How can the FE and skills sector prepare for a digital future?

13 August 2014

  • What skills do future workers need in order for the UK to be globally competitive?
  • How are we teaching learners in a way that inspires and prepares them for careers in the future workforce in occupations that may not yet exist?

These are just two of the questions posed by the Digital Skills Committee of the House of Lords, whose Chair, Baroness Morgan of Huyton, stated:

“I believe it’s going to be crucial for the UK to create a workforce that is skilled enough to stay ahead globally, particularly in terms of digital skills. I hope that this inquiry will shine a light on whether or not the UK sits at the top of the class or whether it must try harder.”

We live in an era of unprecedented technological change. Use of technology and the internet pervades every aspect of our lives. It governs how we access information and public services, interact with government and with each other, how we learn, and how and where we work. Every business functions in a digital world, where employees need digital skills ranging from generic digital workplace capabilities, to the ability to use digital tools for specific jobs.

Digital Skills for Tomorrow’s World, from the UK Digital Skills Taskforce, identifies three tiers of digital skills required to participate in society and to find, and remain in, work.

  1. A Digital Citizen needs basic online skills to communicate, find information or purchase goods/services online.
  2. A Digital Worker uses digital technology as part of their working lives e.g. using social media for marketing.
  3. A Digital Maker builds digital technology and makes advanced digital content e.g. coding.

According to the UK forum on Computing Education, more than one-in-three (37%) of UK jobs require employees to be Digital Citizens; nearly half (46%) of jobs need Digital Workers; and 10% of jobs depend on Digital Makers. Only 7% of current jobs in the UK do not require any digital skills.

The shortfall of young people entering the labour market means that we are all going to have to work longer. So it’s crucial that we address the digital skills needs of the whole workforce, including older workers, the unemployed and those in low level jobs wishing to progress.

Our Skills for Prosperity manifesto highlights the need for lifelong learning if people are to remain productive throughout their working lives. Nowhere is that need greater than in digital skills. People of all ages need opportunities to develop and refresh their digital skills and progress from digital citizen to digital learner to digital worker or digital maker.

While there are many existing learning opportunities, digital skills at all levels must not exist in a silo, but must be embedded within every area of learning. The FELTAG report showed that the FE and Skills workforce needs to develop its capability and capacity to use technology for learning, teaching and assessment. Is the sector equally prepared to develop the digital skills of its learners? Providers, leaders and practitioners need to consider how they can prepare their learners for the future. How can different parts of the sector work together more effectively to make this happen?

The Lords Digital Skills Committee will report to the House with recommendations in late January 2015. This is a unique opportunity to make your voice heard. NIACE encourages members, partners, individuals and organisations to respond to the call for evidence by 5 September 2014.



Carolyn Edwards

August 18th, 2014 at 2:54 pm

I would like to echo the the absolute need for strong digital partnerships that are highlighted in the ‘How can the FE and skills sector prepare for a Digital Future’ paper. So much importance and a lot of good work has been done to help people go online, yet so many people are still digitally excluded and fearful of going online, some people access the web for very basic needs, e.g. emails, yet still have reservations of using the web for anything more. Many still don’t access the web at all. This is due to lack of confidence, skills and or suitable access. I know this from research and evaluations but my main source of knowledge comes primarily from pragmatic sources – I run a not for profit recovery agency ‘Genie In The Gutter’(for people with substance misuse and mental health issues)in central Liverpool with up to 60 clients per day engaging. Some of our extremely marginalised clients have reported that they are ‘petrified’ of going online, usually because in their opinion ‘they’re not good enough’. Through our digital inclusion programmes with strong partnerships some of these people are now accessing the web independently on a regular basis. This has had a knock on effect in all areas of their lives, including recovery, confidence, housing and health. This would not have been possible without our diverse strong partnerships and seed funding.

Within the the new government strategy for digital inclusion (April 2014) I was really pleased to read that “…we need to bring together and scale up our efforts more than ever before. No single organisation can tackle this alone and only strong partnership across all sectors will succeed.”

We currently have really strong digital and community partnerships with many organisations including other recovery agencies, Liverpool City Council and private IT/ design technicians and businesses. These were really important in the successful completion of our recent ‘Online Road Testing’ initiative, (an 8 week course were service users tested and evaluated 15 health and social care online support packages, followed up by a thorough and informative research paper)We chose to deliver the online road testing course as we could find no evidence of a standard ‘kite mark’ for online health and social care packages – potentially a very dangerous and detrimental situation for people with mental health and other issues, including risk of suicide, that access online health and social care packages). Without our strong partnerships the initiative would not have been successful. We have also been very impressed with how the private technology business want to help and we are continuing to build stronger partnerships with them all the time. They said our ‘online road testing’ evidence paper is like ‘gold’ to them, in respect of any new designs they are working on for health care online. These highly marginalised people would not have engaged in the testing if they were not fully supported and motivated within the community learning environment were their real life needs are met and understood.

The partnerships played a vital part in the initiatives success and also in our other digital initiatives. In my opinion the reason why efforts to get people online fully have not had as much success as we would like, is due to the fact that investment in the community learning environment has not proportionally matched the investment that has been put into new technology and upgraded equipment; funding for community organisations to deliver digital initiatives has been limited.

We ran a year long pilot ‘Recovery Rises Online’;(service user before and after video evidence is available at;This pilot facilitated over 180 learners to go online, all of whom reported that they would never have done this without the support of their community learning environment. Investing in community learning environments (often a small amount of investment goes a long way)I believe community learning investments WILL contribute significantly to closing the digital gap and increase overall prosperity – many of our service users who gain a full recovery struggle with interviews/ job applications as a direct result of digital exclusion.

At Genie we have found some innovative ways of getting people online and confident with going online. e.g. all volunteers are supported daily but at least once a week the Volunteers Coordinator has an online Skype support meeting with them – initially the volunteers needed a lot of assistance, now they engage in their weekly Skype support independently – all reported that they never thought they would be able to do this on their own when we first introduced the Skype support. It has encouraged them to do more online, accessing the web more often, thus their confidence and employability prospects have increased tenfold. We have also recently brought this initiative to the organisations employees, they have at least one team Skype meeting per month and we plan to extend these inititives in the workplace so employyes also improve their digital skills and are able to keep up with the latest technology developments.

To summarise: – to successfully close the digital gap and improve overall prosperity marginalised people need to be supported by the right people/ organisations when going online, for as long as it takes for them to feel confident enough to use the web independently, and innovative ways of staff communication helps employees to increase and expand their digital skills.

Janine Davies

August 19th, 2014 at 12:12 pm

As the manager of a not-for-profit drug and alcohol recovery service I feel that robust and effective partnership working is fundamental for preparing learners for their future within the labour market. Within our sector we are developing and strengthening existing partnerships with the Job Centre Plus to work alongside each other to support our service users within their recovery and to ensure that they are identifying education, training and employment goals to work towards as part of their recovery plan. We also work effectively with other partner agencies to ensure that our service users whole spectrum of needs are met. Our service users consist of some of the most marginalised people within our society who often face many barriers, and the majority have no or little access to the digital world, i.e. PCs, internet, smartphones, tablets. With so many members of society being digitally excluded, ensuring that they are taught the digital skills required and providing them with equal opportunities to access the internet and digital technology is paramount for preparing learners for the working environment.

Aside from the support and guidance on offer to our service users, I feel it is also essential that the staff within such organisations are offered the same opportunities to develop their digital skills. Funding for IT/digital training should be made available to third sector organisations and charities to ensure that their workforces are able to develop their digital skills and confidence which can then be taught to the users of such services. Thus, increasing the potential for reducing digital exclusion and enabling more people to enter the labour market with the digital skills needed as a prerequisite.

Stephanie Brindle

September 4th, 2014 at 4:42 pm

I would like to respond to the above. As a key worker for people with mental health issues I believe it is imperative that as a society, we make sure each and every one of our citizens are digitally included. I have had lots of my clients lately whose lives have been turned upside down due to benefit reductions etc which is all as a result of their digital exclusion. At present it would be really difficult for them to attend/ engage with more formal types of education due to their complex needs. However, this is not a reason for them to be excluded and in many cases I have seen individuals being held back from progressing and moving forward with their lives as even the most basic of tasks such applying for volunteering is now all digital. As our service users come to us with a wide array of needs, this again makes the need for digital inclusion more imperative than ever. From housing applications to applying for jobs our clients are becoming more excluded from society due to not having the sufficient skills to engage with online applications. Furthering their needs and being more detrimental to their mental well being. Therefore if we are to make real headway in closing the digital gap I strongly believe that community / third sector organisations need financial support for community digital learning. It is these organisations that successfully engage our most marginalised citizens. If we take our digital inclusion strategies to the extreme margins surely this would be the most effective way of closing the digital gap.

Max Zadow

September 5th, 2014 at 12:46 pm

Firstly, I would not be making this comment unless persuaded by Genie in the Gutter. You can see this as Astro-Turfing or you can use it as an example of what happens when activist VCS organsations make partnerships with the private sector, Genie in the Gutter’s passion gets things done, and my comment is an example of that.
My company makes applications for the Health and Social Care sector, and we are also looking at combining this with some wildly futuristic sensor technology provided by our Universities to create some ‘Internet of Things’ approaches. Before that I spent eight years in the games sector. In addition, I’m currently the lead of a Liverpool eHealth cluster of other tech SMEs, and I’m a part of the community created by our local Maker Space. I also Mentor at the Studio School, an Academy that bases its learning around games and apps. I organised the first Social Care Hack days in the UK.
When I was working in the games industry I ran a series of educational activities for a Liverpool games development studio called Onteca. They had been asked to provide some support for University graduates who were having difficulty getting to the next step in the Games industry and were from under-reoresented groups (women, disabled people, people from BME communities). I was recruited to work on this after an MA in New Media Production. Later, because of the success of this programme we were asked to privude after school clubs, then level 3 technology qualiifications for disadvantaged communities, then an Alternative Curriculum activity. In each case we were asked ‘could you do something like that last one but for our group?’
This was between 2003 and 2010, so we were doing this before Eric Schmidt’s speech about the woeful state of British technology education at school level, and the much needed reforms of the curriculum and recognition by all involved we need radical change. When we first set up Future Coders we had a much stronger education focus and still have strong opinions even though we concentrate elsewhere.
Firstly, there are whole communities that don’t see technology as being for them as consumers even, never mind producers. There will always be ‘geeks’ in any demographic, and they will teach themselves to code and to tinker. However, they need guidance, and unless it is provided they usually don’t get beyond the stage of ‘script kiddies’, an insult term for people who know a little and think they know a lot. At best they may become bedroom coders. Few hone their skills in ways that mean they become useful to industry. And these are the outliers prepared to teach themselves. The possible ‘Digital Workers’ are left stranded in a sea of incomprehension and digital exclusion.
We found that when we tried to offer education that we were viewed as very alien people. The only way we could reach learners in disadvantaged communities was by bridges. Trusted community groups and activists that would vouch for us. Say we ‘meant it’ as well and give the learners the reassurance this was ‘for them’. As a result, we got many learners that had hardly switched on a computer before who went on to gain advanced production skills. Tech companies and communities can provide the education, they cannot reach the learners without strong VCS groups that believe in the cause (like Genie in the Gutter.)
Our local maker Space, DoES is brilliant. Without their inspiration I would still be working for other people. Their love of the coming tech and creation of an environment that was about hands-on play gave me the reason to set up my own comoany. But this Maker Space is mainly attended by experienced technologists mostly in the Digital Worker or Digital Maker categories. They would love to serve a wider market, but they run the space as a voluntary activity alongside busy professional lives. They are also very sceptical of public sector intervention because mostly they perceive it is a ‘tick box’ activity that has little real substance. They are right.
Once again, activist VCS organisations can feed into these Maker Spaces, and use their expertise. However, if this activity becomes empty exercises in getting funding with no solid basis in the needs of the technology community and learners, it is useless. Yet funding is necessary for these VCS organisations running on minimal support to spend the time doing this. ‘Tick box’ culture thrives on paper work heavy daily processes and vague outcomes. The answer is to focus on more informal processes and projects, with strong agreed outputs and outcomes. Be flexible in the form and strict about the results.
Then you will get more learners coming through from non-traditional communities.
Secondly, when Digital Workers and Makers come through, they need to be of the right sort. I run a technology business and work in a cluster. There are not enough people with the right skills. PHP developers, people who are good with Javascript Libraries, those who can connect apps to sensors can usually walk into a job. But, any real programmer when asked ‘do you know this language?’ can answer ‘no, but give me a week and I will.’ Real Makers get the ‘grammar’ of technology, and are constantly learning, always evolving what and how they make.
This can be fostered by education which is around self-learning, around the fun of creation, because it is fun, but still roots this in the context of the wider industry. Get young learners out of their bedrooms and working together and with people from the industry. People from industry are always rather refreshing for the learners, as it is clear the job is fun, there is a clear example of progression and it is made clear that flexibility is the key thing and professional structures are there to enable it. Agile exists to give shape to boundless creativity and the methodology is not and end in itself.
For examples of how to do it right look at Alan O’Donohoe and his Hack to the Future and Raspberry Jam events and his whole approach, and the excellent Studio School in Liverpool.
Thirdly, there needs to be education of the wider community: the teachers and the VCS and the public sector. Too often when discussing technology education projects the people in charge joke about how little they understand tech themselves. Which is understandable and fine considering it is their role to commission and administer not deliver, but it sends the wrong message and gets in the way. There is a solution. Some simple training in basic concepts such as what the various languages do, what an API is and why they are necessary, what concepts like Big Data and IoT actually mean, and what the significance of hardware like the Oculus Rift, Raspberry Pi and Arduino is. Just a simple overview so they have a common language with those they work with to deliver activity. It wouldn’t be about becoming coders or makers themselves (although a little practical play with simple code snippets and the hardware involved would help the process along and embed understanding with real world examples – more fun as well.)

Alastair Clark

September 7th, 2014 at 11:51 am

This is such an important issue for the future of the social and economic life of our communities in the UK and indeed worldwide.
I agree with the three categories outlined in the article but woukd suggest some expansion and deepening of these.

1. A Digital Citizen needs basic online skills to communicate, find information or purchase goods/services online.

SURE – totally agree but we need to match this with an understanding of the context in which these services are available. Adult educators MUST add to the ‘buttonology’ of basic online functions an awareness of the economic and political powers at work in this online world. We ares still coming to terms with ‘paying’ for apparently free services with our data.

2. A Digital Worker uses digital technology as part of their working lives e.g. using social media for marketing.

QUITE RIGHT – but it goes so much further than marketing. Wwe need digital workers to become proactive (not reactive) and empowered to exert influence over how technology is and can be applied to have positive effect. Workers should be more than users of technology but co create the applications of their industries.

3. A Digital Maker builds digital technology and makes advanced digital content e.g. coding.

OF COURSE Coding is important and we all need some understanding of what happens ‘under the hood’ so I agree with this example but above all we need that culture of innovation, space to fail and try again and a work and learning environment where we all make technology work for us not the other way round.

We have been at this digital skill business for some time. The tasks are getting more complex but even more important than they were before.

NIACE has a key role articulate in the learner perspective (plenty of others speak for Silicon valley adn employers)