Persuading communities and institutions to think much more creatively about all things digital
It’s got to the stage where I feel I need to significantly broaden my skills sets – in particular some of the broader basics. It’s one of those things where I feel I sort of vaguely know what something is about, but have never really put it into practice. This is why the process of making my beginners’ userguides for social media (see here) were an incredible learning experience for me. I brought together a number of very talented but under-employed young people, gave them a framework and an outcome to work with, and let them unleash their talents at the challenge I gave them.
What are the digital skills that people want and need?
This in part follows on blogposts here and here - the latter being my demand for a coding school. We’re sort of getting one in Cambridge next summer, but it’s aimed at 16-19 year olds and costs far too much for me. (See here). Also, with coding there feels like there is so much information that I struggle to get my head around that I can’t make an informed choice. Think of it as someone illiterate saying: “I want to learn how to write”. Which language do you want to write in? With what tool do you want to write, and on which medium/material do you want to write on? Now imagine that the illiterate person knows nothing about the variety of written languages across the globe, the tools you can write with or the materials you can write on – from paper to computer screen to a brick wall.
So the challenge here is informed choice: People are not able to make sense of the information that is in front of them. I’ve lost count of the number of people who’ve recommended different programming/coding languages. Yet this matters. The same principles apply with the basic IT courses that teach the Microsoft Office suite of programmes: You end up locking people into a commercial and very expensive suite of software. In one sense I was lucky during the mid-1990s when I did a GCSE in information systems – we were taught concepts as the school was still using the old Acorn computers. Thus word processing, spreadsheets and databases were the terms we used rather than the trademarked brand names – which came later.
Method of delivery
I’m thinking here about the people (like me) who cannot sit down and do ‘distance learning’ or learning at home in isolation. It’s simply not my preferred method of learning for something practical. I personally need people to converse with, and to bounce ideas off. I also struggle with the single ‘one day’ courses – a couple which I tried in London not long after leaving the civil service. They just didn’t work for me, even though they were reasonably affordable.
That said, education in the community needs to account for different learning styles. How do you ensure you are covering as many of them as possible? Furthermore, where do you try to get funding in these constrained times. Commercially available training such as this one are prohibitively expensive for most people.
Learning creatively and imaginatively
In one sense the ECDL framework (see here) has started to expand beyond the Office suite of products. (I completed the standard version over a decade ago). I can’t say I learnt anything particularly new back then. If anything, my big complaint about those sorts of courses is how utterly unimaginative they were when I did them. Ditto when I went on a course to learn about basic CSS/HTML. The printed book we had to learn from was written by an American which meant that culturally it did not sit well with a UK audience. The case study we were given to work with was to design a webpage for a dog. For a dog. Weird Al Yankovic & Donny Osmond spoofed the entire concept (see here) in a satirical take of this original number. (The spoof is the first one, the original the second one).
“I gotta biz-ness doin’ websites – when my friends need code who do they call?
I do H-T-M-L for them all – even got a web page for my dog”
My point here being: “What are the really bad cliches that we want to avoid?” What are the learning-killers? Bland, poor communicators are one. Inappropriate materials are another. No real context is a third. There are many more.
A sense of structure
One of the things I’m trying to do for myself for 2014 is come up with a list of ‘digital stuff’ that I feel I need to know about ***and*** be able to demonstrate (if only to myself) that I can use them. Ditto with making use of the software and hardware that I spent a fair amount of money on after leaving the civil service. It was only making the digital videos that I got a sense of both being tested to their limits.
The important thing about structure is the sequencing. In what order do you recommend people learn the different components? Does the package of components connect to something that is far greater than the sum of their parts? What are the basic things that people need to know before they go onto the more advanced things? For example how much about spreadsheets do people need to know before going into something around big data? How much around basic journalism to people need to know before doing something around data journalism – a growing area?
I’m bouncing off a blogpost by the brilliant Jennifer ‘Jay Jay’ Jones on community media cafes and other things. (See here). In a nutshell, JJ is an inspiration – I had the pleasure of meeting her over a year ago when she came to visit Cambridge. The work that she’s doing in Scotland to me looks like many of the things I would like to do in Cambridge – but as part of a team and a wider group of people.
In Cambridge we’ve got the very good Cambridge Online which hosts the free Net-Squared social media surgeries. I’m a volunteer at the latter and demand for social media surgeries has shot up since I started volunteering, moving from once every three months to once every month. The problem is that Cambridge Online is forever struggling for sustainable sources of funding – even though there is clearly demand for these sorts of basic services that they provide. There are also specialist groups, such as the Cambridge Bloggers’ group (see here). But how do you get the sense of having a comprehensive suite of skills that covers the basics and beyond? This is part of the thinking behind the ‘Open Badges’ scheme by Mozilla – the Firefox people. (See here).
The poisoned narrative around adult education
This is what senior politicians from all parties simply do not understand: Lifelong learning is not just about basic skills for employment, nor is it simply about flower-arranging workshops for middle class mummies. Both Labour and the Coalition have a lot to answer for in terms of the cuts that have happened to adult and community education in recent years. (See this blogpost for more on this). Too much of our political class still digitally illiterate – I’ve had my run-ins at a local level with several councillors kicking sand in my face as a direct result. As the following article states:
But where is that investment going to come from, and will it be sustained?
So…what should be in a ‘digital learning in the community’ program?
Let’s assume we’re starting from year zero here – and I’m ****really interested**** in your thoughts on this.
We could take the ECDL framework and have things like
- Word processing
- Email and the internet
But there are also other important basic concepts such as:
- File management
- Computer security
- Staying safe online
- Data protection
What else to people use at a basic level?
- Basic social media – Twitter, Facebook, Blogging, RSS
- Basic image manipulation/digital photography
But then there are things that people are now using more of as a result of wider smartphone uptake
- Basic short mobile digital video clips (without editing)
Then you’re also onto things like:
- Creating basic webpages
- Basic coding
- Search engine optimisation – SEO
- Basic data analysis
- Mobile and apps
- Basic gaming
That’s a hell of a lot of basics for a basic program!
That’s my point. Now, for those of you over the age of…30, go back to 1990. Where were we with all things computing? Yes, we had basic console games for some of us who were growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, but how much of it was incorporated into our learning? How far have curriculums and learning programs evolved to account for the rapid growth of new skills that are now being demanded by employers?
Now, how do you put all of the above into a context that is meaningful and won’t bore the tears of the people learning? How do you also ensure that the content is continually refreshed to account for rapid changes in technology and how people use it?
This is something I would love to spend some time exploring with you and others – bringing together a group of interested parties to play with these ideas to see what we can come up with.