Building digital capability

Digital skills development for learning and teaching

By Gunter Saunders and Federica Oradini, University of Westminster 

Multiple challenges confront universities as they move further into the 21st Century but one that warrants considerable attention, given growing emphasis on technology enhanced learning, is digital confidence and capability. JISC has undertaken national work on building digital capability, linked to a determination of the needs of students through widespread consultation and discussion. When the outputs from this and other sector initiatives, such as the Changing the Learning Landscape programme are taken together, it is clear that variation in academic staff capability in technology enhanced learning and wider digital literacy is an agreed staff development issue.

Almost all universities have some form of accredited CPD programme for learning and teaching development, normally compulsory for new staff. Since 2006 these programmes have been able to link what they deliver to the UK Professional Standard Framework (UKPSF) introduced by the Higher Education Academy (HEA). The UKPSF has assumed greater significance recently as a consequence of emerging government proposals to introduce the Teaching excellence Framework (TEF). Individuals completing accredited CPD programmes can gain Fellowship of the HEA as a consequence.  Mechanisms also exist for staff to gain Fellowship status with the HEA through submission of a portfolio of their development journey as an alternative to completion of an accredited course.

Providing ‘upskilling’ opportunities

It is often difficult to provide workable opportunities for ‘upskilling’ to staff who have already taught for a long time. Understandably not only do they have a set way of approaching what they do, but they also have little time to engage in learning new things that come to them from an ‘outside influence’. The time issue is relevant to new starters as well and in our experience staff beginning their work at university have so many things to do, not the least of which is engaging with significant numbers of students, that compulsory ‘development in how to teach’ does not necessarily get the priority that everyone would like.

At the University of Westminster we have solutions for both new and established staff. The solutions we use are by no means new or unique nor do they suit absolutely everyone. However there is real evidence of impact in that changes to the way an individual teaches are planned and often do happen. Both approaches rely heavily on shared experiences, reflection and the development of communities of practice and support.

As an alternative to the PGCert, the university has for some time provided a programme of workshops, normally delivered face-to-face, on aspects of technology enhanced learning

At Westminster the Postgraduate Certificate in Higher Education (PGCert) moved online in 2011, allowing for flexibility in study mode. A study of past graduates of the online course gathered evidence that the course had helped them to develop professionally. In particular, graduates highlighted the impact the course has had in changing their skills and teaching behaviour, as well as the focus of their teaching practice towards a more student centred approach. The course not only gave them ‘a set of sharper tools’ but it also clearly influenced their approach to course design and pedagogy. Some participants stated that they found the online experience an enlightening one, for example:

“I really have understood how necessary it is for whatever technologies that are used to be well set up and integrated with in-class activities. (…) I got a much deeper understanding of how that integration needs to work in practice and how essential it is to build this into the design of the face to face and online activities. I also got a real understanding of how deep the reflection and learning that can result from the use of these technologies can be, so now am incorporating the use of these technologies into a module I am working on… I’m less afraid and more comfortable with using them, I have more skills in their use and I’m able to encourage and help other staff to make more use of them also.”

As an alternative to the PGCert, the university has for some time provided a programme of workshops, normally delivered face-to-face, on aspects of technology enhanced learning. In 2015 we tried a different approach, making a new development workshop very flexible in terms of how it could be accessed. This new workshop was about mobile learning and built on an institution wide project called Flexilearn, funded by the JISC transformations programme.

Utilising VLE

The workshop could be completed face-to-face, blended (part face-to-face) and wholly through distance learning via the institution’s virtual learning environment (VLE). A digital badge was awarded to those who completed the course against set criteria. Nearly 150 staff took part in the workshop between June and September 2015.  Completion of the workshop required reflection by each participant on a range of key questions and development of a brief plan to go forward and integrate some aspect of mobile learning in their subject context.

The VLE site was considered most helpful by all types of participants not just for the ‘how to’ aspects but also because it was a place they could re-visit and benefit from the reflections and views of others. They could read or hear about simple approaches that have worked for others, think with their peers about how an approach could be adapted to their context and then find out how to use the technology tools required.

Whilst there are many blog posts praising the course and highlighting the community aspect of the online site there is one part of one post that we reproduce below and which we believe reasonably represents the collective view of the utility of the course and the community aspect:

“Thank you for a really useful introduction to mobile learning. I feel much more confident about starting to implement mobile learning techniques into my teaching sessions and the tools that are available to me now, as well as where to get help and advice from. It’s also been really useful to read some of the blogs from other participants on this course who, having tried and tested some of these tools and activities, have offered valuable tips and ideas, and others who like me are relatively new to mobile learning and had similar concerns and ideas also. I am now thinking of ways in which I can use some of these tools in my upcoming sessions”

In the future whilst we will continue to provide accredited formal course opportunities we intend to expand the support for staff to gain recognition through completion of short workshops like the one on mobile learning briefly described above. These short workshops will all have an associated digital badge and it is our hope that collection of these badges will contribute to the evidence base for staff seeking recognition of their development through the portfolio route to HEA fellowship.

Professor Gunter Saunders is Director Internet and Education Technology Services at University of Westminster.

Federica Oradini is Senior Lecturer in e-Learning at the University of Westminster.