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Universities are failing to equip enough students with digital skills

Universities must better integrate digital skills into curricula in order to remain relevant and competitive, argues Jisc's Paul Feldman.
This article is more than 5 years old

Paul Feldman is Chief Executive of Jisc.

Young people are touted as a tech-savvy cohort who have grown up with the internet and smart devices.

But still, higher and further education institutions could do more to equip them with the digital capabilities necessary for the workplace. Colleges and universities must embrace technology because institutions that fail in their duty to ready students for the 21st century jobs market are also failing to future-proof their existence, particularly in the face of competition from abroad.

Technology is so embedded in everyday life that students arrive at college or university presuming they will be using it as a natural part of their learning experience, and that’s not an unreasonable expectation. However, this year’s edition of Jisc’s student digital experience survey shows that only half of all further and higher education students believe that their courses prepare them well for the digital workplace.

Colleges and universities have a duty to produce students who are ready for the jobs market, but there is a lack of information and direction right from the outset. Between 40% and 50% of learners don’t know the sort of digital skills required before they start a course and, later on, fewer than half have been told the digital skills they need to improve.

These are concerning statistics considering the well-documented technical skills gap in the UK. The government’s Digital Skills Crisis report of 2016-17 states:

“The UK will need 745,000 additional workers with digital skills to meet rising demand from employers between 2013 and 2017, and almost 90% of new jobs require digital skills to some degree, with 72% of employers stating that they are unwilling to interview candidates who do not have basic digital skills.”

Our survey sheds light on the current digital capabilities, habits and attitudes of today’s further and higher education learners and highlights, worryingly, that the use of technology in teaching and assessment is still in the shadows when it really ought to be centre stage.

There is a mismatch between the skills required by employers and those that students are familiar with, or believe are necessary. We particularly need to be concerned about the almost 20% of learners in higher education and almost 40% in further education who do not feel digital skills to be relevant in their chosen careers.

There is much that universities should be doing on an individual basis, too. While there are some excellent examples of institutions which are embedding digital practice throughout their organisations for the benefit of all, the sector as a whole is failing to equip enough young people with the right digital skills. There are two main reasons for this: a lack of investment in technology, and a lack of investment in thorough training for both tutors and students.

But no amount of investment is worth a jot unless everyone who needs to use it can use it and use it well. And it’s not simply a case of training a few tutors or technicians and expecting they’ll pass on new-found skills to the rest of the staff, who will in turn enlighten the students. This is a false economy. It’s also a half measure.

For example, Bournemouth University’s ‘Try Something Different’ campaign encouraged colleagues to take advantage of the new learning spaces in the recently opened £22 million Fusion Building, as a catalyst for changing pedagogic practice. Staff were challenged to be brave in trying new approaches, technologies and techniques.

Results from a digital skills self-assessment test for staff help to inform training needs, and there are regular CPD opportunities. Meanwhile, the annual Peer Reflection on Education Practice process focuses on digital capabilities. Faculty staff discuss which creative forms of teaching and learning could take place in the new and refurbished campus spaces and with the digital tools available.

There’s plenty of encouragement for innovation too: Every year individuals or groups of staff are offered the support to take a new teaching idea, develop it, test it out, evaluate it and then share the experience with the whole university community.

Bournemouth has taken a top-down approach, and taken on new technically skilled staff to lead the way. This is an approach we advocate and you can find out more through our new guide on developing organisational approaches to digital capability. So, now it’s time to get to work before, the UK’s position as a higher education sector leader is eroded.

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