The following Editorial appeared in The Herald on Wednesday 10 March 2021 as part of their ongoing series about the Future of Education.
SCOTLAND has ambitious plans to become a global digital economy. In order to achieve this, however, it needs to encourage its young people to become engaged with technology, learning the innovative skills needed to develop rewarding careers in this critical sector. By Andrew Collier
Luckily, help and encouragement are available, with new grant applications currently being accepted by Digital Xtra Fund to stimulate interest and boost confidence in computer technology among Scots aged 16 and under.
The Fund brings together industry, educators and the public sector to achieve the common goal of helping young people succeed in an increasingly digital world.
Blue chip organisations acting as key partners include Baillie Gifford, Skyscanner, AWS, J.P. Morgan, and CGI.
Digital Xtra Fund currently has £75,000 to disburse, with the charity aiming to foster and encourage the development of high quality projects in schools and other organisations across Scotland. There are also hopes this amount will increase further in the coming months.
Available grants will range from a minimum of £500 to a maximum of £5000. For those wanting to take part, time is tight – applications close on April 22, so that the grants can be awarded before the start of the summer holidays and new academic year. As a result, the Fund is encouraging project entries to be lodged as soon as possible. Supported activities must then be delivered between July 1 and June 30, 2022.
“I want to ensure that the word gets out”, says Kraig Brown, Digital Xtra Fund’s Partnerships and Development Manager. “Being able to offer this is really exciting, especially in a year that has been so challenging, particularly for schools. With everyone still focusing on the pandemic and lockdowns, I don’t want them to miss this opportunity.
“I think applicants should also plan on things being relatively back to normal during the next academic year with full time face-to-face learning and hopefully gathering outwith class bubbles. There will likely still be some issues around non-school staff coming onsite, but the learning we gained over the past year means most of this engagement could be done through virtual channels. Plus, we have added a new question to the application about remote learning because we realise we do still need to have a Plan B.”
The list of organisations that can apply for a grant is extensive and includes chartered bodies, companies, charities, local authorities, colleges and universities as well as schools.
The Fund is also looking to still develop more partnerships with industry to further increase the amount of grant awards available this year. The more grants it can award, the more young people it can help inspire to study digital and related courses and ultimately to pursue careers within the technology sector.
Last year’s Logan Review into the Scottish technology sector concluded that computing science should be treated as a core school subject in the same way as maths and physics. It also highlighted the pivotal role extracurricular activities can play to engage more young people in tech.
For the first time, at least two grants will also focus specifically on cyber security skills, funded by the Scottish Government under its cyber resilience strategy.
“It’s a new thing for us”, says Kraig. “In the past, we have awarded funding based on geography or for projects primarily aimed at girls and young women. But this is the first time we have done it based on skill set.
“Young people don’t generally know where the jobs are in tech, but cyber is growing exponentially. It sees itself as one of the rock stars of the tech sector probably because it is genuinely on the front line where the action’s at.”
He gives the example of a well-known company in Glasgow. “For eight hours a day, this office is responsible for the worldwide security of a global financial company. These are the sorts of opportunities now available here in Scotland.
“We’re seeing attacks on elections, power grids and the NHS. What you don’t hear as much about though is 40% of cyber attacks target small businesses. As the world becomes more and more connected through advances such as the Internet of Things, cyber security is only going to become more and more relevant. The Scottish Government realises this.”
“We’re trialling this approach of targeting grants to engage young people in specific elements of tech, as well as the broader scope. Cyber security is just so important – not only in the private sector, but in the public sector too. You only need to look at the recent attack on the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA). I really hope we get some innovative cyber applications.”
He adds: “Last year, 46% of UK businesses and charities reported a cyber-attack during the year. We need more young people with the right skills to maintain a proportionate level of protection. Once again, this ties back to the Logan Report.”
Kraig says there are two good reasons for youngsters to become adept in cyber security. Firstly, to tap into a pipeline of exciting – and lucrative – career options.
“There is expected to be a 32% rise in cyber security jobs globally between now and 2028. Everyone is going to need cyber security staff or support.”
The other is so young people have the knowledge and skills to ensure they stay safe themselves when online. “Unfortunately, Covid-19 has led to a massive uptick in online crime.”
Kraig says he is confident that the quality of grant applications this year will be high. “It’s been going up year on year. Teachers, schools and other organisations recognise just how important this is and the options that are out there for them.”
It is not enough, he adds, for people just to be able to get online and use apps.
“It is imperative that we teach young people to understand and to create with technology, not simply to use it. We must focus on activities and lessons that teach them skills such as computational thinking, the design process and resilience. Perhaps most importantly, we need to do this in a fun and exciting way to inspire their creativity as well.
“We really want schools and organisations to look ahead. We have a really positive outlook on what we can achieve in the next academic year.”
Opportunities for all in the Heart of the community
ONE of the most interesting of the 25 projects to be funded last year was Heart of Midlothian FC’s new Innovation Centre – a community based initiative offering courses to help participants learn digital skills.
The project also helps to support local businesses and recently launched an all-female Apps For Good programme which has received excellent feedback.
Another of its initiatives was a course in building an online shop. Both projects were successful enough for repeat sessions to be planned.
Originally, activities involving young people were scheduled to be delivered on a traditional face-to-face basis, but the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic meant that they had to be switched to remote learning. The funding they received helped this to happen.
Ann Park, Director of Community and Partnerships at Hearts, says: “It’s been great working with Digital Xtra Fund. Its support has enabled us to reach young people from a broad range of backgrounds and inspire them in taking the next steps in forging a digital career.”
Nicola Gallen, Business Development Manager for Devolved Nations at AWS (Amazon Web Services) says her business is pleased to be a key supporter of the Fund.
“We believe that everyone should be involved in building the future and we want to inspire as many people as possible to become creators of tech as well as consumers of it. Helping more schools and organisations shows young people how exciting this can be. The Fund’s grants programme is something that we’re very proud to be part of.”