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Cracking the Code of a Digitally Literate Generation

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Even on a grey, gloomy November day it's not hard to think that children growing up today are blessed. Through their smartphones and broadband they are the first truly digital generation with pretty much everything at their fingertips, from the world's knowledge to idea, pictures, music and games.

But my tendency to jealousy is soon tempered by the realisation that for all the wonders of technology we, the generation whose children are now immersed in a virtual cornucopia, haven't really done that well. The smug complacency of technology adverts disguises a pretty mixed picture, with too many people not connected, too many passive users of technologies designed for interactive, and far too much talk about empowerment but far too little action to make it happen.

16m people lack basic online skills in the UK - a cost of £63bn to the economy - according to the Go ON UK report issued this week, and not all of them are older. Our games and computing industries repeatedly complain about the lack of skilled school-leavers, as do businesses making ever more use of data. Even many of the teenagers who feel confident on navigating the web, simply don't have the skills needed to 'write and create' digital tools, not simply consume them. Yet that is where we now need to go - cultivating a need generation of digital makers; young people for who creating digital content is as second nature as consuming it.

The good news is that there is a keen enthusiasm from children: three quarters want to get to grips with coding and program writing. But, with only 3% currently 'doing', this enthusiasm isn't being translated, which could be down to limited opportunities. After all, teenagers find it hard to tear themselves away from games and social media. Left to their own devices children and teenagers have no difficulty creating new characters, stories and home movies. Making their own projects online, like creating their own online game, website or phone app is simple the next step.

So what's going wrong? The sad truth is that digital education is often deadly dull. At the moment, schools are preoccupied with the finer points of Excel and PowerPoint - not how to write websites, code apps and create.

Computing should be taught as a rigorous - but fun - discipline covering topics like programming, database structures, and algorithms. That doesn't have to be boring. Courses can, and should, incorporate the excitement of programming games, apps, or making digital devices. Tools like Arduino, which allows you to build your own interactive objects, like a storytelling doll, or a dancing robot, are a good example of how this can be achieved.

Many excellent groups and organisations are showing the way, letting children and teenagers fiddle and play with bits of code and programming. Code Club matches schools and programmers while MadLab's Manchester space mixes hackers and geeks with creators. And there are some exemplary schools and teachers who don't just teach with technology but also teach how to make technology. Alan O'Donohoe, principal teacher of ICT at Our Lady's High School, Preston, for example, is persuading others to join him in his mission to "TEACH COMPUTING, not secretarial skills".

Nesta and partners Nominet Trust and Mozilla want to help more of these inspiring projects get off the ground. We want all children - inside and outside of school - to have the opportunity to code, programme, make digital media and discover the fun of developing their own apps, websites and more.

But to create a generation - and not just a handful - of digital makers, we need to get quite a few things right in tandem: a foundation of deep understanding of computing; the practical experience of making things; and a feel for how you work with others.

Playing our part to make this happen we've launched Digital Makers - a £225,000 fund and a network for organisations to come together to stimulate and promote digital skills across the UK.

The Digital Makers fund, which is now open for expressions of interest, will support projects which equip young people (ages four-18) with the skills they need to become confident digital contributors and makers and new 'places' for learning - online, at home, during out of school clubs, play camps and beyond.

This shouldn't be so hard for the nation that was home to the creator of the world's first mechanical computer - Charles Babbage, the man who first imagined how an electronic computer would work - Alan Turing, and Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the worldwide web. But what links all of them was they had the skill and confidence to be makers not just users. That's the spirit we now need to spread.