As the digitisation of society increases, businesses need a workforce capable of understanding and driving this change.

Surely the current generation of children with their phones, tablets, consoles and laptops should all have the digital skills engrained into them from a young age to succeed? However, as Charlie Reisinger, author of The Open Schoolhouse puts it: "In spite of all the devices surrounding them, students are becoming less and less familiar with computing".

Whilst the opportunity for large-scale job creation is available, there's just not enough people equipped to take these new roles on, with The Learning & Work Institute fearing a "catastrophic" digital skills shortage "disaster".

Why is this?

Because schools teach children how to use applications, not computers, nor do they allow them to learn how they work — producing a generation of users, not creators.

People know how to use computers, tablets and smartphones. Yet, very few know how they work and how to fix them when they don't.

Whilst we have access to the services they provide, what we don't get is an understanding of how they work, any real control over them, or the ability to make them better. We effectively spend our lives renting closed software, paying license fees to use programs that have been ingrained into us as the only option.

So what's the alternative?

The Open Schoolhouse follows Charlie Reisinger's groundbreaking approach to digital education for the Penn Manor School District in Pennsylvania. Building on an open source philosophy and encouraging students to become the masters of their technology, it's an exemplary demonstration of exactly how the UK can abridge the current digital skills gap.

The open alternative

In the UK, students are required to follow strict instructions when using computers, their exploration limited by using the same closed software over and over again, further hampered by the confines of an outdated curriculum. It's like letting Lewis Hamilton get into his F1 car, only to be told he has to drive at 10mph in a straight line.

In his seminal book Mindstorms: Children, Computers and Powerful Ideas, Dr Seymour Papert, MIT mathematician, computer scientist and educational computing visionary, suggests that: "In many schools today, the phrase ‘computer-aided instruction’ means making the computer teach the child. In my vision, my child programs the computer and, in doing so, both acquires a sense of mastery over a piece of the most modern and powerful technology and establishes an intimate contact with some of the deepest ideas from science, from mathematics, and from the art of intellectual model building".

It's the second half of this statement that underpins the brilliance of The Open Schoolhouse, giving the students the tools to power their own educations.

Not satisfied with just providing laptops to over 2,000 students across Penn Manor's junior, middle and high schools, Reisinger took an extra leap. Enabling students to work with him and his team to help build and maintain the technology they were putting into practice across the schools changed everything.

Penn Manor established a student support desk, where students and teachers alike could bring their digital problems to the students at the heart of the technology programme. In essence, the students had a job, a first taste of their future, focused around their emerging digital skills and encouraging them to take charge of their learning. It was a colossal success, in and out of the classroom.

Open source

This was all made possible through the use of open source software in preference to proprietary alternatives.

Open source software such as Linux Mint on the desktop, LibreOffice, Mozilla Firefox, Audacity and Scratch, crucially enable control for the user.

Open source is all about collaboration and continuous improvement, built on a community of like-minded individuals across the globe striving to consistently add value to others' work through knowledge-sharing and problem-solving.

Designed with customisation and experimentation in mind, one can tailor open source applications to work best for your needs, rather than feeling shoehorned into the limiting boxes associated with closed software.

One of the student team, who had, unbeknownst to Reisinger, been struggling with ADHD throughout his school life, was suddenly propelled to the top of his class, having been galvanised by the opportunity to learn and experiment with open source technology. He went on to be a dual major at college in Computer Science and Electronic Media, where professors remarked how ahead of the curve he was. This was all thanks to Reisinger's open approach to learning and the opportunity it gave these students to break free of the shackles of traditional education and follow their passions.

Other benefits

Growing up, you're oblivious to the costs associated with providing the most basic closed software for use in educational purposes. The Open Schoolhouse offers some mind-blowing insight into the huge savings that schools can make if they switch to open source.

Reisinger conservatively estimates, that by having open source software as the driving force behind providing technology for the Penn Manor School District, they saved $890,000 between 2001-2016. That number has almost certainly passed the $1 million mark by now.

The craziest thing? This is just one school district in one place in America. Imagine if this became common practice across the whole of the UK, the widespread financial benefits it could bring to schools.

What could the future look like?

In 25, 50 years, when the world will undoubtedly be further dominated by technology, we need to be a country that's leading from the front. No longer should we rely on others to be creating the technology we use, we need to usher in a generation of digitally-skilled, innovative workers who can produce it themselves.

This open, DIY attitude to technology and education championed in The Open Schoolhouse should be the starting point for the UK in an attempt to overhaul traditional practices and plan for a digital future. Charlie Reisinger has provided the frameworks, what we need to do is build on it.

For infomation on and access to a wide range of free and open source educational resources, go to https://padlet.com/joerdis/repositories