Championing young people Article icon


It is indisputable that the world of technology is changing so rapidly that sometimes it can be hard to keep up. By the time you’ve learnt all the tricks of the iPhone 5, the iPhone 6 rears its bendable head. It might have only been yesterday that you learnt that the Apple Store isn’t a weirdly niche grocery store and that messing around with a tablet isn’t a reckless case of drug abuse.

But such problems are unlikely to have occurred to those aged under 18. Where adults struggle to cope with the ever-changing digital world, children seem to prosper, bolstered by technological advances in the classroom and at home. In fact, technology has made the generation gap seem wider than ever, with computer skills becoming second nature to children as young as four years old, when tablet devices actually start being marketed to them.

This gap has not gone unnoticed. Two years ago, BT launched its BT Digital Champions programme, aiming to use cross-generational learning to help those who are unable to use the Internet, due to lack of confidence or financial issues, to get online.

The programme involves children in secondary schools across the country giving up an hour of their time to teach members of their family or the wider community relevant digital skills that can help to make their lives easier. It can be as simple as teaching a parent how to shop online.

Steve Earl, managing director of communications agency Zeno, who worked with BT on the campaign, explains: ‘It’s first and foremost about making sure people and Britain as a society is more digitally literate and doesn’t miss the boat on the world, as it becomes more and more digital, and the opportunities it has, not just for individuals, but for society at large.

‘There’s still a reasonably large chunk of the population that, either through fear of the unknown because they’re elderly people and they’ve never grown up with the Internet, or because they are in disadvantaged areas, have never actually been online.

‘As society continues to evolve and the Internet becomes more and more central to how people live – not just to how they live and to the work they do, but to the public services they have access to being increasingly pushed online – it means that some people are missing out.’

Research by BT found that there are seven million people in the UK who have never been online, and that often this is down to a lack of confidence. BT Digital Champions gives children the chance to change that, for themselves and their communities.

Anna Easton, programme director of BT Connected Society and helmswoman of the Digital Champions campaign, has also made note of the changes in confidence it can bring. ‘Having adults listening to [the participating children] and respecting their knowledge is empowering,’ she says.

And the results tell the same story. A survey conducted at the end of the 2013/2014 programme found that 78 per cent of the 8,800 students who took part said they felt more confident while a staggering nine out of ten felt more motivated to do better at school.

The programme last year achieved its target of signing up 10,000 children three months earlier than anticipated, and managed to educate around 24,000 people on their digital skills, potentially changing their lives completely.

This is BT’s ultimate aim. Digital Champions is part of the telecom company’s wider, three-pronged corporate responsibility plan, Better Future, which promises on its website to ‘use the power of communications to improve lives and ways of doing business’.

The company has set itself three goals to achieve by 2020. These include helping customers reduce their carbon emissions, raising £1 billion for charities and providing access to the Internet globally for disadvantaged groups who cannot get online.

It is to achieve this last goal that Digital Champions was created as part of BT’s Connected Society plan, the umbrella term given to all initiatives of this nature.

Connected Society has seen BT join forces with a number of organisations, including international charity SOS Children’s Villages, who partnered with the telecoms group to help spread the Internet via satellite to 20 communities in 12 African countries. Easton adds that 100,000 orphans have benefitted from that scheme over the past 12 months.

For Digital Champions, BT has partnered with educational charity The Transformation Trust to help liaise with schools and make sure that every interaction between participating children and their communities is conducted in a safe, respectful manner.

‘The Transformation Trust’s role in all this is to be the intermediary with the local education authorities, and in some cases with the schools directly, because clearly being the kind of organisation that can go into schools and partner like that for a corporation is tricky,’ says Earl. ‘It’s a lot of ground to cover and there are clearly a lot of rules and regulations that govern how you do that.’

Joining forces with schools is not a decision that BT takes lightly. As well as delivering introductory sessions that have been tried and tested by a panel of teachers, the telecoms company also made sure that it offered lessons on how to be safe on the Internet, something that has become increasingly important as more children post online.

The benefits to the schools are obvious. Not only does the scheme make children aware of cyber safety, but it is also aligned to the requirements of the curriculum. ‘One of the requirements of the curriculum is to help children understand how they are part of the wider community,’ explains Easton.

But though their schools might be on board with this, engaging thousands of children to spend their free time helping their families and friends with computer skills might be a bit of a harder sell, despite the resultant benefits.

Offering them the chance to see some of their favourite pop stars live at Wembley Arena might help.

‘You have to pique children’s interest in a way that is relevant to them,’ says Easton.

Earl agrees: ‘You’ve really got to get them interested and motivated. What’s cool one moment can be uncool the next. So you can’t just communicate to them at the beginning of this campaign, seven or eight months potentially before the thing happens, and expect them to sustain that excitement throughout the year. You’ve got to use communications to keep that going and it’s got to be inspirational communications that is relevant to them and excites them.

‘In 2013, it was a hard push to get enough kids signed up to make it happen, even though the great incentive for all this, that I’m sure lit up the eyes of many a kid across the country, was that If you do this and you train just one person and give up an hour of your time, then you are eligible to get a ticket to this end of year concert.

Last year’s concert, Rock Assembly, took place in July just before the end of summer term and featured artists such as 2011 X Factor contestant Misha B and chart-topping rapper Professor Green. Up-and-coming musician Franko Fraize, who works for BT in Norwich, also performed, which, according to Earl, helped the campaign land internally.

Landing it externally turned out to be a much harder issue.

‘In 2013, the first [concert], it hadn’t been filmed, it hadn’t really been captured for posterity beyond a press release,’ says Earl. ‘The brief to us was really to inspire people and Let’s make more of this. We’ve got to use communications to greater effect to make it easier to pull people in and make more of a song and dance about it, make more of a spectacle of it.

‘What we advised BT to do was not to just go and shout about it. It wasn’t about amplifying it and BT being the narrator and talking about it more. It was basically to integrate communications into the way that it was delivered throughout the whole process. It was about making communications empower this throughout.

‘We asked kids to talk about it. Those who were old enough to use social media would be able to use social media to communicate it. Others we just asked to take pictures, share those, making sure as many people got to be aware of it as possible. Ask your parents to share the pictures, that sort of thing.

‘It was putting the microphone effectively into the hands of the kids who were doing the work in the first place. We wanted the thing to be authentic.’

Earl made specific use of four platforms, chosen because of their aptitude for shareability – YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

‘There were a lot of selfies taken at Wembley Arena, that’s for sure,’ laughs Earl. ‘There was a big social media push on the day. We were encouraging everyone to use the hashtag, to take pictures and videos, so there was loads of user-generated content shared. We had a film crew there, they documented the whole thing. We made a YouTube long version and short version [of the concert].

They were uploaded the next morning.

‘As a result, the whole thing was documented in a way that built momentum throughout, made it easier to recruit kids and more and more got people to hear about it.

‘It’s been a massive step forward in that there’s now a lot of excitement and momentum around it, purely because of the way the whole thing was communicated. It just lifted it, more than it had been when it was just an event and about direct engagement with kids.’

The momentum is certainly something that BT intends to keep going, with the success of last year’s programme still fresh in their minds. ‘Our intention is to look how we can potentially scale that,’ says Easton. ‘We want to grow the scheme to be even bigger.’

And with BT already in talks with The Transformation Trust about this year’s push, Easton’s next words are nothing if not optimistic: ‘Watch this space.’