Understanding digital capabilities – a win-win for teachers and learners

As the use of technology becomes increasingly embedded across UK further and higher education, gaining a thorough understanding of the digital skills of both students and teachers can be extremely beneficial when considering pedagogy and curriculum planning.

Work colleagues test out VR headsets.

This is especially true within vocational subjects that may not have traditionally included a digital element. Today's students will have to respond with agility to shifting market environments and fast-changing developments in technology. For education providers, this means building digital learning opportunities for students and staff at all levels and in all disciplines.

Activate Learning college group recognises its responsibility to develop staff and students’ digital competencies, and to meet this responsibility all staff must be supported to become digitally innovative.

College experts are talking about this work at Jics’s Digifest conference, 7-8 March.

A framework for digital skills

In April 2022, the college implemented a digital competencies framework based on six Cs: creating, communicating, collaborating, curating, connecting and critical thinking.

The framework has been designed in such a way that it can be adapted for use by other learning and apprenticeships providers.

Sharmen Ibrahim, group digital director at Activate Learning, describes how it works:

“Staff and students are assessed via a digital competencies diagnostic tool, which is a skills and knowledge-based system focused on the six Cs. The diagnostic tool analyses skills rather than opinion, so rather than asking ‘Do you know how to use Microsoft Word?’, the question will be, for example, ‘How do you add a footnote on Microsoft Word?’

“To map the outcomes of the digital competencies' diagnostics, we have created a matrix that measures skill levels for each competency.

“Nobody who uses the tool will just be told they are a level one, or level four, it is more meaningful than that. Individuals learn and process skills in different ways, so it may be that some people receive a high score for creativity, but are marked lower for collaboration, which is absolutely fine.

“Most users will receive a ‘spiky’ profile of their digital competency. The point is understanding how these skills fit together, how that translates in the classroom and how these skills can be developed.”

Changing the face of vocational learning

Implementing contextualised digital competencies into vocational subjects can be really challenging. For an experienced teacher in a subject such as construction or health and social care, the introduction of digital technology not only changes what is taught, but also how it’s taught.

Marc Challans, group learning environments manager, says:

“We want to work with teachers to make introducing digital as easy as possible, but also to help them to think out of the box and be innovative when it comes to pedagogical design.

“To help, we have created activity idea cards for teachers that relate to specific subject areas, based on the digital competencies of each cohort.

“For example, when looking at the matrix profile of the digital competencies for a group of students studying a subject such as land management, activities can be tweaked and course planning adjusted accordingly, so lessons aren’t pitched too high or too low, digitally speaking, for their learners.

“Activity cards can also be targeted to draw out skills in areas that need developing, helping all students to get on an even playing field.”

It is envisaged that the digital competencies framework will be continually improved over time. The aim is that it can be adapted for each user group and the college is hoping to work with industry partners to roll it out to apprenticeship courses.

Use of VR, AR and AI

By using artificial intelligence (AI), and tools such as virtual and augmented reality (VR and AR) when considering the digital capabilities' framework, and the production of the activity cards, this approach can be applied to most subjects and skills.

Kim Blanchard, group digital education development manager, explains:

“Let’s consider: at one end of the digital skills spectrum are activity cards that suggest ideas to help students create a budget using Excel formulas.

“At the other end, for those with a higher level of digital capability, there is an in-house virtual pack for a drone simulator with thermal imaging, which construction companies use to analyse inaccessible segments of land.

“Students can access our Technology Enhanced Learning (TEL) space where they can try the simulator and learn how to interpret the data.”

A different way of working

Marc Challans continues:

“The one thing we want teachers and students to take away when considering this approach is that this is not just another piece of admin, or extra work. What we are doing is providing a different way to assess skills and plan curriculum which, once standardised, should be less time-consuming and more agile for both students and teachers.”

Sharmen Ibrahim concludes:

“We believe anyone can master any skill through practice. And that's why virtual and augmented reality and the use of digital tools such as AI fit with our learning philosophy.

“Once the upfront cost of the technology has been laid out, the digital capabilities' framework also has sustainability benefits, with little cost from infrastructure and materials.

“Our ultimate goal is to normalise the use of digital in the classroom. Encouraging teachers to really understand the tech available to them, and the concept of using what they have in new and innovative ways to engage students, is the first step in taking away a lot of that fear.”

Further information

To hear more about Activate Learning’s work on digital capabilities, visit the college’s experts at Jisc’s Digifest conference, 7-8 March. Focusing on innovation, this year’s event has more than 50 sessions, including eight keynote speeches and more than 25 hours of online content. Registration is now open.