Digital Skills

Interview with Mr Alex Colenso, Head of Technology at Sevenoaks School. Mr Colenso has also written the Digital Skills module on Sevenoaks School Summer Programme and is teaching it in Session One.

Why are Digital Skills important for teenagers in 2020?

Digital Skills is a wide ranging subject. More and more, we’re finding our lives are automated. It’s important that we don’t lose too much control over what is happening in our lives. For example, take the heating system in your house. We’re seeing massive reductions in the amount of gas and electric used just by putting smart meters in our homes. That means we can really reduce the amount of carbon in our lives. By using a smart meters, we’re taking control away from a manual system and putting it into a digital system. But are we losing control?

Teenagers need to ask themselves, ‘Am I starting to live in a world where I don’t really understand the things that are around me?’ The answer is, quite possibly. ‘Do I need to keep up to speed and know how things work?’ Definitely. Traditionally, we would have expected children to understand how products are made, how they are fixed together. We expected that because we have always wanted to make children aware of the built environment around them so they can have control over that. That’s the key point with Digital Skills.

We’re using more and more robots in our lives. Look how much automation is in our cars! Driverless cars are just around the corner. When that automation goes wrong, how do we fix it? Are we leading a life that we’re in control of? The technology is there and it’s now about us being in line with that and knowing what’s going on in our built environment. Not just being aware of those things but also being in control and pioneering future technologies. So if we understand how our current environment operates, from a teenage point of view then there are definite opportunities for teenagers to be able to redesign the problems associated with this technology in order for it to become improved. It’s fundamental to our future as a species that we are letting science and tech come into our lives, absorb it and be in a position to be able to say ‘no, I don’t accept that that has to work in a certain way and I’m going to change that’. It has a lot to do with creativity and it has a lot to do with problem solving abilities. What is a problem for society now is an opportunity for people who are teenagers now to fix those problems in the future.

We’re sitting on the brink of a massive, worldwide mental health crisis. It seems to me that we haven’t got the balance between our life online (social media specifically) and our life in reality. We’ve got an aging population and a population in need of care. I’m all for the idea that we can spend more time on each other, looking after each other. For example, you can sit in a driverless car on a long drive to a holiday, turn the driver seat around and play cards with your family, enjoy time together. You can let the car do the driving and spend more time as a family. If you’ve got an automated home then the jobs you don’t want to do are being done by robots successfully then that means mum and dad aren’t rushing around to fix and tidy the house and prepare meals meaning you can spend more time as a family. We’re in the fledgling stages of tech in that regard but we’re on the precipice of having lives where we’re not working so hard and we’re actually looking after each other a bit more.

What key skills do you think a good technology student possesses?

A good technology student possesses an open mind, a willingness to try things, a willingness to make mistakes and to be able to reflect on mistakes made and use that as a tool for learning. A good technology student possesses creativity, being able to think of themselves not as an inventor but as an innovator; taking things that already exist and changing them. A good technology student shouldn’t be able to accept something that doesn’t do its job properly. That falls into problem-solving, needing to have a problem-solving mind-set and trying to set about changing things.

We live unconsciously in our built environment. Everything around us has had to be designed and built and we should be aware of all the various bits and pieces. When you sit down on a chair, you should be conscious of the structure of it, the stability of it, the comfort of it. On a digital level, we shouldn’t be accepting things that we interact with online and tools that you we use digitally which are wrong and, instead, we should be wanting to go and do something about that.

How have Digital Skills changed in the last ten years?

Devices have got faster, smaller and cheaper and therefore they’re more accessible. Hardware componentry was very expensive ten years ago but now microprocessors and the likes of Arduino and Raspberry Pi can be bought for £15. You can attach some LED lights and some switches to an Arduino and then all of a sudden you’ve got control over things like the lighting in your house. So to be able to do that is massive. Having a lot of code out there and available by open source is fantastic so there is lots out there online that you can play with immediately. Technology is so much more readily available, it functions better than it used to and having open source code is huge for teenagers to be able to get on and try things.

How do you think Digital Skills will change in the next ten years?

5G is going to be massive in terms of computational speeds being able to happen everywhere rather than just in buildings with fixed lines. That’s going to be absolutely massive. I was at a lecture recently and learned that you can’t really put any more silicon on microchips and make them any smaller or faster; physically it can’t happen so components will stay the same size and speed. But the difference will be the ‘Internet of Things’ – having these microprocessors and the Arduinos, Raspberry Pis…. everyone is going to be able to use them and they will control our lives, for example the heating, lighting and security at home. But honestly, I don’t really know, it’s a good question!

How do you think the Digital Skills module in Sevenoaks School Summer Programme will be useful to international students?

It will be useful because this course is people coming together with people from different parts of the world, quickly forming a team to problem solve in a digital way. It’s pulling on people’s cultures and experiences and assimilate them into a problem-solving environment and doing it in a practical way so the finished product is there to see. Students on this course are going to have their knowledge of coding stretched, their knowledge of robotics stretched. They’re going to have an ability to work together in a team, whether as a person leading or following, they are working together. Whenever you bring groups of people together from different countries it’s really important that people listen to each other’s experiences and see things from a different perspective and that can only enhance the design and the development of anything that you’re doing. In this particular case it is skills in a digital way but it’s that enriched learning experience that you get from working with people of different nationalities who have different experiences.

Look at London and some of the designs of buildings and examples of architecture. Since London has been open to the world, the improvements in design and architecture have been huge because people bring different skill-sets and differing styles and attitudes to create something significant. If we ran the Digital Skills course with students just from the UK, you could imagine getting largely the same end product but with people from different cultures sharing their experiences, you get much more diverse outcomes.

In terms of soft skills, team work is the major soft skill. The ability to problem solve is huge. There will be a lot of creativity in how you tackle the problem presented to you. The standout factor from last summer was people working together to achieve something as a team which on their own wasn’t going to be possible in a ten hour course.

In real life, how do you think the skills learned in this Digital Skills module can be put into practice?

The key thing is being aware of the environment that you live in and considering it a foot on the ladder to knowing more. Lots of people who take this course are amazed by how easily they can change things so this course opens eyes and fosters a new found interest in the digital field. For lots of our students, their teachers in their schools at home haven’t opened their eyes to these opportunities. Lot of students go on to decide that they want to get into coding in real life because they can see the potential of what it can do in terms of robotics and automation but also in Maths, for example. They also start to think about how they can change things around the house. It’s a platform for people to say ‘I thought this was difficult and unusual but actually it’s not’. So people having that realisation that they might pursue it a little further is something that often comes out of this. We open people’s eyes to actually how straightforward some of this stuff is.