Digital Skills Select Committee: Some answers on skills, education and the future of work

I was offered the opportunity to submit a written response to the House of Lords Select Committee on Digital Skills in my capacity as member of the CIPR’s Social Media Advisory Panel.

My submission covered issues such as digital skills education, the future of work and the higher education system has been accepted and can be found in the Committee’s latest publication.

To save you trawling through the document, however, I’ve pasted my responses below. Enjoy!

Q. 5 How are we teaching students in a way that inspires and prepares them for careers in the future workforce in occupations that may not yet exist, rather than the current one? How can this be improved?

From experience of teaching undergraduates, postgraduates and professionals, it can be argued that there is still too much emphasis on classroom or lecture based teaching, taught to syllabi that are out-dated – or not necessarily reflective of emerging or transforming occupations – and are limited to rapid change or development due to bureaucracy within higher education or professional bodies.

Given the highly practical and technical as well as experimental nature of some elements of digital knowledge and skills it is important for students to gain hands-on experience of technology and its application in specific fields. This can be limited by the syllabi of courses and qualifications which tend to be taught by academics and professionals not familiar with new or emerging products or techniques as well as the facilities of education institutions which remain wedded to lecture theatre and classroom style teaching. The provision of ‘wired’ teaching spaces or computer-labs can be scant and, where it does exist, highly popular making it difficult to reserve and teach in.

As well as infrastructure limitations, education is also held back the scope of syllabi which remain unchanged and rooted in non-digital content. Part of this is linked to out-of-touch, established tutors as addressed above, but it is also partly to do with the laboriousness and time-taken to review and re-validate course content. The additional work and duration of this process is prohibitive to updating and adapting courses to new and emerging technologies, knowledge and skills.

Q. 7 How can the education system develop creativity and social skills more effectively?

The answer provided to Q. 5 above provides part of the context and answer to this one as well. However, the issues that require addressing to help the nations’s education system develop creativity lie pre-higher education and within the approach schools take to teaching and learning. For example, many undergraduate and postgraduate students encountered through my experience are overly focused on learning the ‘facts’ required to pass assessments, rather than recognising the ability to think critically and creativity and value the ‘process’ of knowledge exploration and development. Anecdotal research among student cohorts across a number of years indicates that this approach to learning stems from GCSE and A-Levels where the goal is not to develop techniques for learning per se, but rather ‘learn’ the exam inputs required to pass. By extension such an approach to teaching may well stem from schools’ desire to achieve successful results in order to satisfy league tables.

Locked into this approach is a highly detrimental way of learning which overlooks the value in self-directed exploration, creative thinking, experimentation and a recognition that coming up with creative ideas, trying them out, failing and adapting them is an important skill set to possess in contemporary society.

I’m not sure the education system has a primary responsibility for developing social skills.

Q. 8 How does the current post-16 system inspire and equip students to pursue careers in the future workforce in occupations that may not yet exist? How can this be improved?

Education and other state systems can be notoriously process-driven and focused on outputs rather than critical and creative thinking. In some respects it may be worthwhile developing partnerships with credible third parties to help students identify, understand and pursue careers in the future workplace. Linked to my response to Q. 7, one of he emerging areas of the economic and employment landscape is the increasing rise of individual responsiveness and entrepreneurship. Driven by digital technology’s empowerment if individuals and its fragmentation of existing industries this trend emphasises – at least presently – the opportunities for individuals to identify problems and develop solutions, either as start-up organisations (e.g. AirBnB, Uber, etc) or as individuals (e.g. the freelancing of traditional career paths and roles). Enabling students to think creatively, explore and test opportunities and even fail are key skills to be equipped with in such a broad, entrepreneurial economic environment.

Q.9 How can the digital sector be supported in the short- and medium-term? What is the role for higher and vocational education, national colleges, industry, and industrial policy?

In terms of the short and medium-term role for higher and professional/vocational education, more emphasis needs to be placed on understanding through research and embedding through teaching the key core knowledge and skills, e.g. techniques, ethical implications, successful applications, etc, of the major trends in the digital sector. These will be high-level insights and not necessarily available from existing workplaces or on course curricula. Extra funding for research and curriculum development will be key. One potential limitation for education is the growth of commercialised involvement in elements of the digital sector. The once open field of the Internet and ‘social media’ is fast being consolidated, commercialised and hide away behind patents and copyright. While tho is arguably inevitable in a market economy it means that teaching the application of popular or widely-used tools, technologies, platforms, etc will require ether partnerships with or licences for proprietary products. This is something that would potentially restrict education providers to limit student expose to one or two key technologies given exclusivity clauses or often exorbitant costs.

Hansard Society report on Parliament and #futurenews

The Hansard Society has published an interesting report, #futurenews – The Communication of Parliamentary Democracy in a Digital World, that examines the ways in which Parliament can (and should) adapt to social media to enhance its communication and engagement with the public.

Future News: Can Parliament seize the opportunity to better communicate parliamentary democracy

The reports main findings are that:

  • Parliament needs to adopt to social, mobile, data and video-led digital communications
  • Parliament has the potential to play a crucial part as “authoritative place at the apex of our democracy” – but one which is largely absent from popular political debate
  • Parliament needs to spend time identifying key online communities and developing ways to communicate better with them (i.e. faster and using more granular, social content)

In order to step up and start meeting these challenges, the reports authors argue that the following actions must be prioritised and implemented:

  1. “Appoint a Community Team (for each House or on a bi-cameral basis) to build links with online communities with specific audience interests and an AV media officer to produce rich in-house content to populate the website and be disseminated to a variety of audiences
  2. Invest in its broadcasting and digital infrastructure to enable a wider range of online sites to take its material
  3. Produce contextualised video news releases and make video of up to two minutes’ duration available copyright free, with attribution for any user to download and embed
  4. Revise the  broadcasting rules, particularly for regional select committee visits
  5. Live-log, time-code, tag and key-word Hansard, and improve the website search functionality in order to enable people to access relevant material more quickly”

These findings and recommendations are interesting for a number of reasons. Firstly, I think it’s fair to say that none of results and outcomes are particularly ground-breaking – at least if you work in a digital PR or social media agency. But it is striking that none of the, even fundamental steps, have yet to be considered let alone implemented by an institution described by the report authors as the “apex of our democracy”!

Secondly, a lot of this reminds me of the work I delivered with We Are Social as part of a project with Parliamentary Outreach, the marketing arm – if you will – of Parliament*. This project was focused on opening up the work and processes of Parliamentary committees – and as an aside, it’s interesting to note that the report intimates the ethos and perhaps some of the original actions from the project have filtered through to a practical level within Committee business (see p.37 and the #askgove example). One key learning from this project – and something commonly experienced across established institutions – was that while the recommended actions were widely recognised as imperative for engaging digitally and opening up the organisation, dominant cultures and stakeholders prevailed, limiting the potential of the project.

This latter point is one issue that the report needs to consider as a next step for ensuring its accurate recommendations become reality. There are, of course, many ways to embed social norms within traditionally hierarchical organisations but I think another factor that the Hansard Society and Parliament need to consider is the presumption of centrality and self-importance of Parliament and by extension, democracy.

The report itself describes Parliament as occupying an “authoritative place at the apex of our democracy”. But is this a risky start point for socialising Parliament’s communication (and by necessity, Parliament itself)? Based on both the disintegration of public trust in Parliament and democratic institutions as well as the empowering of ‘ordinary citizens’ through social technologies surely a more appropriate starting point would one of deference and a recognition that both in terms of political purpose and social media knowledge and practice, Parliament has a lot of catching up to with wider society.

 

* It always amused me that Parliamentary Outreach’s portcullis logo on We Are Social’s client page was consistently mistaken for Ministry of Sound!

The digital industry must act now to stop the Digital Economy Bill

The way the UK’s Digital Economy Bill was created by Lord Mandelson and the music industry was  staggering in its audacity and truly disgusting. There was no attempt to veil the fact that the legislation was patently designed to protect the content industries; support executive salaries (and don’t for one second think that this will protect artists’ revenues. It doesn’t and it won’t) and insulate industrial busienss models form the creativity and innovation opened up by the Internet. It was also clear that the Bill would directly impact on citizens and consumers’ personal freedom and rights.

Outstandingly, as this vile piece of legislation has passed through the democratic process (and having been party to some of the to-ing and fro-ing of amendments in the Lords, I use that term loosely) the application of corrupt, money-driven, corporate, executive-serving self-interest has reached even loftier heights of shame.

I won’t dwell on the passion Lord Mandelson has shown in seeking to drive the Bill through the Commons without democratic debate; nor the disgusting collusion shown by all mainstream parties to date in order to gratify big business by preventing a debate; not even the appalling silence from both my own MP, Stewart Jackson, and Lord Clement Jones, who tabled a catastrophic amendment in the Lords at the behest of his content producing clients for at his firm DLA Piper. Without any doubt he is truly a vile, greed-obsessed man more passionate about protecting his client’s interests and his personal wealth than individual, human right.

Instead I want to call on my friends and peers that work in the digital and technology industries and issue a call to action: stand up for democracy; stand up against authoritarian, corporate-driven legislation; stand up for what is right.

The effects of the Digital Economy Bill as it stands will have serious implications for everyone. Us digital media types won’t be able to stop off at a café for a coffee and check our emails because free, open wifi will be shut off. Our children won’t be able to do their homework or learn about the wonders of the wider world because the household has been disconnected without evidence after someone has been suspected of 'illegally' sharing a large file.

But simply, if the Digital Economy Bill is passed we'll be faced with a bleak future where the stupefied consumers of Huxley’s Brave New World are now being shown the Orwell 1984 treatment.

Please. Please. Please. Act NOW before it is too late. Wake up from your stupefaction and do something:

This is an important announcement…

Those that know me may be surprised that I haven't yet blogged about the government's appalling behaviour to take a fat wad of cash from the music industry in return for turning a blind eye to the amazing power the internet is bringing every facet of humankind and instead amending British law so that we can all take a giant leap backwards in terms of digital rights.

This is purely done to ensure that the UK's moronic entertainment industry executives get to keep their fucking enormous salaries until they retire, upon when they can also cash in their even more enormous fucking pensions.

But that's not all: in case the government wasn't sure that this is a totally fucking stupid idea that might cost them votes, they're also criminalising young people (some might say the electorate of the future), potentially breaching individuals' universal human rights and into the bargain Lord Mandelson has also opted to award himself the personal power to amend copyright laws willy-nilly with the barest minimum of parliamentary oversight.

This (and a whole lot more evilness, such as the loss of free public wifi) is wrapped up in a nifty Bill announced in last month's Queen's Speech called the Digital Economy Bill.

If you want the biggest, most hilarious of laughs, take a look at what I predicted and indeed hoped might be in the Bill when the initial consultation phase was announced last year.

Here's what really happened:

  1. Lord Carter appointed to consult on Digital Britain 
  2. Lord Carter speaks with various people and turnsout a not-perfect but very respectable white paper
  3. Lord Carter moves on
  4. Digital Britain progresses
  5. Lord Mandelson meets David Geffen and host of other music industry chiefs
  6. Lord Mandelson reverses pretty much everything that made sense in the original white paper and announces plans to turn himself into the Digital Witchfinder General

Your help is needed…

Here's what you can do now to help:

  1. Join the Open Rights Group (disc: I'm on the board) to help them lobby for sanity to be amended back into the bill and protect your future online rights
  2. Sign the Downing Street petition, signed by the likes of Stephen Fry, Graham Linehan, and loads others
  3. Adopt your MP to make sure they know about the insanity of what the Digital Economy Bill will inflict on the public

We need your help *NOW* – Mandelson is adamant that the Bill gets passed before they lose the chance to fuck us all up by shutting down the internet. Please take on one of the actions aboce and help spread the word by Tweeting, emailing or Facebooking this post.

Thank you.