A curriculum for a complex world – students’ views on digital literacy in the curriculum

Debbie McVitty reflects on the findings of a Wonkhe/Adobe qualitative study exploring student perceptions of the links between their curriculum, their future aspirations, and their development of digital literacy

We already know a great deal about students’ opinions on digital technology, thanks to years of research from Jisc via the annual digital experience insight surveys.

That work reveals both that students expect their universities to equip them with digital capabilities for learning and their future lives and, according to the latest 2021 data, there is a gap in student perceptions of being offered support or training in specific areas of digital capability. For example: 28 per cent reported being offered support with basic IT skills, 27 per cent with behaving safely and respectfully online and 20 per cent with keeping their personal data safe.

Addressing these gaps is certainly high on the priority list for universities, especially as the sector anticipates a more blended future for learning and teaching in which digital technology plays a more significant role.

But, as Mark Andrews points out on Wonkhe, while “digital” remains an object of discussion and development of practice in itself, it may remain somewhat semi-detached from wider discussions about the development of curriculum and pedagogy.

Mark draws on the idea of the “post-digital” to articulate a way of looking at the world that is closer to students’ lived experience of it – a world in which digital technologies are ubiquitous and the boundaries between the digital and the “real” are blurry and ambiguous.

In the post-pandemic landscape, translating the in-person to the online will become much less pressing, and instead mobilising the potential of digital technology to build more active and authentic learning environments will take centre stage.

Our new research with Adobe seeks to understand, not only what students think about digital literacy, but how they view it in the context of the constellation of activities and experiences that make up their higher education curriculum, and the link between their current learning and the future they imagine for themselves. We were also curious, given the increasing emphasis on student partnership and co-production, about the extent to which students felt they could influence their own curriculum.

Twelve students’ unions volunteered to take part in the project, working from a common set of research objectives and a discussion guide to conduct focus groups with students. We met with the students’ unions concerned to explore the objectives and formulate the discussion guide, and afterwards to share findings and interpretations from the focus groups.

In total 105 students from a range of subject areas, ages, ethnicities, nationalities and levels of study took part in the research. The vast majority were course representatives, which meant that they had some level of prior experience of discussing students’ learning experiences.

Students’ hopes for the future

The students who took part in the research were clear about how their curriculum is helping them achieve their aspirations and were well informed about the range of generic skills they were developing through their university study. Some also spoke about the deeper transformative impact of study, reporting that university “changes how you think and feel”, and the value of developing self-discipline and self-confidence, and some cited the networks and connections they were developing at university as valued preparation for the future.

The co-curriculum emerged as a particularly valuable space, allowing students to expand their sense of the possibilities available to them. Different students reported different kinds of co-curricular engagement, including placements, peer-assisted learning, language learning, skills development training, volunteering and student societies.

While students were able to point to the ways that they are developing and preparing for their future lives through university study, support with pathfinding through the various choices and opportunities available was highlighted as an area where additional support would be welcomed, in a way that would allow students to be confident they were making the best use of the limited time and resources available to them. One group suggested that offering module “taster” sessions could help to inform choices.

Digital literacy in the curriculum

Students were clear that digital literacy is very important for their academic success, and their future careers. Students valued digital technology as an efficient way to get things done and as an enabler of collaboration, creativity and connection to people and ideas.

Although the kinds of digital technologies students referenced were not particularly advanced – word processing software, video conferencing, virtual learning environments, social media, data analysis software, video editing and project management software – students reported that they felt it was assumed that their level of digital literacy on arrival at university was higher than it actually was, leading to a nervousness about asking for help.

This suggests a need in some cases for greater clarity about what “core” technologies students will need to use to be able to engage in learning, and building opportunities for students to familiarise themselves with those technologies into induction and transition support.

Students were also clear about the challenges with digital technology, with digital poverty and the digital divide clearly affecting the learning experience, and digital fatigue also arising as a source of concern. Some students noted that effective use of digital technology extends beyond the technical, and that adopting appropriate online etiquette and social codes was an important element of digital literacy.

Asked to think about the specific activities that support the development of digital literacy, students were enthusiastic about creative and diverse forms of assessment, and valued activities that have a “real-life” application or make use of “real-life” examples. They saw digital literacy as being enabled through the embedding of digital technologies into other activities such as group work, project planning, and research.

But some struggled to articulate the link between their curriculum and digital literacy, aware it was important but unsure how they were developing it. In particular students felt their digital development depended heavily on the digital fluency of their lecturers. That said, students welcomed opportunities to learn from peers and learn by doing.

Students influencing the curriculum

Given their position as course reps, many of the students who took part reported that they felt comfortable discussing the curriculum with academics, and that these conversations were well-received.

This was not universal however: some said that they felt the curriculum was not up for discussion. Some had been told that changes would not be possible because of timing, the stipulations of accreditation bodies, or because staff did perceive themselves as having the authority to change the curriculum.

The students who took part were reflective about their own position of relatively privileged access to these kinds of conversations, and wondered what role they, their students’ union, or university staff could play in opening up discussion about the curriculum to a wider cohort of students. Students suggested that conversations could take place in more informal surroundings, and were keen to share “good practice” among course reps and via their students’ union.

Reflections arising from the research

Without drawing too many fixed conclusions, there are some promising pathways for exploration for universities and students’ unions thinking about how the curriculum will develop for a digital (or post-digital) age, and the place of digital technology and digital literacy within that.

Universities may want to think about what an integrated approach that seeks to foster digital fluency in staff and students, and allows for fluidity of transition between digital and non-digital spaces across the whole learning environment might look like. This could include addressing social and cultural questions of using technology as well as practical.

Some of this could involve focusing on specific elements of the curriculum such as assessment and formative activity practices, or further developing the co-curriculum. It may involve developing a clearer idea of the level of digital literacy, or an applied understanding of digital literacy, that students are expected to develop throughout their course of study and building these expectations into learning outcomes for each subject area.

It may also involve a greater clarity and pragmatism about the range of existing knowledge and confidence of staff and students, and allowing for greater experimentation and co-learning, rather than expecting staff to impart digital literacy to students.

Students recognise that the digital fluency of staff has a material impact on their own digital development, but also report being keen for a more open conversation that includes learning from each other as well as from lecturers. We’re aware of some universities that are training and enabling students as digital champions and peer tutors, for example.

If the intention is that students will develop personal agency and self-efficacy through their higher education study – and both this study and our Skills to Thrive research last year indicate that staff and students consider this to be the case – digital literacy could be an area in which responsibility is more overtly distributed.

As one students’ union put it, students and students’ unions can play an active role in “dream-scaping” future needs, and thinking through how curricula and pedagogies might develop to meet those needs. This might open up opportunities for the more informal, exploratory conversations about curriculum outside the realm of staff-student liaison committees, and support students’ efforts to link their learning and experiences at university to their future plans.

Digital technologies are already infused throughout students’ lives, and will only become more so. Enabling a critical conversation that links current learning to future aspirations, and that helps students develop their own fluency in navigating the digital world can only be helpful.

This article is published in association with Adobe. Wonkhe and Adobe would like to thank the twelve students’ unions who took part in the research. You can download the full findings here.

Contact Adobe to find out more about how Adobe partners with universities working to infuse digital literacy into the curriculum through the global Creative Campus network.  

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