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Teaching the art of the (im)possible

TECH is transforming almost every industry. But as the impossible becomes possible, thanks to digital advancements, Scott Clennell, Group Director of ICT and Learning Innovation at Education Partnership North East talks about how the age of “computer says no” is dead.

There can be little doubt that IT, and the enhanced capability it provides, has permeated almost every industry imaginable. The use of technology in everything from healthcare to communications, and engineering to architecture means that every young person who leaves school, college or university has to be a digital citizen to grasp opportunity in a modern workplace, and in society in general.However, it is a misconception that young people are innately tech savvy – born with an iPhone in their hand and a ready-made Instagram account to save them setting it up.  The reality is that the region still has a digital challenge on its hands. And Generation Z is not born with the answer.

I have spent the last 15 years carving out a career in digital, and immersing myself in new and emerging tech and the fantastic advantages it brings. It’s been illuminating to take that knowledge into a sector so focused on a generation we assume is digitally literate.  Yes, young people are certainly comfortable with the tech we would expect them to enjoy – social media, web, and tech devices are second nature… But the fact is that most young people enter work or FE naive to the impact that some of the emerging technology they are using day-to-day has had on the industries they wish to enter.  Indeed, despite all evidence pointing to tech transforming all manner of industries, research carried out in 2017 showed that only 50per cent of students think digital skills are important for their future career (Jisc Digital Insights Survey published 2018) – that’s as shocking as it is unrealistic.

The same augmented reality that young people see used in Snapchat, for instance, is transforming retail, and consumer marketing. Artificial intelligence like that feeding Google’s algorithms is used in everything from policing to manufacturing. Helping a generation translate its understanding of tech is something that requires support – and that’s a key focus at Education Partnership North East, as we aim to provide industry with people who are work-ready and can bring the know-how they need when it comes to digital.

Technology is all about the art of the possible. It’s an enabler. ‘Computer’ should always say yes, not no. And ensuring young people see that – and that they understand more about technology’s application – is critical. That’s why we’re embedding tech into the way we teach our students.  We don’t need our students to have the ‘under the bonnet’ tech capabilities, but we do need them to be comfortable using it, applying it to their work and ensuring they are literate in its workplace application.  That is bringing sweeping changes within the college – it will see us teach and operate in new and innovative ways and that process of transformation has already started.  Through a programme called Digital Excellence, we are arming our staff with the skills they need to be able to empower our learners.

Every single one of our 1200+ workforce will take part in the digital up-skilling programme, which aims to ensure our team is comfortable with tech and able to better support students, as well as understanding the ways technology can transform the way they work.  I want tech to feel intuitive – to make teaching easier.  To make life easier.  To make study more straightforward.  I want to use tech to enable students to achieve more.  And the wider Education Partnership North East group to achieve more too.

In Sunderland, there is certainly civic leadership when it comes to tech.  Organisations like ours, and indeed Sunderland City Council are putting digital front and centre and ensuring that we build the skills needed to drive our knowledge economy – but also the everyday understanding technology and the ways in which it is driving most industries.

It’s not just something that young people should be learning about either, and that’s why a huge amount of our delivery, when it comes to IT, is focused on reskilling and upskilling adults to enable them to access more opportunities in a changing economy.  We’re helping scores of people learn more through programmes being delivered now from our campuses in the city centre, Durham Road and Washington.  We’re really passionate about adding value to local people.  And having a high street presence from Google Garage, which has a hub in the heart of the city centre will also help put tech to the front of our residents’ minds – we have to engage young people and normalise tech in daily life, if we are going to be able to drive the economy through capable, competent people.

In a world in which the skills gained today have a lifespan of five years, as tech disrupts industries and changes the game, colleges and universities have to be alive to the dynamic world we live in, supporting our young people to enter work with the capabilities needed by employers – and whatever field of work that is, you can bet that it will involve technology.  If we are serious about Powering Up the North East, we have to plug our residents in to digital – only then will be supercharge our economy.



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