Digital Britain: Training strategy needs more work

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Digital Britain - skills neededThe government is considering a major technology skills push to achieve the objectives of its Digital Britain strategy. John Stokdyk considers the implications of Lord Carter's interim report.

Communications, technology and broadcasting minister Stephen Carter last week set out his agenda in an interim Digital Britain report that included a pledge to deliver high speed broadband - up to 2 megabits per second (Mbps) - to every British home in time for the 2012 Olympics.

"Education, skills and media literacy programmes to allow everyone in society to benefit from the digital revolution will be a central part of the Digital Britain work"
Stephen Carter
As well as improving Britain’s digital infrastructure by upgrading and modernising wired, wireless and broadcast digital networks, Lord Carter listed "fairness and access for all" as one of the project's five main objectives - one that will be achieved by developing digital skills to let the entire population participate in the digital economy.

"The necessary education, skills and media literacy programmes to allow everyone in society to benefit from the digital revolution will be a central part of the Digital Britain work and key to our success," wrote Lord Carter. "We must ensure that being digital is within the grasp of everyone. If we do not, we risk leaving significant parts of our society disenfranchised and permanently behind the mainstream. In so doing, we would fail to secure the full potential of these technologies for our country."

Network capabilities, business models and copyright issues all featured in the report, but they were not what would impel people to make digital technology central to their lives, Carter noted.

"Universal connectivity ultimately is about demand. It is about what it can do for you, not what it is... What really matters is great content and services," he wrote.

"We cannot afford to treat education and training for digital technologies as just another ‘vertical’ subject area."
Summarising his thoughs on the skills issue, Carter concluded: "The simple message at the core of this interim report is that we cannot afford to treat education and training for digital technologies as just another ‘vertical’ subject area. It underpins everything we do in the 21st Century. Successful, emerging economies have already embraced this message. We must do likewise."

As is quite typical for documents emerging from Gordon Brown's resolutely New Labour government, the Digital Britain interim report was strong on well meaning rhetoric, but less convincing when it got down to detailed implementation.

The interim study documented initiatives in this area to date:

  • The appointment of Paul Murphy as the first Minister for Digital Inclusion in 2008, supported by a Cabinet Committee on Digital Inclusion and a cross-government Digital Inclusion Team. The minister embarked on a consultation process in October 2008 based around a plan containing more than 70 actions to boost digital inclusion. A Digital Inclusion Champion, supported by an expert Taskforce, is due to be appointed in the late spring to provide a clear channel of communcation between all levels of government, industry and client groups.
  • UK Online Centres in libraries, citizens' advice bureaux and internet cafes that have helped millions of people to gain internet skills. The government is looking at how they could support its wider digital inclusion policies.
  • The Revitalise IT project led by e-Skills UK that promotes employer-supported education programmes such as the Information Technology Management for Business (ITMB) degree course. Running in parallel have been new IT and creative media diplomas for 14-19 year olds and Skillset’s Digital Media Apprenticeship.
  • Recently announced initiatives to offer training to job seekers; accompanied by "encouraging" examples where employers have increased their commitment to training and skills development which reflect "evidence that investment in the workforce is one of the best strategies for economic development.

The 86-page Digital Britain Interim Report does little more than set the scene for phase two of Lord Carter's project, and leaves those hoping for tangible progress hanging in suspense for more detailed proposals.

"We will be returning to this important subject in our final report," Lord Carter explained, adding that he would work with Sector Skills Councils to develop practical action points for government, higher education and work sectors.

Do you see rays of hope from the government's stance on technology skills and digital inclusion - or is 'Digital Britain' likely to be just another signpost on the road to frustration and inertia? Feel free to let the government know your thoughts by commenting below.

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