Teaching intelligence: why students need transferable digital skills

Give undergraduates knowledge that they can apply widely in the workplace, not expertise in particular programmes, say experts

January 7, 2021
A person looking at various smart phones
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Good call: employers have asked universities to address the digital skills gap

To be seen as “literate” in today’s world, students need to be able to show that they have a deep understanding of digital tools and information. However, the digital skills gap is a continuing problem, with the demand for highly able employees far outstripping supply.

Employers and governments have called on universities to help bridge that gap, yet it persists. What can institutions do?

Dennis Olsen, a senior lecturer in advertising and branding at the University of West London (UWL), and his colleague Kristin Brewe, a senior lecturer in advertising and public relations at the institution, have researched universities’ digital skill modules.

The problem, they found, was that while students were often good at using one specific piece of software, when asked to look at a bigger picture or problem that they had not been directly taught about before, they “were almost helpless”. Students were not able to transfer their knowledge, Dr Olsen explained. “People tend to blame young people for their lack of skills, but it’s a higher education problem.”

Dr Olsen said lecturers were often too wedded to certain products. His analysis of 130 modules at different universities showed that 60 per cent reference technology and the importance of digital skills, with 40 per cent setting out a specific software package to create a specific outcome. For example, “We will teach you how to use Adobe Photoshop to create a poster.”

This “rang alarm bells, because we are making students think that in order to create something, you have to use this specific software”, Dr Olsen said. Instead, he argued, students should be offered different ways to approach a problem with different technology. However, his research showed that only 3 per cent of module descriptions said they offered a broader understanding of technology.

This is particularly a problem in the creative industries, where there is a massive demand for digital skills, but industry advisers say that when faced with a new piece of software, graduates often fall apart. The problem is that many universities want to teach with the latest, most up-to-date software but when students are employed in small or medium-sized businesses they are presented with older technology, Dr Olsen explained.

At the same time, technology is changing so rapidly anyway that the new model they’ve been taught could quickly be out of date. “We don’t do them any favours by making them job-ready for only five years,” he said. Giving students a deeper of understanding of technology would be much more appropriate for the world of work and lifelong learning, he argued.

To address this, UWL has piloted a broader approach across several courses and it works well, Dr Olsen said. “Digital dexterity” allows students to learn how and why they need digital skills, to be able to probe into the software they use, and to be confident in it, he said.

“I would advise lecturers to play around with the different bits of technology themselves in advance,” Dr Olsen said. He added that lecturers should teach students about a variety of software from the outset because “if you start with the shiny stuff, their minds just stay on that”.

Jo Coldwell-Neilson, associate dean of teaching and learning at Deakin University, agreed. “Training can start for students during orientation – with sessions to demonstrate how best to use the learning management system, and other institutional systems, to support their learning. We tend to take it for granted that they know how to do this, but often they don’t,” she said.

Professor Coldwell-Neilson added that different disciplines, professions and jobs will require various, and sometimes very different, digital literacy skills. “This further supports the need to learn these skills in context,” she said.

Universities have a responsibility to ensure that staff and students have adequate opportunities to improve their digital literacy skills aligned with their needs and environment. This includes teaching them personal privacy and security online, she said.

For Darryn Snell, an associate professor in RMIT University’s School of Management, one of the keys to building transferable digital skills in university students is employer recognition and understanding of the skills being developed.

In many countries, the use of “microcredentials” for a range of skills, including digital ones, is part of that.

However, according to Dr Snell, “there is a vast diversity in the content and quality of these microcredentials, making it difficult for employers and students to understand the skills that are being developed through microcredentials, [and] presenting challenges for their transferability”.

“It is my view that digital skills need to be embedded into all of our tertiary programmes and formally identified so students know what skills they are acquiring and can articulate them when asked about them by potential employers,” he said. “These are core ingredients to skills transferability.”


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