Equipping students to thrive in the digital era

Southampton Solent University was the venue for Student futures – equipping students to thrive in the digital era, a recent two-day event organised by the UCISA Digital Capabilities Group

The conference took place in The Spark building, dominated by a fantastic giant red pod, looming over it like something out of War of the Worlds. The pod houses a lecture theatre and has a cafe style area up top. It has to be seen in person, but it’s pretty cool to look at.

The Pod at the Spark

The Pod at the Spark

The purpose of this event was to explore the ways in which we support students to develop their digital capabilities, from a student, staff and institutional perspective.  But what exactly are Digital Capabilities? Well, as I discovered over the two days, depending on who you speak to you may well hear it called something else (e.g. digital literacy). You’re also likely to hear various interpretations of the idea;  for simplicity here is the Jisc definition, although  we’d encourage you to explore this further if you’re interested.

Digital literacies are those capabilities which fit an individual for living, learning and working in a digital society (https://www.jisc.ac.uk/guides/developing-digital-literacies).


Over the 2 days there were many sessions covering a wide range of topics. Below are just a few highlights.

Fiona Cooksley and Osama Khan (Southampton Solent University) introduced us to Digibuds, a peer mentoring scheme. This was one of several  sessions exploring the ‘digital leader’ concept. Where this slightly differs from others is that the Digibuds support other students and not the staff. Of course peer learning is well documented, but what I like here is that students are helping students. I think that sometimes we take support better from our peers than we do the ‘professionals’.

Stephan Caspar (University of Southampton), better known on Twitter as @dotsandspaces, spoke about ‘How students use of digital media is challenging assessment‘. We talk a fair bit about blended learning, creating a variety of resources and access methods to  teaching, but it’s also important to consider how the students use of ‘blended evidence’ is  supported and encouraged. Stephan’s  talk explored how a media team is working with students and faculty to create multimedia resources with an explicitly-stated ‘pedagogy-first’ approach. I also loved the idea of ‘digital abstracts’ – these are little snippets of what’s happening within spaces inaccessible to undergraduates – research labs for example.

Jeni Brown (LSE) and Jane Secker (City, University of London) led an interactive session on making a business case for digital literacy.What sticks in my mind and can often be overlooked is the opportunity cost of decisions made around digital literacy. What is the impact on the organisation of not putting in interventions to address the skills gap?

Student Michaela Barbuscakova (University of Aberdeen) introduced a simple and good looking resource, created in collaboration between students and IT services. The Learners’ Toolkit  houses animated videos  introducing many different tech products, software and hardware as well as  how to connect to wifi, printing and much more. What I really liked about this resource is its simplicity. It didn’t present too much information, and signposted further video resources and support.

Stand out themes

Students as digital leaders. For me the largest recurring theme was that of students as digital leaders. Activating students to support their peers and academics is fast becoming standard practice, but we need to consider challenges to implementation as each case study has its own tales of caution.

Video is king. With the rise of good quality cameras on mobile devices, high quality video editing available for free and an expectation of being able to access support on the go, it’s no wonder that the demand for using video, both as a creator and as a consumer, is increasing. Video provides such a rich form of evidence it’s something that institutions are having to get to grips with, fast.  There are challenges to this, such as physical capacity for storage, bandwidth for HD and the expertise in existing teams to support it.

Opportunity cost and the digital skills crisis. I spoke earlier of the opportunity cost – it’s quoted that the ‘digital skills crisis’ is costing the UK £63bn a year. We can also see inefficiencies in action in our day to day work. We’ve all been in situations where we’ve had to scan a document for it to be emailed, then printed, then annotated, then scanned, then emailed, then printed to be filed, I imagine a cost benefit analysis of this vs. another method would be interesting.

This relates to the biggest takeaway for me – that it’s 2017 and we are still trying to get digital skills the platform it so desperately needs. For example why are jobs still asking for Maths a-c, literacy a-c and of course ‘good with Office’? Does ‘Good with Office’ really capture the baseline digital skills needed for effective working practice today?  

What can we do together to develop digital capabilities?

Here at the University of Sussex the Technology Enhanced Learning team work with staff to help you and your students become  as digitally literate  (or should we say life literate) as you can be. We can help you make the most out of the tools you currently have and support you within your sessions to ensure barriers or technical hurdles are overcome.

For example, this month we are running bitesize online courses on a range of topics including Blogging, LinkedIn and Podcasting & Screencasting.

You can also get in touch with us (email tel@sussex.ac.uk) to discuss ways digital skills can be embedded into your modules and students supported to be ‘fit … for living, learning and working in a digital society’

To learn more about how other ‘UK universities are developing staff and students to perform efficiently and effectively in a digital environment’, you can also read the UCISA 2017 Digital Capabilities Survey Report, which was launched at the conference.

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We are the Educational Enhancement team at the University of Sussex. We publish posts each week on using technology to support teaching and learning. Read more about us.

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