DAVOS – In many parts of the world, young children grow up surrounded by technology. At their fingertips – literally – lies a limitless amount of entertainment, gaming, learning, and social networking. Their world has always been connected. They learn to scroll before they can walk. And yet, as confident as they may be using technology, too many children have no idea how it all works. Nor do they fully appreciate how it underpins their lives – or how it will shape their futures.
I think of this as the tech literacy paradox. Today’s children may be great consumers of technology, but rarely are they truly tech literate. They may look like savvy digital natives, but their knowledge is only screen-deep. They are passive users, not active creators. And most of them have little real interest in finding out how the technology on which they depend actually functions.
This has important implications. Economies are undergoing radical shifts in terms of how they produce, distribute, and consume goods and services. Every aspect of life and work is changing. Greater tech literacy will be essential to ensure that the human implications of the ongoing Fourth Industrial Revolution are positive.
If young people are to participate fully in our increasingly tech-enabled world, greater numbers of them will have to be tech literate. If they are to be empowered citizens, not just beguiled consumers, they will need to understand how technology affects their lives and prospects.
Not only will there be more tech jobs in the future; increasingly, more jobs will have a tech dimension to them, especially as scientific advances play a major role in solving some of society’s biggest challenges – climate change, health care, poverty, and inequality.
That is why BT has made a long-term commitment to use our skills and capabilities to help build a culture of tech literacy. We want young people to know that they will be the creators and builders of our future – in every sense. We want them to get excited about looking beyond the screen, to make and do stuff.
That means learning to code, of course. But it also means becoming fluent in computational thinking and problem solving. And, perhaps most important, it means becoming an engaged tech citizen. For example, all young people should understand who has access to their personal data, how it is being used, and why that matters. Accomplishing this will not be easy. It will take more than simply making sure that children have access to iPads.
Any initiative to boost tech literacy must focus on three areas. First, kids must be inspired to learn about the technology they use every day; they must “connect” with tech concepts and find them exciting. At BT, we are collaborating with tech entrepreneurs and education thinkers to develop fresh and creative ways to engage young people’s innate curiosity.
Second, teachers must be supported, as many do not feel confident to teach tech literacy. We can help with that. Already, we have engaged with thousands of teachers in the United Kingdom; in the last school year, we reached nearly 350,000 primary-school children, and we aim to reach five million by 2020. We have also collaborated with education innovators at MIT to bring new coding tools into classrooms.
Third, schools must be properly equipped. Making sure students have access to the latest technology is a challenge even for advanced countries. In the UK, we are working to ensure that our high-speed fiber broadband connects the hardest-to-reach schools. And we are using our expertise to help teaching professionals who are eager to make tech an integral part of schools’ everyday life.
A successful tech literacy program requires a long-term, sustained commitment to all three pillars of this approach. We expect it will take a school generation to realize the cultural shift we believe is necessary.
Previous industrial revolutions unlocked social progress only when they were accompanied by changes in education – in particular, concerted efforts to boost literacy and numeracy. If we want everybody to benefit from the radical upheavals transforming the world’s economies, further changes in education will be needed. Among the most important of these will be those that build a strong culture of tech literacy.
Gavin Patterson is CEO at BT Group.
By Gavin Patterson