What do digital skills mean for kids in rural schools?

As part of our season exploring digital childhood and parenting I talked last month to the Deputy Head of a group of three rural primary schools to get her perspective on the role digital can play in her students’ lives.

She spoke to me candidly about the challenges that her teachers and students face in engaging with digital technology, on condition that we keep her and her schools anonymous, so I’ll refer to her throughout this article just as ‘Kim’.

In all the hot-blooded future thinking pouring out of government at the moment about preparing a next generation with the right digital skills, it is very easy to forget the lives of rural children and parents, small schools and a very different funding context.

We started our conversation by taking a step back from digital, as Kim says ‘the most important thing is learning about communication; every part of communication is now so instant, and fast, and we need to help children understand how to use tools like email, texting and social media safely and effectively’.

She points out that digital technology is kind of invisible in theses forms of communication, it has become just a natural part of daily life that parents and children both do, whereas something like learning to code has entirely different challenges. She explains that some children cannot see the relevance to their lives of using a tool like Scratch to learn to code, much in the same way that some children bemoan that maths doesn’t seem like a practical subject. But that many do enjoy coding, they see it as a leisure activity and some will do it at home. Some may even enjoy coding more than maths! Students will often see coding in the classroom a bit like playtime – a kind of release from the tricky work of the other subjects. What they don’t have is a sense of the application of coding to other tasks, they just see it as a moment of time where they get to have fun.

Interestingly both teachers and students still see digital skills as very much to do with the use of Word, Excel and Powerpoint, something that the new computing curriculum is trying to move away from. Kim admits that the all the future talk about what digital skills development could be haven’t yet made their way into her classrooms in a practical way.

I have some first-hand experience of the challenge of bringing digital skills to life in a rural context. Earlier in the year Kim had invited me to take part in a careers fair for the schools. The plan was to introduce Year 6 students to the wide range of exciting roles they might want to do later in life, and explain a little bit about what subjects they might want to focus on in Secondary School to start their journey. Picture a school hall with a ring of small desks each with a person representing a different sector. My table was all about digital skills and I had gone in with plenty of gadgets (and the diagram at the top of this post) to lure kids into thinking digital careers might be cool. To my right was an electrical engineer, with a table full of half deconstructed machines to my left a company selling flowers, over there a farmer and his vegetables, a vet and a sports instructor. You can probably see where this is going already. At the end of the fair Kim asked the students to go and stand by the table that represented a job they liked the sound of. I’m afraid I had managed to persuade two people, which I have to say cut me like a knife. The farmer won, the sports coach and electrician close second, digital was the big loser. I ask Kim to explain what she think was happening there.

She points out that kids in the countryside just don’t see anyone with digital skills jobs. Even though they understand that computer games need to be made by people with digital skills, they see that as a fun thing they do, but have no sense whatsoever that they could get paid for making them. She also described a perception of digital skills jobs seeming intangible, or too abstract, compared to the other jobs being advertised that day, where the physicality of the tasks and the outcomes are much clearer.

But then she explains something that I really should have spotted at the time. If I had said you need digital skills to become a YouTuber then I might have won the attention of the whole room, and that this all links back to the idea that digital underpins and enhances communication skills, and to the very fluid idea about what constitutes a 21st century job. Youtubers have reached and inspired rural kids and many of them have started doing their own videos without much involvement from school. Although I should say that Kim asked me to run an after school club to help proactive kids develop their video production skills and I learnt an awful lot over the six weeks that I ran the club. I think that Kim is absolutely right when she talks about communication and self-expression. It seems to me that digital skills are best developed when they are put into the service of of kids trying to tell everyone about their big idea in the most compelling way.

I ask Kim whether she thinks her schools are preparing students for digital skills jobs later in life. Her response is clear – it all seems too distant, our technology isn’t reliable or flexible enough, our teachers not confident enough. She reminds me of the near impossibility of the task of adding some new apps to the school iPads for the video club. I ask how the process of integrating the computing curriculum is going – she is convinced that the curriculum is too much about coding and not enough about softer skills like collaboration that can be enhanced by digital tools like Google Docs. There’s an irony here, in that it has now become an easier route just to teach the ‘hard skill’ of coding, as there are now step by step materials for the classroom, meaning that the teacher is almost able to follow a recipe. The more ambitious pan-subject, pan-school projects that are about open-ended collaboration are much harder to design, get going and sustain, but would be brilliant for the students on many levels.

Kim shares an intriguing concern with me about how digital technologies become part of school life. Strategies for working with vulnerable learners are often supported by digital devices that are intended to overcome cognitive barriers more quickly. But sometimes this approach worries Kim, she wonders whether the digital approach shortcuts other learning processes that might provide more value but take more time and effort. We debate about the role of digital tools to enhance self expression and Kim vigorously agrees that they can improve confidence in learners, but wants to make sure there is a balanced approach, resisting the idea that digital is a silver bullet that can solve everything with reduced cost and teacher engagement.

I ask if there are any funding opportunities that might support enhanced digital activity in her schools. Kim laughs for a moment before explaining that she isn’t sure because there isn’t the proper time needed to do the research and bidding process that would be required. Certainly funds are not proactively making their way towards her.

As we wrap up our conversation Kim describes an ideal situation where she can deliver a rich curriculum with interwoven themes that prepares children for the rest of their lives, where digital technology is cross cutting rather than simply a subject and that collaboration is a more integral feature of the learning experience. To get there she imagines trying to convince her academy to have a digital/collaboration champion to help her teaching team and to try to roll out the transformation in small increments maybe a year at time. She doesn’t want her students to be left behind, but she is also sure when she sees each new shiny government report on the future of skills development, they don’t seem to be talking about her students.

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