This article is more than 2 years old

What can students’ unions take from our research on digital literacy and the curriculum?

This article is more than 2 years old

Alan Roberts is a partner at Counterculture LLP, and a former policy development manager at NUS

Ask any student whether they think they should be gaining digital skills from their time at university and you’ll get a “yes”.

But what does that really mean? How important is digital literacy to students and how does it fit in with the whole basket of activities and opportunities students might experience as part of their time at university?

Wonkhe and Adobe asked me to support a research project to bring twelve students’ unions together to discuss student opinions of digital skills and their role in the curriculum. Not surprisingly, we were also curious about how much influence students have in those kinds of conversations.

We had the following four objectives:

  1. Gain a qualitative understanding of students’ hopes and expectations for how the learning they undertake in their curriculum will help them thrive in their future lives.
  2. Explore the relative value placed on digital literacy and capability to other kinds of generic skills and capabilities students might aspire to develop.
  3. Explore students’ perceptions of what kinds of curriculum experiences help to develop useful skills (eg assessments, learning tasks/projects, use of digital tools in pedagogy, research-based activity, interdisciplinary activity, co-curricular activity)
  4. Understand the current state of practice in students influencing the curriculum and the extent students and their representative organisations are able to take part in conversations about curriculum.

We crowdsourced a qualitative study by developing a joint discussion guide with development and analysis workshops. Our study captured the views of 105 students about 80 per cent of whom were course reps.

We found that students have a wide range of goals, ranging from careers to changes they want to make in the world. They link the curriculum with digital skills and are clear that they are getting transferable skills.

University plays a key role in developing students’ networks, particularly through co-curricular activity. There is an emerging view of co-curricular content being a way of exploring a subject, creating space around the “core” curriculum for students to experiment, apply learning and test out different versions of their future selves.

We also heard about students’ frustrations with aspects of curriculum design, particularly around induction and pathfinding.

We learned that in many respects, conversations and engagement around curriculum are still not consistently the norm. Although many course reps reported they have a good relationship with academics, many had the impression that the curriculum is off the table in terms of what can be discussed.

You can download the full findings of the research as a pdf and there’s a write up over on the main Wonkhe site, as well as some additional reflections on digital literacy and technology from Adobe pedagogical evangelist Mark Andrews. But here are the reflections from the research we think are especially useful for students’ unions.

Co-curricular activity – core versus created

Students use digital to make the most of the wider curriculum, beyond the core subject content. The idea of the wider curriculum ranges from volunteering in the community, to independent project design – designed either by the university or by other students via their course society or a students’ union service.

This sets the role of the course designer clearly as a facilitator between students and the key knowledge and skills they require. The co-curricular dimension becomes the creative space where students can stretch all aspects of their learning and personal goals.

This might seem obvious to those who are active in student opportunities but is a point to realise the value of well designed and supported co-curricular strategies which support students to discover their journey. It also opens it up to myriad ways of learning and experiencing not just their own disciplines, but in a truly interdisciplinary way.

During our discussions with the twelve unions, it was recognised that this structured approach to academic societies and the co-curricular role of the students’ union was rarely focused on in such a way that looked at course design. Student participants who had experience of academic societies identified how varied this currently was and often depended on individual staff members at department level engaging and championing the societies.


It just might be that a structured approach to co-curricular activity and opportunities might answer another common problem which students reported, around the choices they make when navigating their programme – pathfinding.

Of the core features which students reported as helping them achieve their overall ambitions and goals, the idea of connectedness – with the subject, with fellow students, with their industries and interests – is very important and a place where growth and development would be welcomed.

Students’ unions are experts at helping students make connections and supporting different aspects of the choices they make in their journey – be it through selecting a club or society, a house to live in or an action to take when things look like they are going wrong.

A focus on students’ objectives, on helping them navigate their choices in a way which reflects their goals, which includes the widest definition of “curriculum” will support the complex and ambitious range of desired outcomes – known or otherwise. These concerns should be linked to active induction activities, with a combination of peer and network-led development, particularly around orientation and pathfinding.

This insight suggests that such approaches would really benefit from linked work with academics and careers departments to understand, communicate and support these complex and dynamic opportunities and decisions.

Experimental learning

Another key theme picked up by students was the need for innovation. Working digitally has still allowed students to work collaboratively even when apart. This focus on “learning to learn” and self-direction, inevitably requires greater support.

Students told us that learning from others as well as learning with them was both stimulating and effective. It allowed new approaches which enhanced the learning experience and were useful for future skills and ways of working.

Students also felt that there was more benefit to their learning by “doing” rather than watching lectures. There was also a suggestion that fellow students could be utilised to share their knowledge.

Awareness and understanding of navigating resources and tools could be a barrier to developing digital literacy – peer support was identified as a possible solution for this. This strong sense of people learning together – networking, peer-support and the co-curricular dimension, was a common theme. Within this, digital literacy will be a voyage of discovery – between students and academics.

Student engagement

Within our student engagement objective, we heard about problems around the scope of student engagement, timing, level and partnership. There were numerous suggestions for students’ unions in this area too.

I’m an academic rep and have felt able to voice opinions on everything, but not the content… I didn’t even realise that was up for discussion.

“The curriculum cannot be changed” was the consensus across the different focus groups. Ironically, this exercise, discussing a significant aspect of the curriculum, drew out rich and valuable insights in each institution.

What is up for discussion and what is not? Students understood that many aspects of their curriculum could or should not be changed, however, despite the majority of participants being course reps, the majority felt that there were topics which were simply not up for discussion, even in the spirit of testing the boundaries of these perceived limits.

Many students felt unable or unqualified to enact change. There was an asymmetry of information between academia and students, which whether real or perceived, damaged trust and any sense of partnership. A number of students agreed that they felt academic staff took the reporting of any issues with teaching or curriculum personally.

There was strong sense among the participating unions, and the students who took part in the research, that it would be beneficial to embed conversations about the curriculum within it, so as to ensure discussions take place for all students.

There is a clear gap where students’ unions could be assisting more and taking an approach which leads to – in the words of one SU – the “dream-scaping” of future needs which could then be better used to inform development and change in the curriculum.


Given the earlier observations about pathfinding, and more structured approaches to co-curricular activity, it makes sense that students observed a critical flaw in the structured approach to student engagement in the overall curriculum: the conversations were happening at the wrong level and time.

Feedback on modules would differ from programme feedback. The latter was extremely rare, with hardly any participants having experienced such a conversation. Reviewing a module for future improvements, does not deliver a joint journey through the course. There was very little narrative around discussing entire programmes, or the journey through modules.

It was seen that students help review, but never plan. There is never an open conversation about the curriculum; these things only happen when they have to happen. Also, some felt feedback was often asked a bit too late, so they would not notice the impact, rather it would just improve or develop for future years. Engagement was still felt to be reactive.


The three major conclusions from this research are to support and develop the human connection between students and academics, de-risking asking questions and being ready to learn together – co-learning is a clear theme in both the problems and solutions.

Discovering together between students and academics will create a culture of developing new ways of working, of being open about the pace of technology and how it benefits both academics and students.

Learning together clearly demands a focus on student engagement, and in this area, the research suggests that curriculum discussions are needed, they would benefit from being embedded in the subject itself, but there still needs to be a space where feedback and development of the overall programme is sought and actively supported by both the university and the students’ union.

As well as this, developing a structured and planned approach to co-curricular activity will help add to this partnership approach to learning, but also support students in the decisions they take about understanding and achieving their goals and ambitions.

Ideas and suggestions that came out of the research with SUs

  • Academic societies could contribute more to curriculum discussions at department level.
  • Develop academic societies to help students think about different areas of work that their degree might link into, things they wouldn’t have considered otherwise.
  • Summer internships, projects running across year groups and inter-school projects collaborating across disciplines have all been beneficial for engagement during this time.
  • Student-organised guest lectures are easier to organise and more accessible online, linking with other unions.
  • Help students understand what they can expect and what they can feasibly raise issues about, how those issues are then dealt with.
  • Pick up and amplify local campaigns, link and share emerging conversations across university communities – such as with decolonising the curriculum.
  • Sabbatical officers could also hold sessions to encourage feedback.
  • Students’ unions should play back to students how their feedback is acted upon.
  • Students’ unions could offer support by providing a list of curriculum engagement tools, acting as a mediator between students and faculties.
  • Students’ unions could organise more student forums or debate panels where students can ask questions or share ideas with Union and University staff about their curriculum.
  • Rep resources: create a “how to” guide on using digital tools throughout the course rep role
  • Connect co-curricular activities such as rep roles, academic societies, peer tutoring schemes, or volunteering roles to the curriculum when communicating with students.
  • Intervene where engagement is not happening
  • Convene campaigns to focus rep work

The research reported here was undertaken on behalf of Wonkhe with the support of Adobe. The views and interpretations expressed here are those of Alan Roberts, informed by discussion with the participating students’ unions, and not of Adobe.

Team Wonkhe would like to thank the students’ unions who took part in the research: Aberystwyth SU, Christ Church SU, Exeter Guild, Newman SU, Liverpool Guild, Plymouth SU, Portsmouth SU, Southampton SU, Manchester SU, Manchester Metropolitan SU, Durham SU, Sheffield SU.

2 responses to “What can students’ unions take from our research on digital literacy and the curriculum?

  1. Hmmm – ‘Students’ unions could organise more student forums or debate panels where students can ask questions or share ideas with Union and University staff about their curriculum’ – difficult enough to get most students engaged with such engagements even as do exist, without putting more of them on….

    1. I have sympathy with your scepticism. The experience of engagement was different not just by institution, but course and tutor.

      Where this idea was coming from was about putting the very topic of curriculum up for debate. In a space where student engagement is already in a good place, this is stretch for them. In a place where engagement is poor, then whilst focussing on the basics, don’t exclude the idea of talking about curriculum.

      The point is to try what you can as appropriate for your context. Where these engagements do exist, then this is a topic for discussion.

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