The House of Lords Select Committee on Digital Skills reported in their 2014-15 paper that ‘universities should ensure that all graduates are digitally competent’. However, rather than being an issue primarily for graduates, gaps in digital skills create issues for students from day one of their academic careers. As learning technology practitioners (whether we are based in the library, IT services or course support), we are regularly presented with current students who have arrived at our institutions with little or no understanding of what an online learning environment is. The fact is, they often lack the digital skills required to navigate through their studies before they even get anywhere near graduating. By focusing on our students’ digital competence as they near completion, to get them ready for life in the real world, are we doing a disservice to their learning and knowledge acquisition?
Over recent years, agencies such as Jisc and UCISA, have researched and written much about how to best prepare students for the digital workplace (UCISA 2014). In 2015, Jisc noted that ‘developing learners who can learn and thrive in a digital society is a key role for universities and colleges’. Where we cannot deny the importance that higher education institutions have on preparing learners for their careers, the short presentation here will describe a project which focuses specifically on equipping students with some key capabilities required to learn and successfully achieve their qualifications. Moreover, the instruction is intended to be delivered before the student arrives at the gates of the institution. The focus on graduates entering the workplace has lent itself to ‘bolt-on’ interventions, which are often too little, too late; our plan is to embed these skills from the outset.
This ongoing collaborative project therefore aims to address learners’ digital skills before they start their studies at university. The members of the project’s development team work for six separate higher education institutions who have come together as a collaboration with a shared vision of a pre-enrolment course to support all learners whether undergraduate, postgraduate, distance or campus-taught. Our pre-enrolment course has been developed initially as a proof of concent for the six partners, but will be offered as an open course for use beyond the collaboration in its second phase. Much of the material incorporated into the course is repurposed from open content authored elsewhere. The team meet in person once a term and use a range of online tools (e.g. Google Drive, Moodle, Blackboard Collaborate and Skype) to manage the project and collaborate with each other across geographical distances.
Attendees at this session will hear about the approach taken by the team to design, structure and deliver the course. They will be offered the opportunity to comment and make suggestions. Finally, they will be given early access to the course before it is more openly available.
Session content: evaluation and reflection
The collaborative project presented in this session focuses on the development of a short, baseline online course outlining the digital skills new students should have when they start their programme of study at university, offering an introduction to some essential digital tools. The course is intended to mitigate against ‘surprises’ that students might encounter when they enrol onto their programmes. The course has been designed so that the student takes it in advance of arrival, alongside the pre-enrolment processes and requirements already in place at their respective institution. It should take approximately 4-5 hours to complete on a laptop or desktop computer.
This template course (based in Moodle) has been created with the intention of allowing individual institutions to modify it to suit localised needs. During the academic year 2018-19, we will share it with the wider education community. Adaptable for students of all entry levels and types of programme, the course ensures they are aware of and have (or can quickly attain) the key digital skills required for successful study at that institution. If there are gaps, it will show them how and where (if possible) to fill those gaps. An additional benefit is that students will become familiar with the tools and environment they will actually use when they start their studies, enabling them to feel comfortable and confident when they enrol.
All academics who teach first year students will be fully aware of the course; some new academics may also find it useful as a baseline for understanding what the digital capability expectations for their students will be (and for themselves, to some extent).
The structure of the course has been designed following research undertaken with teaching staff and current students, where we examined what digital skills students are expected to have when they arrive and what they routinely lack. The research also follows on from the data we collected in the Digital Student Tracker, conducted in 2017 (Jisc 2015).
According to experience we gathered from our teaching staff, certain digital skills for learning are becoming recognised as essential and relate to general good study skills. While it is difficult to separate the two in some instances (note-taking skills versus competence in using note-taking tools), this course should complement the existing work offered by various support services to fill gaps in general study skills and must assume that students already have, or are working at acquiring, general skills. We will be exploring this hypothesis as we iteratively evaluate the course. Experience of students who recently started university and their advice on what skills they needed and what they lacked when they arrived also supported our understanding. Anecdotal experience from services and support staff helping students (especially those who are on the project team) provided a third area of consultation.
During the initial pilot in the first phase, scheduled to start in August 2018, we will utilise various instruments (e.g. surveys, focus groups and Moodle feedback plugins) to gather feedback from all stakeholders as a way of evaluating the course and guiding the next stage of development.
House of Lords Select Committee on Digital Skills Report of Session (2014–15). Make or Break: The UK’s Digital Future. Availble at: https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld201415/ldselect/lddigital/111/111.pdf [Accessed 26.03.18]
Jisc (2017). Student digital experience tracker 2017: the voice of 22,000 UK learners. Available at:
http://repository.jisc.ac.uk/6662/1/Jiscdigitalstudenttracker2017.pdf [Accessed 26.03.18]
Jisc (2015) Developing students’ digital literacy. Available at: https://www.jisc.ac.uk/guides/developing-students-digital-literacy [Accessed 26.03.18]
UCISA (2014). Digital Capabilities Survey Report. Available at: https://www.ucisa.ac.uk/-/media/files/publications/surveys/digicaps_with%20authors_21aug15.ashx?la=en [Accessed 26.03.18]