Should the UK be aiming higher?
The Digital Britain interim report published in January 2009 attempts to lay out an agenda for driving forward the UK's Digital Economy through investment in a high-speed network infrastructure and policy to build nationwide competitive advantage.
It's an ambitious plan but reactions to date report it does not go far enough. By setting a base level of 2Mb/s broadband Internet access speeds many believe that this will continue to leave us woefully trailing other countries. Japan and South Korea are often cited as leading the field with near universal availability of between 50-100Mb/s download speeds. Indeed, this is what they have now. South Korea is already planning 1 Gigabit networks (1000 Mb/s).
Let's also not forget that China has announced plans for a nationwide 100 Mb/s network. These speeds enable real time collaboration, high definition video conferencing and the use of highly sophisticated applications that run purely online. Put in this context, Britain's ambitions may be limited from the outset.
Universal access has the power to transform learning
That said it is laudable that the report starts to tackle how an improved network infrastructure can impact education and skills. This is primarily targeted at ensuring we provide our population, at all levels, with Digital Life Skills (needed by all), Digital Work Skills (needed by most of us) and Digital Economy Skills (needed by an increasing minority) to operate effectively in a knowledge economy.
More than 22 million people in the UK use computers for tasks of varying complexity. More than 2 million work directly in creating, providing, and supporting the hardware, software and digital content that underpin the online services we increasingly rely on.
More importantly perhaps is the imminent transformation of our mobile phones which we ALL carry in our pockets. These devices are fast becoming Internet access gateways, which will impact more profoundly on how we communicate, collaborate and learn in the future.
With 20 per cent of consumers already "cutting the wire" and dropping use of fixed line telephony, mobile network access is a critical area for investment. Here the report alludes to next generation broadband mobile networks offering up to 100Mb/s speeds. It may, therefore, be more prudent to focus hard-to-find public funding on accelerating universal mobile access rather than arguing over the "last mile" for fixed networks.
Digital Learning for life and work skills
However, infrastructure is nothing without smarter methods of application. This is where the education and skills sectors need to look more fundamentally at the way in which we teach children and train adults. It would be a huge mistake to simply replicate current "offline" models, as has been attempted in the past and with very limited success.
Digital Learning or e-learning methods demand a rethink in terms of instructional approaches. Digital Learning enables more fluid, more experiential, more interactive and more collaborative learning. It's more about supporting the learner than the teacher/trainer. Digital learning is also more performance focused and less about artificial testing and assessment.
Digital and e-learning is a constantly evolving field, but should be brought centre stage with appropriate funding to accelerate practical research and effective use. For example, Sector Skills Councils, have yet to put Digital Learning at the heart of their offer. Were they to do so, employers and employees alike would have a relevant and contextualised environment in which to utilise and develop digital life and work skills.
Appetite for Digital: training needs to catch up
Currently, there is still too much traditional training being delivered in ineffective ways with little practical impact in the workplace. Education is also struggling to harness the benefits of Digital Learning. We are still largely operating within the four walls of the classroom and not looking outside the box towards distributive learning models that a networked society offers. The disconnect between the social use of technology, through network and resources such as Facebook and Wikipedia, and a typical formal school or corporate training experience is growing rather than shrinking.
As learners become increasingly empowered through access to the wealth of interactive and collaborative resources available to them on the Internet, then further pressure will be applied for our institutions to rethink their own offer.