Digital technologies are turning the working landscape on its head. As traditional jobs are becoming extinct while others are being transformed, many of today’s learners will find themselves competing for jobs that don’t even exist yet.
If they want to thrive in today's job market they’ll need to start working life with digital skills that meet employers’ requirements. And they’ll need to be confident about their abilities to adopt and exploit new digital technologies as these emerge.
Ensuring students are skilled for the workplace
For the past three years we’ve been tracking students' experiences of their digital environments to uncover what works well and what doesn’t, and to help our members plan and prioritise improvements.
It’s clear from this ongoing research that millennials generally feel comfortable and confident with using technology in their personal lives.
However, the report from the 2018 digital experience insights work shows that around half of them aren’t sure that their course is equipping them with the specific digital skills they’ll need in the jobs they expect to go into. What’s more, the majority say they rely on teaching and support staff both to give them guidance on what skills they’ll need and help in getting them to a proficient standard.
This is an important issue. Inevitably, given the pace of technological change, a significant proportion of staff in most organisations lag behind learners when it comes to digital skills and capabilities. Brought up and trained in a pre-digital environment, they are often slower to integrate technologies into their lives and their working practices.
How can staff help students develop digitally?
So, what can colleges and universities do to ensure that staff can help learners to get themselves noticed in the jobs market? How can we make sure they emerge from their learning environment into the workplace as fully-fledged digital butterflies?
The solution is to take a thorough approach to developing the digital capabilities of staff right across the organisation. It’s important to give them not only specific skills that they can pass on to their learners, but also the know-how and the enthusiasm about technology to explore its potential in new ways and, in turn, excite learners.
When organisations start to do this, the results can be transformative - as Doncaster College and University Centre is discovering.
The college has plenty on its plate at the moment, including a campus closure and merger with North Lindsey College in Lincolnshire. As part of the change process, the newly merged DN Colleges Group is developing its digital vision and worked with us to develop and pilot our digital discovery tool intended to give staff and students a framework for:
- Exploring their current digital capabilities
- Identifying strengths
- Highlighting areas that need improvement
Limited initially to academic and support staff, the work at Doncaster was essentially a "pilot within a pilot", but the positive responses of those who took part have now encouraged the college group to extend the work to other staff in the organisation.
Feedback from participants shows that they saw real value in an approach that emphasises digital confidence as well as specific competences. Many have been spurred on to use and share the resources that their individual reports have suggested to them. I look forward to hearing about developments as they take the next steps in their journey.
Using student digital ambassadors
But while learners do look to college or university staff for guidance and help to develop their digital abilities, it is by no means a one-way street. I’ve already referred to the fact that learners often have confidence with technology and Lancaster University is putting this confidence to work.
For the last three years, Lancaster University has appointed student digital ambassadors to work in partnership with academics in their departments, developing new digital approaches to various aspects of learning and teaching. If their confidence and their enthusiasm is running ahead of the digital skills they’ll need, they can quickly be paired with a learning technologist to plug the gap.
For staff, this initiative is a great opportunity to learn about digital from learners and to gain insight into what they want and need; for the digital ambassadors, getting paid for their efforts is an obvious attraction.
They also develop their own digital skills as well as softer collaborative and leadership skills that will help their CV to stand out. The results of the projects (there have been around 30 so far) are cascaded to staff and learners via events and a case study that the ambassadors have to complete.
At the same time, Coleg y Cymoedd has been taking a whole college approach to building digital capabilities as a means to transform management of the organisation, which has four separate campuses across a large area of South Wales. Initiatives to support development of staff competence across the college have made possible recent innovations such as new data dashboards to make it easier to monitor student progress and wellbeing.
Richard Fullylove, Coleg y Cymoedd’s strategic ILT manager, told us:
“The success of the college and its learners isn’t just about learning and teaching. Everyone has a part to play. Digital capabilities are just as relevant for business support staff as they are for academic staff.”
I couldn’t have put it better myself.