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5 challenges to overcome in order to bridge the digital skills gap

Wired Magazine predicts that coding could become the next main blue-collar job which, if true, means that many small business owners will need increasing number of employees with programming skills in the near future.  The problem affecting all businesses is that, without action, the UK could fall well behind other parts of the world in training for the future.  This will affect our economy overall as well as our individual businesses.

children-Digital Skills Gap

Within two years there will be a shortfall of nearly a million skilled programmers and other technical professionals, according to the EU Commission, and the demand for programming skills already outstrips supply. Clearly, this means increased costs for hiring and a need for business owners to help put pressure on the government to improve the situation.

While that is going on we can encourage and support our local schools and young people (at school and at home) to take up the challenge and develop their coding skills now. Fortunately, children are wonderfully adaptable and inquisitive – we just need to give them the right tools to inspire them to learn. However, there are challenges that James Downes, co-founder of Maker Life highlights, that we need to overcome:

Kits can be complex

One of the best ways to teach kids coding and other tech skills is to involve them in a hands-on project. With the launch of inexpensive single-board computers (SBCs), such as the Raspberry Pi and the BBC micro: bit, programming kits have become much more widely available.

The issue with most kits, however, is the level of complexity. Most adults, let alone children, aren’t ready to jump straight into programming a home automation system quite yet. Starting with something complicated is more likely to confuse and scare children and teachers alike, putting them off trying other coding projects and programming in general.

What’s the solution?

Children, parents, and teachers all need to grow their confidence and understanding with simpler projects – such as a digital clock or weather station – that both children and adults can complete, yet are interesting enough to capture the imagination.

Kits can be dangerous

Much like learning other languages, it’s important that kids start learning programming skills as early as possible. In fact, Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, has called for coding to be taught alongside other modern languages to develop programming skills as early as possible.

Yet, a lot of single-board computers require the use of solder to attach components. For younger children, this clearly isn’t safe. Even with teenagers, it might be asking a lot for teachers to supervise thirty youngsters with soldering irons. Not to mention the need for thirty soldering irons!

What’s the solution?

Creating kits that don’t require soldering is a simple design challenge that should be built into the brief, just like anything else. It’s possible to design pieces that can slot together or clip in place, making the connections without the need for a dangerous soldering iron.

Kits can puzzle adults

A large reason for the rapidly growing skills gap is that the digital revolution came almost too quickly. Parents and teachers aren’t digital natives themselves and were probably never taught coding when they were at school. As such, they often feel out of their depth when it comes to programming.

Some kits which have been designed for education require someone with existing programming skills to interpret the instructions. If a kit looks too puzzling for an adult to figure out, they won’t feel comfortable teaching it to children.

What’s the solution?

To develop kits that are straight-forward and come with instructions suitable for anyone – professional or total novice. Parents and teachers will quickly grasp how the kit works and will feel comfortable using them with children. Working together on the kit and seeing it through to completion will grow everyone’s confidence!

Kits can be designed for boys

Programming falls into the STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) group of subjects. Historically, STEM jobs have been seen as ‘male jobs’ for some reason, leading toys and kit manufacturers to design specifically for boys. You get robots and guns and giant walking spiders – projects that tend to appeal much more to boys than girls.

But coding is definitely just as much for girls as it is for boys and some of the biggest tech companies in the world are run by women. It’s incredibly important that we encourage girls to take up STEM subjects in general and create coding kits that appeal to both genders.

What’s the solution?

There are loads of interests and activities that are shared by even the girliest of girls and the most boyish of boys. Bigger kids love to discover the world around them, so a weather station or star-spotter may capture their interest. Smaller kids love animals, for example, so a kit designed around animal noises could be fun. Even Lego is creating its own programmable kits!

Kits can feel like hard work

Frustration and disappointment are the quickest ways to turn kids off learning anything – especially something that can seem as complex as coding. Kits can often feel like a lot of hard work and drain any sense of fun and excitement from the project almost as quickly as you start.

The aim isn’t to fast-track primary school children into becoming expert coders by age eleven, it’s to inspire them and build confidence in their abilities so that they want to keep learning and developing their skills.

What’s the solution?

Both collectively and as parents let’s do our best to encourage our young people to learn! If kids are enjoying what they are doing, they will want to keep doing it. If they can see their skills improve, they will feel a sense of achievement. Put those two concepts together and you get a fun, achievable coding project kit.

Coding isn’t just good for the labour market; everything from our clothes to our kettle will soon be digital and getting the most from them will require some understanding of programming. As an adult, that can be a terrifying prospect. But we have the opportunity to learn more ourselves at the same time as preparing our kids for this new world by inspiring and developing these skills now. This will be good for young people and the future of our businesses and the overall economy.

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