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Guest blog: Helping young people gain the skills they need for a digital future

Image: CC BY-SA 2.0 

GUEST BLOG: Sheila MacNeill is a senior lecturer in digital learning at Glasgow Caledonian University. Here, she talks about working together to help young people prepare for the digital skills they will need in both higher education and future employment.

‘Being able to chat and make plans with your friends about where you’re going to meet up later is very different from taking part in a collaborative, online group activityʼ

Higher education is no longer the remote ivory tower of old. Universities are thriving digital communities that are embracing technology. Most have a strong presence across social media platforms such as Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, WhatsApp and SnapChat. But, it’s not all about marketing and social networking, digital technologies are having an impact on the learning and teaching experience of our students too.

It’s all too easy to assume that a typical 18-year-old has the digital capabilities to move seamlessly from interacting with multiple apps and games on their smartphones to actively engaging in a formal digitally-enabled learning environment. There are many leaps our students make from school to university life. The digital leap may seem a ‘no brainer’ as most teenagers today are immersed in and around digital technology.

‘We need to ensure that we are developing and constantly evolving the overall digital capabilities of all our students and staffʼ

However, being able to chat and make plans with your friends about where you’re going to meet up later is very different from taking part in a collaborative, online group activity where you may have to write a blog post, review an article and prepare a group presentation - and then get a mark not only for the outcome but for your participation.   

So, whilst many of our students are active across a myriad of social media, we need to think about how those interactions can be accessed, assessed and put to positive use during their time at university and beyond. In some of my research we found that students were engaging across multiple digital services and networks, but their use for university work was limited.  

‘This needs to start at school and not just when students arrive at universityʼ

We need to help our students learn how to get the most out of any kind of online engagement and set standards of behaviour - let’s talk about trolling, respecting others, internet safety, creating and managing their digital footprint. In short, we need to ensure that we are developing and constantly evolving the overall digital capabilities of all our students and staff.

It’s important that we teach our students to ask key questions about what they are trying to achieve, not what technology they think they might want to use. This needs to start at school and not just when students arrive at university.

We need to ensure that students are aware of issues around privacy and data sharing so that their holiday and weekend pictures are not the ones at the top of the search list when potential employers are reviewing candidates’ CVs.    

At my university we have worked with our Students Association to develop a series of online guides for students on how to use social media responsibly, using social media for learning and managing your digital footprint.

On the flip side, we in universities also need to be aware of what our students expect from us. A recent survey of over 22,000 UK college and university students lifted the lid on what students really want from their digital university experience. Perhaps somewhat unsurprisingly, reliable wifi access was top of the list. Students expect to be able to access their courses from their own devices on campus without having to worry about flaky wifi connections or using up their own mobile data.

‘50% of university students felt that their university course wasn’t preparing them for the digital workplaceʼ

They also value access to computer labs (and often the specialised software that they need), and really like the convenience of submitting work electronically. However, it was telling that although 81.5% of university students recognised that digital skills are important for their future careers, 50% felt that their university course wasn’t preparing them for the digital workplace.  

Developing our digitally enabled universities is going to take a lot more conversations and working closely with students and employers to ensure that we are developing the digital capabilities our society needs. 

Sheila MacNeill, senior lecturer in Digital Learning at Glasgow Caledonian University

Blog: How Sheila sees IT

Twitter: @sheilmcn

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