimental impact on the culture of education. Robinson explored the ridiculous notion of testing kindergarden children and using the results to predict their futures, which lead the conversation on to the linearity of our current system and the current values that surround the system. You can’t anticipate what your life is going to be like. We need organic growth.

A study by Elad Segev into what happens when children are given the idea that there is a right answer took us on to discuss creativity. 

He then showed us a clip from the Landfill Harmonic orchestra. ‘Landfill Harmonic’ shows that Human talent is deep, powerful and almost inexhaustible. We have a direct and symbiotic relationship with the planet. There is every reason to be optimistic. We can find solutions to the problems and the challenges we face. The culture of education at the moment is depressing our pupils both spiritually and in terms of the possibilities and ambition we promote. The World Health Organisation suggest that the biggest problem we will face in the future is high levels of depression. The digital tools we are using are not replacing the need for a creative education. They enhance the creative education that children do need. It is crucial to remember this as we think about the possibilities of digital education. What we need is a new culture of education before we consider the technology that can be used to support it.