Submission to the UK Parliament’s Science and Technology Committee on Digital Skills

DigitalSkillsToday was the deadline for submitting written evidence  to the UK Parliament’s Science and Technology Committee on Digital Skills. Continuing on the work of the 2014/15 ‘House of Lords Select Committee on Digital Skills‘, the call invited written submissions including the following issues:

  • The extent to which there is a digital skills gap and whether the Government’s initiatives are appropriate and sufficient to fill the gap;
  • Further measures by Government needed to improve digital literacy;
  • How well the current education system addresses the digital skills gap;
  • What is being done to equip teachers in the classroom;
  • The adequacy of the current ICT provision in schools;
  • The work being done by universities and industry to ensure that the computing curriculum is relevant;
  • The extent to which there is a digital divide and whether digital exclusion exits in the current workforce;
  • The financial impact of the lack of basic digital skills on the economy; and
  • The extent of any unconscious bias in the digital/IT sector.

Below is a copy of the response I submitted.

Executive summary:

  1. iRights ‘Youth Juries’: observations on the concerns of the 12-17 years age group
  2. Computational thinking as a key skills area
  3. RRI as route to increase women participation in STEM subjects
  4. An ‘NHS’ for cybersecurity
  5. Negligent ‘click-signing’ and the need for better awareness of ‘Terms & Conditions’
  6. Recommendations for action

1. iRights ‘Youth Juries’: observations on the concerns of the 12-17 years age group

As part of our work with the iRights coalition, CaSMa ran a series of ‘Youth Juries’ workshops (http://irights.uk/youth-juries-are-less-than-a-month-away/) with young people aged 12-17. During these workshops we delved deeply into how the internet really works via a series of real-life scenarios which were brought to life by live actors. Participants then deliberated on what they had heard and made recommendations relating to the five iRights (1. Right to remove; 2. Right to know; 3. Right to safety and support; 4. Right to informed and conscious choices; 5. Right to digital literacy; http://irights.uk/the_irights/), their implications, the appropriate language to disseminate them, and ways to engage young people to comply with the iRights framework. Observation of the debates between participants during the workshops revealed that the 12-17 years age group (often referred to as ‘digital natives’) are:

  1. Interested in issues of privacy and control over their own data. For example, some of the participants engaged in a lively debate about just how long the ‘Snapchat’ app retains image data that they send to each other via the app, with both sides of the argument citing information sources from the internet to support their opinions.
  2. Despite their skill at searching for information online, participants expressed concern that they often had difficulty knowing which information to trust. For this they would often turn to their parents, or teachers, in hopes that their life-experience would be able to provide insight regarding the credibility of information sources.
  3. There was a strong recognition among the participants that the compulsive nature of many apps and web services targeted at them, including games and social media, is causing them difficulty in controlling the amount of time they spend on these apps/services. This lead to various discussion about ways in which they could be helped to manage their online time better, including: “Have recommended usage times on online gaming and social media to prevent addiction – just like on gambling sites”.
  4. One critical area of digital literacy which the participants felt lacking in their current education was knowledge about the socio-economic ecosystem of the services they are interacting with, or in the words of one of the participants: “There should be some sort of education about how the internet and companies on the internet work, and that they are not necessarily doing everything in your favour. Yes the internet is amazingly useful but you have to know how to behave, not just towards other people but how much data you should be giving out and what realistically is going to happen to it.”

A short video summarizing the iRights ‘Youth Juries’ process, including the scenario delivery and highlights from the discussions between the participants is available on our project website at: http://casma.wp.horizon.ac.uk/casma-projects/irights-youth-juries/irights-video/.

 

2. Computational thinking as a key skills area

Despite the fact that the digital economy is built on computers and the internet, when considering the ‘digital skills’ that coming generations will require it is important not to focus purely on computer, and/or computer programming, skills but to recognize that the digital economy is very much a multi-disciplinary sector. Many of the most successful internet entrepreneurs did not study computer science or STEM subjects (e.g. Baroness Lane-Fox). For most students it would be far more advantageous to learn ‘Computational thinking’ as a key skill. Computational Thinking is the thought processes involved in formulating problems and their solutions so that the solutions are represented in a form that can be effectively carried out by a computer. It involves:

  • decomposition – breaking down a complex problem or system into smaller, more manageable parts
  • pattern recognition – looking for similarities among and within problems
  • abstraction – focusing on the important information only, ignoring irrelevant detail
  • algorithms – developing a step-by-step solution to the problem, or the rules to follow to solve the problem

Some online educational material on computational thinking can be found at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/education/guides/zp92mp3/revision

 

3. RRI as route to increasing women participation in STEM subjects

As approach for getting more women involved in STEM subjects, or working in related areas of the digital economy, it may be worthwhile considering the EU’s Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) agenda. As part of the overall framework for the Horizon 2020 science funding, the EU established RRI as a cross-cutting issue to be promoted through the Horizon 2020 objectives (http://ec.europa.eu/programmes/horizon2020/en/h2020-section/responsible-research-innovation). A central concept to RRI is the idea that research and innovation do not happen in a vacuum, but are embedded in society and must therefore anticipate and assess the potential implication and societal expectations associated with the work that is being done. RRI therefore implicitly highlights that STEM subjects are not ‘dry’ topics that are disconnected from social, human, concerns but rather that STEM subjects can contribute to ‘making the world a better place’, and are in fact often a key driving force for initiating social change.

 

4. An NHS for cybersecurity

Private households and SMEs remain some of the most vulnerable links in the nation’s cybersecurity landscape (House of Lords Select Committee on Digital Skills, Report of Session 2014-15, section on cybersecurity). Despite this, there is no coordinated national strategy to support households and SMEs, other than some information and awareness campaigns. When it comes to actual security measures, such as system maintenance, virus scanners, firewalls etc. service provision remains commercially driven with expert IT support often beyond the financial means of households and SMEs. Increasingly it is the case that hackers are exploiting vulnerabilities at home, or at small suppliers, as route for attacking larger businesses via compromised smart devices, laptops, data storage devices and VPN connections. As a result various organizations, such as most Universities, now invest in software licenses for security software that will allow them to provide this software to their staff and students. SMEs however are left to fend for themselves, leading to added worries that in some cases result in SMEs deciding not to make full use of digital services to support their enterprise. Conceptually following in the same mind-set as proposals that the internet should be considered as a utility, I was intrigued in July 2015 by a seminar by Dr Ivan Flechais (University of Oxford, department of Computer Science, https://www.cs.ox.ac.uk/people/ivan.flechais/) during which he proposed a project to explore the development of a National Cybersecurity Service that would act as a kind of ‘NHS’ for Cybersecurity. A service that could help defend the UK from cybersecurity threats by providing ‘free at point of service’ IT support to ‘inoculate’ against known threats (help people keep their systems patched and virus scanners up-to-date), and help people to diagnose IT problems so that security breaches are more rapidly detected and, where appropriate reported to the police. With the rise of internet connected home devices, such as ‘smart TVs’ with build in microphones (for voice control) and web-cameras, the need for household cybersecurity support is likely to rapidly increase in the near future. Just as is the case with health services where basic protections (e.g. home hygiene) can be improved through awareness and skills of lay persons but serious health treatments require professionals, it is not realistic to assume that full cybersecurity can be achieved purely through digital skills training of lay persons without dedicated support from professionals.

 

5. Negligent ‘click-signing’ and the need for better awareness of ‘Terms & Conditions’

As reported in the findings of the ‘House of Commons Science and Technology Committee report on Responsible use of data’, there are growing concerns about the ethical implications of standard practice around ‘Terms & Conditions’ (T&Cs) as means for gaining ‘informed’ consent from users for accessing and using their data. Much of these concerns is related to the length and difficult language used in the T&C documentation and the resulting habituation of people into ‘click-signing’ T&Cs without reading, let alone understanding, them. There are now various efforts underway, or at least in preparation, by the Information Commissioner’s Office (https://ico.org.uk) companies and other organizations to improve the readability of T&Cs, in terms of length and language use. One of these is the citizen-led Plain English Campaign which awards a “seal of approval for the clarity of a document”. Another is the planned development of internationally recognized kitemarks to provide users with confidence that a particular set of terms and conditions meet a “higher standard”. The kitemark development however is still in early stages.

While improvements to T&C legibility and visual marks for communicating data management standards are important developments, the general level of apathy that people have by now developed towards the idea of even trying to understand T&Cs is another element that will need to be rectified.

Following in the tradition of public health and ethical causes that are of importance to the general population, it might be worth considering a Terms & Conditions awareness day. A day on which everyone is encouraged to think about the various T&Cs they’ve signed in the previous year(s). Look up the actual text of one or more of those T&Cs and discuss it with friends, family or colleagues. Companies, organizations or individuals with technical and/or legal expertise could use such a day to engage with people and explain what the T&Cs of various software/apps/websites mean. Organizations like the Information Commissioner’s Office and the BBC or groups like Open Rights Group (https://www.openrightsgroup.org), Electronic Frontier Foundation (https://www.eff.org), iRights coalition (http://irights.uk), Mozilla Foundation (https://www.mozilla.org/en-US), etc. could engage with the media to discuss important elements that people should look out for in T&Cs.

 

6.  Recommendations for action:

  1. Focus on ‘computational thinking’ as a key skills area at school rather than specific computer programming or computer science courses.
  2. Build on the Responsible Research and Innovation (for ICT) agenda (http://rri-ict.eu) as a means to increase the appeal of STEM (and ICT) for talented young women who want to ‘make the world a better place’.
  3. Investigate the feasibility of setting up a ‘National Cybersecurity Service’ (an NHS for cybersecurity) as proposed by Dr Ivan Flechais (University of Oxford, department of Computer Science https://www.cs.ox.ac.uk/people/ivan.flechais/).
  4. Provide support for the BBC, ICO and ‘third sector’ organizations to run a national ‘Terms & Conditions’ awareness day.

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