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Too much choice?

James Wilkinson
DSP Co-ordinator, South East Digital Skills Partnership

Let’s say I want to buy a TV, as a result of my current set exploding in the middle of a nail-bitingly tense episode of Home and Away. Now, I’m not an expert in TV’s but consider myself reasonably savvy and am aware, at least, how quickly the technology is developing. I know of terms such as OLED, QLED, LCD and 4K Ultra, but couldn’t for one second tell you exactly what they mean. Writing ‘best tv to buy’ in a search engine serves no purpose, barring understanding to an even greater extent that making the choice is a minefield.

There are so many retailers too, some of whom I wouldn’t have imagined sell televisions and so I’m conscious in my search that I may not be looking where I perhaps should. And then, even if I do get to that point where I think I’ve found the TV that’s right for me, I then panic – due to overly complicated model names (eg. UE43TU7100KXXU) – that I’m not even sure what I’ve chosen. Add into the mix that I’m neither a keen, or particularly patient, shopper and the result is I’m stymied, and the likelihood is that I’ll either give up altogether, and watch the latest Netflix blockbuster on my mobile phone, knowing that my experience sadly isn’t anything like it could be, or alternatively I’ll just pick a retailer I know the name of and end up not necessarily getting the best-priced and most suitable TV I could.

The world’s a very, very different place now compared to what it was back in early 2019 when the South East Digital Skills Partnership came together to decide on our priorities across the region. When partners first came up with the idea of developing a ‘Digital Skills Prospectus’ for the south east, little did we know what was coming, and how even more important it would become for individuals to be able to navigate the online world, looking for tools to help them upskill and even reskill.

Right now that television-related experience is playing out in a similar way for the many individuals out there, many of whom don’t have an idea where to start, looking to learn new digital skills or develop existing ones. Type ‘cyber security courses’ into your search engine now and you’ll be presented with about 659,000,000 results. To be fair, adding the word ‘basic’ to that search means results do narrow significantly, this time to only 477,000,000(!). But now add the word ‘free’ to the start of that search, and this time results number 606,000,000(!).

And let’s look at the first two pages of results, from the point of view of someone not au fait with cyber, or that’s not taken up learning in some time. Anything marked as an ‘Ad’ I’d tend to ignore. I’d be confused by the mention of the likes of Reed (a recruitment agency, surely?), and inevitably get frustrated when clicking on links that seem to fit, only to find that I’m presented with degree-level qualifications instead of the entry-level options I’d set out to find. In a fit of pique, let’s now say I revert to organisations I know, and instead try to find something basic and cyber-related at my local FE College. My frustration at this point might grow as I realise I can’t search by a keyword and have to instead look through courses in a wider category, none of which mention cyber security itself, and seem to require me to either be in a job or commit to longer-term study, or alternatively paying more than I can afford.

And so now I might turn to the Government’s Skills Toolkit, launched in the midst of the pandemic and that’s now grown to include almost 80 courses from trusted providers including The Open University, Google, Amazon and FutureLearn. I might head to the South East Digital Skills Partnership’s own site, to find and scour the lists of resources compiled by members there, or to take up the time-limited opportunity with Coursera. Or alternatively I might be inclined to head to the likes of BT’s Skills for Tomorrow portal, to Google’s Applied Digital Skills and Digital Garage sites, to Microsoft’s offer alongside LinkedIn Learning and GitHub or Amazon’s own repository of online learning, and countless other sites from known providers that promise to help me with the skills I need now and in the future, while missing fantastic resources from organisations like the Good Things Foundation, and their Make it Click and Learn My Way platforms, because I wouldn’t have known about them and, even if I did, wouldn’t have necessarily considered them part of the digital skills landscape.

And now, now I’ve decided to crack on with my chosen learning resource, I’d be thinking ‘have I chosen correctly?’, ‘Am I on the right pathway to a new job or career?’, and ‘Will potential employers recognise what I’ve completed?’ – and, importantly, ‘When will I have time to catch up on Alf’s latest travails?’.

Where some Government departments might create a hugely-successful(!) advertising campaign to help individuals considering career changes, the South East Digital Skills Partnership itself has an ambition to help our residents gain greater confidence when looking for the learning resource or qualification that’s right for them, whether they’re a Ballerina turned Cyber Security Analyst or a Government staff member looking to improve their knowledge of Microsoft Excel. We’ve begun a partnership with Futurefit AI that will see 100 residents benefiting from course and qualification recommendations off the back of help from FF to identify their current skills gaps. And, while we’re some way off an easy-to-use, all-encompassing ‘Digital Skills Prospectus’, SELEP’s new Skills website includes a tool for users to search what’s out there from around 2000 courses and qualifications, including those on offer from our local College network.

We have much more to do though, and we clearly can’t do it alone. There’s some amazing stuff out there, much of it at no cost to learners, but the Digital Skills Partnership here in the South East would welcome the chance to speak to new and existing partners, to help us try to make things clearer for residents looking to upskill and, one day, produce the slick, all-encompassing Prospectus that’s so needed, helping individuals to make the choice that’s right for them.