I am grateful to the Gazelle group of FE Colleges for introducing me to the concept of the T-shaped learner over two years ago. I have found it useful on many occasions in attempting to get to grips with the ‘digital skills’ debate.

Phillip Virgo’s blog is an insightful history into how we have failed to learn over 40 years to address the skill needs of emerging sectors of the economy, more widely, but especially in the ICT domains.

For more than 20 years there has been a debate at school level over ‘computer science’ vs ‘IT skills’ and at the same time ‘embedding IT across the curriculum’. Is a spreadsheet an IT tool or a maths tool, for instance?

For myself, I remain disappointed at the pace at which education and training has evolved to embrace technology advances at all levels. Yes, there are some wonderful examples at all levels from child to adult, but at sectoral level the pace of change, for me, still feels glacial. The use of ICT in special needs education and for adults with disabilities, physical and learning, feels ahead of much of the mainstream.

Seymour Papert probably made the feeling clearest:

‘Little by little the subversive features of the computer were eroded away: Instead of cutting across and so challenging the very idea of subject boundaries, the computer now defined a new subject; instead of changing the emphasis from impersonal curriculum to excited live exploration by students, the computer was now used to reinforce School’s ways. What had started as a subversive instrument of change was neutralised by the system and converted into an instrument of consolidation.’ - The Children’s Machine (1993)

This is where I find the T-shaped learner to be helpful in analysing the digital skills agenda.

The vertical part of the T represents the specialist area be it a lawyer, a plumber or an IT architect for instance. The bar of the T represents a breadth of skills required to exploit the specialism.

Over the last few years I have come across interesting aspects of this horizontal part. For instance, lawyers learning Prince 2 or process mapping and accountants learning creativity tools.

For an IT specialist the vertical is the specialisation and the horizontal may include finance skills, team building, report writing and many other areas depending on the exact role.

For a corporate lawyer, some IT skills lie in the bar, such as office software.

The challenge over the next decade is that digital skills are impacting the vertical part of more and more disciplines. AI, big data, robotics, IoT and many other fields are impacting on architects, doctors, lawyers and accountants just to mention a few.

However, when we hear about digital skills shortages, much of the discourse focuses too heavily on the IT itself. For instance, the need for big data scientists in the wearable tech health field is often described as a need for ‘data scientists’. My experience is that what is needed are more medics with domain knowledge applicable to a data rich environment.

This is where innovation is needed in curriculum, qualifications and CPD.

Consider for instance a future legal professional. Do all future lawyers really need programming skills? Or will we create a new role of ‘legal programmer’? That in my terms is a new vertical part of the T.

At school level we have grown up with a distinction between pure and applied mathematics. Is that a helpful model here? There is already a distinction between a law degree and ‘legal practise’ qualifications. As ICTs further develop they will have impacts on both parts of the T shape. These impacts will vary over time and will be different for surgeons and architects, for instance.

For that reason, I find the talk of digital skills gaps as likely to perpetuate the cycle of failure that Phillip Virgo describes rather than tackle it head on.

So, let’s take an example for exploration. Do we need more IoT professionals or more architects with IoT skills? The answers is probably both and the balance and the skill sets will overlap for sure, but they are not identical.

The productivity challenges of the UK economy cannot be resolved without innovative thinking on skills. Experience is the ability to recognise a mistake, the second time you make it, DISCUSS.

Some may argue that the ‘hybrid manager’ was our attempt to make progress 25 years ago, or so. Can we do better now?

About the author

Chris Yapp is a technology and policy futurologist. Chris has been in the IT industry since 1980. His roles have spanned Honeywell, ICL, HP, Microsoft and Capgemini. He is a Fellow of the BCS and a Fellow of the RSA.