NextGen Report: Have its recommendations been implemented?

At this stage in our research into digital education, it seems timely to look back at one of the key reports underpinning the campaign to improve digital education in the UK – Nesta’s NextGen report. In this post, we’ll look at some of the report’s findings in light of our own research

NextGen, published in 2011, offered a review of the changes needed at school, university and industry level to ensure that the education system produces an appropriately skilled future workforce for those industries – particularly, video games and VFX – which fuse artistic and technological skills. It painted a worrying picture of outmoded digital education in schools and university course which lack rigour and fail to produce work-ready graduates.

Reforming the Computing Curriculum

Of all the recommendations made by the report, reform of the curriculum to include an updated, inspiring and challenging Computing curriculum in schools is the one that’s seen the most attention. It’s also been the most successful. Following a campaign led by the authors of the report, the Department of Education have conceded that ICT needed to be revamped and should focuses less on office-based IT programmes such as word and excel, and more on coding and programming skills. ICT will be replaced by Computing on the National Curriculum from September 2014, and will be considered a science subject and will therefore qualify as an English Baccalaureate subject.

Our evidence confirms the negative perceptions young people tend to have about the old ICT curriculum. Many feel it was of little relevance to them – preferring to pursue more obviously creative subjects, even when they knew they were interested in games design or special effects. Some of the most successful young people we’ve interviewed focused entirely on arts subjects, learning the necessary programming and coding skills outside of school almost by osmosis as they pursued their own interests. Inevitably, for a generation brought up with computers and digital technology, those who had taken ICT founded it unstimulating, unchallenging, and out-of-sync with the sorts of multiplatform technologies they were used to working with outside of school. A curriculum which offers rigour and the opportunity for creative learning is sorely needed if it is to capture the imaginations of pupils and keep up with their own extracurricular learning trajectories.

Coding Clubs

In many instances, coding clubs (some embedded in schools, some set up outside of schools) have stepped in to fill in some of the gaps in the curriculum. Next Gen itself insists on the importance of coding clubs and other arenas for independent or semi-independent learning. These clubs are presented as an important source of cross-curricular learning which brings technology and art together, a mode of learning which is not currently encouraged by the school curriculum.

We’ve come across a variety of different coding, programming and apps development courses, each of which offers valuable opportunities to those young people who have access to them. However, one of the main difficulties we’ve had is locating clubs which genuinely combine creative and digital learning, or which focus specifically on coding and programming skills in relation to creative or artistic activities.

One such programme is 3Dami – a seven day workshop where young people work together to script, model and animate two minute-long films. The workshop is an intensive, extracurricular, university based version of an animation club run by the organisers in a London school. Although the club and workshop have been successful – encouraging several students to take up digital/creative subjects at university and allowing students to enter prestigious animation competitions for young people – they are the only examples of their kind we’ve come across so far. And even within the school, the organisers of the club have had some difficulty convincing other departments that it was beneficial for students to spent time in an animation club, suggesting the cross-disciplinary benefits of creative computing are not yet fully recognised.

Course Choices and Employment Prospects

University and college prospectuses all seem to promise an excellent education and exciting job prospects. But the NextGen report seems to confirm another concern which our interviews have raise for us – that young people show a fundamental lack of understanding about the quality and value of the courses they choose, and the likelihood of gaining employment in their chosen field. A great many of the young people we’ve spoken to have been confident that they will find employment in their chosen profession, but the report suggests that as few as 15% of VFX graduates and 12% of graduates from specialist video games courses found a job in the industry within a year of completing their course. Meanwhile, the video games industry continues to recruit mathematicians, engineers and physicists, while the VFX looks abroad for graduate recruits. Many employers find that graduates lack the appropriate mix of specific technical skills and broader soft skills such as business sense or the ability to work as part of a team.

To take one example, almost all of the students we’ve spoken aspire to working for big name companies such as Pixar or Rockstar Games, and few make any mention of the possibility of working as freelancers or of setting up their own business. This is worrying, given that a significant proportion of work in the digital/creative industries is conducted on a project by project, basis and that many graduates will end up self-employed, freelancing or working for a start-up. In such roles, business skills and commercial awareness will be extremely important.

Although NextGen recommends that university courses should offer improved advice and guidance about employment prospects and employability skills, few of the students we’ve spoken to seem to have benefited from this. Perhaps unsurprisingly, some of the most successful graduates we’ve spoken to were those who developed these skills through their own, extra-curricular, interest-led work. Sound business sense and the ability to work with others were skills, they imply, that are gained through experience, not taught in university. We have met graduates, for example, who have entered competitions or successfully launched their own companies and games, often alongside their undergraduate or postgraduate studies. Their qualifications are important, but it is their own extra-curricular initiative that has really secured their success.

Acknowledging that universities courses alone do not give graduates a competitive edge in the eyes of employers, NextGen endorses programmes such as Abertay University’s Dare to be Digital competition – a video games development competition open to University students and recent graduates – which sit outside of the university curriculum and aim to simulate work-based learning. Few of the students we’ve met have benefited from such programmes, although it’s possible that they are only just beginning to be implemented on a larger scale.

In the meantime, it seems clear that the digital education system, from school through to higher and further education, is in a state of flux. Recommendations put forward to NextGen have not been ignored and many positive steps have been taken, but many of those we’ve met are yet to see the benefits.

A particular concern is the patchiness of access to extracurricular clubs and competitions, since these arenas are clearly expected to fill the educational gaps the curriculum does not currently meet. Given that many of the programmes we’ve come across depend on the personal commitment of proactive individuals, such as teachers willing to take the time to help pupils, the longevity of these projects can never be guaranteed. Yet whether curriculum reforms, and the incorporation of work placements into university courses, will ever render the need for semi-formal extra-curricular learning opportunities obsolete remains very much to be seen.

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