‘To impart the digital skills students need, teaching staff must be empowered’

Jisc’s head of change, Sarah Knight, says staff development is key to preparing students for the digital workplace

As we hurtle towards 2020, Industry 4.0 is taking off and a digitally enhanced Education 4.0 is taking shape – yet the results of two recent Jisc surveys suggest that UK universities are struggling to keep up with the pace of technological change.

A (digital) Trojan horse

Used well, technology provides so much more than meets the eye. It can add interest to course content, increase engagement, enable teachers to tailor lessons for different learners, and
bring in a range of tools and modes of communication to reach a wider audience. Students need authentic opportunities to develop skills that are relevant to both their course and the workplace of the future. Technology can facilitate that.

The difficulty is that while this takes skill and confidence to deliver, staff tell us they aren’t encouraged to nurture their digital skills. Of the 3,485 members of HE teaching staff that responded to Jisc’s digital experiences survey, just 9% say they receive reward or recognition when developing digital aspects of their role, and only 13% agree they have time and support to innovate. How, then, can they nurture the visionary innovators, creative entrepreneurs and tech-savvy workforce of tomorrow? If we are to address the digital skills gap that already exists within UK plc and impart the skills students need, teaching staff need to be empowered.

Collaboration is key

Both the results of the digital experience survey of teaching staff and those of an equivalent survey of students highlight the need for greater online collaboration. We know that younger learners in particular use apps and social media to communicate and support each other – but this isn’t happening enough within the classroom. A quarter of the 14,525 HE students Jisc surveyed say they never work online with others. Among HE staff, 74% never teach in a live online environment and 54% never discuss teaching issues with peers online. But the cogs of change are turning. I am increasingly seeing universities exploring Microsoft Teams, Google Classroom and other collaborative tools, recognising the value of group work and giving opportunities for developing skills needed for the workplace.

Now is the time for students, educators, employers and organisations to come together in partnership, engaging in this important agenda and working to develop digital skills for the future.

With great power comes great responsibility

Another stark revelation concerns awareness. Only 18% of the HE teaching staff surveyed agree that they are informed of their responsibilities to ensure students behave safely online, and less than half (48%) understand their obligations around digital copyright, licensing and digital intellectual property rights (IPR).

Expectations often clash with reality too. There is a misperception that students are universally confident with using technology, but in fact, when students arrive at university, they may not understand the benefits of digital practice or know how technology will be used in their learning. Statistically, only 29% of HE learners are told what digital skills they need before starting their course. Anecdotally, they say they want to know more.

Work relevance

While part of my job at Jisc is to help colleges and universities diagnose their needs, another part is to signpost them to appropriate support, tools and services. Curriculum design is crucial to addressing these challenges. Academics teaching law, for example, have told me that their universities err towards a traditional mode of delivery while recognising that digital is ever more deeply embedded in the legal system.

This mismatch isn’t unusual. In nursing, even universities that are working hard to nurture digital capabilities report that their graduates lack the confidence and flexibility to translate these skills when they start work in hospitals. They need resilience that includes a broad understanding of data literacy, media literacy, digital communication, online collaboration and an understanding of the risks associated with digital identity.

You may also like: Simplifying admissions for a better applicant experience

A united approach

Day to day, I see a growing recognition of the need to nurture digital skills in students and an increasing awareness that this ought to start with support for teaching staff. While working with colleges and universities in this area, Jisc is also in discussion with a range of organisations, including councils, the NHS, government and some international universities too.

As we move towards 2020, there’s great optimism and a real drive for progress. Now is the time for students, educators, employers and organisations to come together in partnership, engaging in this important agenda and working to develop digital skills for the future.