Staff need digital skills to give students the best digital experience

Nurturing the nation’s brightest minds for the technology-enhanced jobs of the future is a big responsibility – but do teaching staff get the support they need?

Those starting out in university teaching may be wondering how the sector will support their digital skills development – especially when it comes to digital. A recent Jisc survey provides insight into how current staff feel about support for their own digital skills.

Academics need to be able to use a wide range of technology – from virtual learning environments to simulations and subject-specific resources – in order to deliver the learning experience that students expect. But all too often these are tools that need to be picked up on the job – and, as our survey told us, there is often little support.

What academics say

Six and a half thousand teaching staff – including 3,485 currently employed in higher education – were invited to reflect on their experiences of using technology within their university and, by extension, to consider their own confidence in supporting the digital capabilities of learners. Their responses tell us there is room for improvement.

Relevance appears to be the greatest motivator for teaching staff. Asked what best describes their approaches to embracing new technologies for teaching, 48 per cent say they tend to be early adopters when they see clear benefits. The second most popular response was a tendency to adopt new technologies at the pace of their peers (32 per cent).

This shows us the will is there, but is the back-up? Asked who supports them most to use digital technologies in their teaching, the top answer given is their colleagues (33 per cent). Institutions could do better – when asked to rate the support they receive to develop digital aspects of their role, the most common response from HE teaching staff was “average”. This contrasts with responses given by 14,525 campus-based HE students in an equivalent Jisc survey. Reflecting on the quality of digital teaching and learning on their course, learners were more positive, rating it “good”.

Investing in staff skills

Universities that invest in developing the digital skills of their staff find it pays dividends. Further analysis of these parallel surveys into the digital experiences of students and teaching staff found that within each organisation there is a positive statistical correlation between student ratings for the quality of digital teaching and learning on their course and the level of support that teaching staff say they receive to develop digital aspects of their role. So when teaching staff are well-supported to develop digital skills, students feel the benefit – a clear demonstration of the value of institutional investment in digital continuous professional development (CPD).

There are gaps, however. Only nine per cent of teaching staff in HE agree they receive reward or recognition when they develop digital aspects of their role and just 13 per cent agree they have time and support to innovate. While over a third of teaching staff (34 per cent) agree that they have regular opportunities to develop their digital skills, a quarter disagree, and the majority give a neutral response. Perhaps most worryingly for students, just 27 per cent of HE teaching staff that responded to the Jisc survey agree that they receive guidance about the digital skills they are expected to have as a teacher.

Measurable benefits

Staff tell us that they need to know their investment in digital teaching will be recognised. Yet, while many organisational strategies talk about the value of digital learning and teaching, the survey results show that most teaching staff find developing digital practice to be unrewarded, undersupported, and costly in terms of their own time. While long-term career rewards may require structural change (such as fellowships and the embedding of digital within HR processes and professional development reviews), short-term benefits may be easier to offer. These might include allocated time for training or CPD, incremental pay awards for taking on digital roles and responsibilities, and celebratory events that acknowledge achievements.

Timely, sustained and focused training are key to improving teaching staff confidence and expertise, but too often teaching staff are offered single sessions with no follow-up or support. This may be enough to grasp the basics, but it does not allow staff to explore how new techniques can be applied in practice. As well as providing resources and opportunities, university teaching staff benefit from encouragement and recognition. Approaches that harness peer support are an effective strategy here, especially when built into organisational culture and modelled by senior managers.

Relevance to professional practice

Those embarking on a university teaching career could well find themselves surrounded by colleagues and peers keen to engage with new technologies when the experience is of practical value and relevant to their disciplines. Not all teaching staff ask for the same opportunities: some are happy to update their skills independently and make use of the wealth of online resources available, while others want one-to-one guidance.

Many want to explore new tools in an environment where they have the security of trying (and possibly failing) in a safe space with hands-on support and actionable outcomes. Whatever the approach, it’s important to build communities of practice within and across discipline areas to encourage peer networking. If this can be achieved – and where sessions are varied, scholarly and engaging – the results can be transformative.

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