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Download the full skills and learning report from the DSI website.

A huge amount of activity is currently taking place at the intersection of technology and education, with a multi-billion dollar - and rapidly-growing - edtech market across Europe. Alongside this primarily commercial field is a growing trend of digital social innovation (DSI), which we explore in this introductory report.

This analysis, led by DSI4EU partner Fab Lab Barcelona, finds three main areas of activity of DSI in the field of skills and learning:

  • Initiatives which use technology as a tool in the classroom to enhance learning (the closest to mainstream edtech). Examples include the CreaNova school and Liceu Politecnic, both in Catalonia, which use heavily digital-influenced methodologies in their teaching and learning. Outside the classroom, UK-based Hegarty Maths has been wildly successful among students who use the platform’s videos to learn and practice maths at home for free. In Italy, taking advantage of a recent law change, Book in Progress is a teacher-led effort to produce open, collaborative, digital textbooks and learning resources which are now used by tens of schools.
  • Initiatives which seek to reduce inequality of access and outcomes for education. This might include online mentoring for children from lower socio-economic groups (such as the TutorFair Foundation, which focuses on maths tuition in rural and coastal areas in the UK; The Access Project, which works with secondary school pupils to increase university admissions among low-income groups; and Whole Education’s Language Futures, which links students with native speakers of foreign languages), or offering free courses to help digitally excluded groups get online (such as the UK’s Good Things Foundation or Poland’s FRSI, which work to reduce digital exclusion).
  • Initiatives which support the development of digital skills, not just for employment purposes but also to empower individuals in a digital world. These are the primary focus of this report, and of Fab Lab Barcelona’s work. These initiatives aim to democratise access to digital and physical tools, to empower individuals to take charge of and create impact in their own lives and communities. They simultaneously disrupt existing models and empower people to become agents of change.

DSI initiatives use a range of technologies, including online platforms, digital fabrication technologies, low-cost computers and open-source hardware. There are hundreds of projects, ranging from introducing maker technologies to young people and adults, teaching coding and programming, encouraging digital social entrepreneurship, and supporting coordination, promotion and communication of these technologies through events, conferences, challenges and campaigns. Alongside teaching digital skills, most of the projects seek to promote a range of cognitive and non-cognitive skills, to benefit society more widely, and to reduce inequality and work with under-served groups.

DSI projects in the field of skills and learning are driven by values of community, distribution and decentralisation, and by a commitment to open-source models, access and affordability.

Case study: Fab Academy

Fab Academy uses a distributed model of education to support students across the world to make (almost) anything. Founded in 2009, its spreads the principles, applications and possibilities of digital fabrication and is based on MIT’s popular rapid-prototyping course How To Make (almost) Anything. Fab Academy takes a mixed online-offline approach: students learn and work with peers and mentors locally in fablab, and globally through content sharing, video conferences and interactive classes. Individual fab labs are supported and supervised regionally by expert nodes with more advanced capabilities, expertise, and inventories. The course started in 2010 with 12 Fab Labs and 30 students, growing to 73 Fab and 285 students in 2017. More recently, it has been complemented by other programs including Fab Academy X, Bio Academy, Fabricademy and Fab Academy Thesis, all part of a platform called Academany, aiming ultimately to spread education in a distributed way.

Case study: FixEd

FixEd aims to inspire creative, ingenious and generous problem-solvers and equip them with the skills they need for the 21st century, by supporting educators and organisations around the world to engage and motivate learners through learning programmes for schools and universities. FixEd’s main programme is Fixperts, a learning programme that challenges young people to use their imagination and skills to create ingenious solutions to everyday problems for a real person. In the process they develop a host of valuable transferable skills from prototyping to collaboration. Fixperts offers a range of teaching resources and formats to suit schools and universities, from hour-long workshops, to a term-long project, relevant to any creative design, engineering and STEM/STEAM studies. It is now run in over 30 universities worldwide and is recognised within the mainstream English education system. The Fixperts course is based around six key areas: learning to solve problems; building social connections; connecting imagination with skills; award-winning, classroom-ready teaching resources; effectiveness across design, engineering, STEM and STEAM; and creating new formats and options in response to changing needs. Alongside the Fixperts course, FixEd also recently started FixCamp, a summer activity camp in London supported by the Royal Academy of Engineering, which aimed to reach 200 students over Summer 2018.

Case study: Barcelona Open Data Challenge

The Barcelona Open Data Challenge aims to promote the use of open data by involving secondary school students in practical projects. Open Data BCN, the city’s main portal, has over 420 datasets on topics including housing, population, trees, public transport, bicycle lanes, accidents or incidents reported by citizens. The challenge asks students to analyse, check and use open data available through the city’s portal to design proposals for how the City Council can think differently about the city. The competition takes place over the school year, and includes phases on analysing challenges, identifying and analysing data, preparing proposals and presenting them at a public event, and evaluating the process. Throughout, teachers receive training in open data methods, data analysis, video editing and design which can in turn support students. Winners’ proposals are evaluated by the City Council and teams also receive further training as well as the opportunity to visit data and technology companies in the city.

Despite promising growth and some significant successes, DSI projects in the field face challenges around funding, both to start and to scale initiatives, although corporates and some public administrations are providing much-needed support. They also struggle to be accepted and adopted by policymakers, educators and citizens, and (as new concepts) there is relatively little evidence of impact, as well as few formal certifications or qualifications.

Policymakers have a role to play in recognising the importance and social impact of these initiatives, and in helping initiatives (through financial and non-financial support) to better be able to measure and understand that impact. Policymakers can also promote initiatives within formal education routes and build frameworks for recognition and certification. Governments and funders should work more closely and make their money go further by targeting it better (to the best projects, at the right time) and allowing more flexibility within grant and contract agreements. Over the coming months, working with a range of stakeholders, we’ll be continuing to explore how policymakers can support the field.

DSI4EU aims to support the growth and scale of digital social innovation (DSI), tech for good and civic tech in Europe through a programme of policy, research and practical support. This feature is part of a series of introductory texts exploring the landscape, challenges and opportunities for DSI in different social areas. You can find the other features in the series on our main feature page.

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