Laptops for kids; my Northern task force to transform learning – David Richards

“Lord! What sad sight it was by moonlight to see, the whole City almost on fire,” wrote the diarist Samuel Pepys in September 1666.

What will be Covid's impact on the future of education and those without digital access?

London, which had been growing organically since Roman times, was burning and by the time the last embers were out, the blaze had destroyed 13,200 houses, 87 parish churches, the Royal Exchange, Guildhall and St Paul’s Cathedral.

London, one of Europe’s largest cities, lay devastated. Yet out of the ashes grew one of the world’s greatest cities.

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Led by the architect Sir Christopher Wren, a risk-taking genius, London was rebuilt over the next 30 years and a new skyline emerged, dominated by the dome of the rebuilt St Paul’s.

David Richards is founder and CEO of WANdisco plc and co-founder of the David and Jane Richards Family Foundation.

A great column was constructed, the Monument, to commemorate the Pudding Lane disaster. The city grew in stature and two centuries later would be at the heart of a global empire.

As devastating as the destruction was, it allowed a new era to be ushered in. From catastrophe came creation.

I believe the coronavirus could be the contemporary equivalent for our education system, sweeping away the old order and giving innovators an unparalleled opportunity to rebuild the architecture of learning for the 21st century digital economy with equality of access hard-wired into the new infrastructure.

First we must rebuild the content, starting with the wrong-headed emphasis on rote learning.

Crystal Peaks shopping centre is now a drop off point for the Laptops for Kids campaign spearheaded by tech entrepreneur David Richards.

Memorisation can be helpful but machines learn faster. We must refocus on creativity and the practical applications of data science, the skills that will help us solve the big challenges facing our planet.

These can be learned in ways that are fun and engaging, as our family foundation and other charities are demonstrating.

The world of work is changing and so must the education system. Growth sectors like machine learning and automation need programmers to write code and analysts to make sense of data.

These require logical reasoning, problem-solving abilities, an eye for detail and organisational skills.

My company WANdisco plc is developing new talent to help meet growing demand for our data software.

Students at the WANdisco Data Academy at The Sheffield College are acquiring the skills and experience to succeed in the future. The basics can be learned in months, rather than years. The rest is learning through experience.

Next we must rebuild the platform. In the digital world, it no longer matters where you are or where you come from, so long as you can get online.

Remote working has transformed productivity in the workplace. No more hellish daily commutes.

Remote learning has the same power and potential for the classroom. Let’s rebuild the school day around what we know works best for children to make the most of these precious formative years.

Before the pandemic, stress, anxiety and depression among children was becoming endemic. Who wants to return to that?

Like remote working, remote learning must have the right infrastructure. Nearly one in 10 households are without access to a laptop, desktop or tablet.

In effect, this is denying up to 1.8 million children their basic right to education.

Last year, we launched the Laptops for Kids campaign in response to this social problem.

With the support of socially-minded businesses, generous individuals and our partners in local government, we have met the initial need in South Yorkshire and are well on the way to solving the issue in the North East.

The problem is not just restricted to availability of devices. It also concerns connectivity.

We are launching a northern task force to expand the scope of Laptops for Kids to address challenges around access to learning and ensure education is fit for purpose.

The task force will develop and share policies to ensure every child has access to the technology and connectivity they need to fulfil their potential.

We are exploring ideas around the roles and responsibilities of network providers and large bandwidth users to free up data for educational purposes.

If every child has equal access to education online, we create more opportunities for young people to succeed, whoever they are and wherever they come from.

The best education is no longer 
the preserve of Eton and Oxford and 
the best employment is no longer confined to Silicon Valley or the City of London.

The old order is failing, despite the best attempts of many. Covid gives the innovators the chance to rebuild anew. From this catastrophe, let there be creation.

David Richards is founder and CEO of WANdisco plc and co-founder of the David and Jane Richards Family Foundation.

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