My Digital Skills Story

23 Oct 2015 | Written by Zoe Breen


As Zoe Breen joins Good Things Foundation as our newest board member, she tells us how she came to believe in the importance of digital skills for all.

My story

In the 1980s, when I was growing up, I was fortunate to live in a home where from a young age computers were very much part of the furniture. By the time I was 10, I had already written my first lines of programming language BASIC on the rubbery keys of a Sinclair Spectrum.

Fast forward to 1984, and imagine my excitement when the BBC Micro computer landed in my school. The BBC had tasked schools across the UK with collecting data about their local surroundings. The idea was that this would create a snapshot of life - with words and pictures to which we recorded on the computer and saved onto a huge disk.

The confidence of already having used a computer meant that I eagerly volunteered to be part of a select team working on the ‘Domesday Project’.

Little was I to know that 25 years later, the BBC would collate this data and publish it on the web. I was thrilled to see that I’d produced my first digital content at the tender age of 12 - five years before Tim Berners-Lee sketched out his proposal for the World Wide Web. Not only that, but I was the only girl who had been on the team (more on that later).

Why is this story important?

I was privileged to live a home where I had access to a computer and parents who encouraged both myself and my brother to develop digital skills from a young age.

In the early 1980s, this was rare. Computers were expensive luxuries in an age before games consoles had gone mainstream. Girls were not pushed towards computing and, both at home and in the classroom, the devices were seen as toys for boys.

So my early experiences of learning at home gave me a big advantage. It’s probably not surprising that I have spent the last 15 years as a digital producer for the BBC, while my brother has become a successful software engineer.

This is not a typical story of how digital skills can transform lives, but it does demonstrate how individual support and encouragement can unlock opportunities for learning and fulfilment.

My grandmother, Muriel, passed away earlier this year at the age of ninety. She never learned the joys and benefits of going online. She loved art and music and the riches of the web could have improved the quality of her life, especially as her mobility was limited in later years.

Sadly, she felt excluded by web technologies, and she is not alone in that feeling. I believe that no-one should be left behind when it comes to sharing in the benefits of being online, no matter what age, gender, access needs or background.

Digital skills for the future, for all

I spent the last five years as the producer of BBC’s WebWise site, providing free learning resources. These are used by digital champions, tutors and learners to help them gain basic digital skills and form the foundation for lifelong learning.

When people learn digital skills for the first time, digital doors are opened and their lives become bigger and fuller. Leading the WebWise team gave me a great deal of pride in contributing to that.

Joining the board of the Good Things Foundation at such an exciting moment for the organisation is such a wonderful opportunity for me to share my knowledge of what works online for learners.

Going back to my point about being the only girl on the Domesday Project team at school, it’s unlikely it would be the case these days. But this is a theme I continue to have an interest in as part of the team running volunteer group Manchester Girl Geeks. We run events and activities to encourage women and girls to develop an interest in science and technology. From Digital Skills for Women programmes, to electronics workshops and our friendly show and tell tea parties.

I’ve recently taken on a project to develop online literacy resources for adult learners, another vital element for many of those gaining basic digital skills.

At a time when the Good Things Foundation plans to increase the impact and scale of their UK online centres and online learning resources, both inside and outside the UK, I am excited to have the opportunity to share my skills in digital production and knowledge learners’ needs with the board.