Digital capabilities in higher education: where are we now?

Digital skills crisis looming, peers warn screamed one of last month’s Times Higher Education’s headlines. The headline was about a Lord’s report Make or Break: The UK’s Digital Future. This report clearly states that if the UK does not grasp the digital agenda, and quickly, the nation will be doomed in the world-market place. It makes recommendations for many sectors including higher education. It is timely then, that last summer a benchmarking exercise on the state-of-the nation’s (UK HEI’s, that is) support for digital capabilities, and the importance placed on digital capabilities, was undertaken through the UCISA Digital Capabilities Survey. What the survey found will provide guidance to universities on what they can do to help stop the demise of the UK and to position themselves against other universities.

The survey found that a cross-institutional approach to digital capabilities appears to provide the greatest traction in progressing this agenda. Similarly, and not surprisingly, senior support appears to be a key factor in driving the digital capability agendas. I use these words with some caution here as until the more in-depth probing is undertaken via case studies the extent of that progress could be superficial.

Another finding was that there was a great deal of similarity in defining digital capabilities, and in fact the survey report recommends that UCISA and Jisc should adopt one common definition. This definition can then be used to outline specific competencies and baseline measures, either sector-wide or institution specific, to enable competency or fluency to be demonstrated in specific roles or disciplines. These can be used by institutions to benchmark capabilities in and across institutions.

Emerging practices were found, these included: curriculum-based initiatives integrating digital capabilities into learning outcomes and into the curriculum, and extra-curricular activities, including using students as change agents and digital champions. Areas where staffs’ digital capabilities were being embedded included: induction processes, annual appraisals, managing digital profiles, and digital scholarship practices. The survey report recommendations include further ways digital capabilities can be embedded for staff and students and how they can work together to co-create activities.

Other survey recommendations support some of the Lord’s recommendations. For example that the infrastructure should provide universal internet coverage but some UCISA survey report recommendations go beyond the Lord’s, such as the importance of designing flexible spaces and estates suitable for mobile device use.

Both the Lord’s report and the UCISA survey report recommend that curriculum be more digital. However, and interestingly, whilst the UCISA report recommends that universities provide digital training opportunities for students and staff, the Lord’s report does not mention this. An oversight one wonders? I suspect so given that the Lord’s report Summary recommends that “digital skills are now necessary life skills”; surely they are skills that need to be developed whilst at university.

UCISA will be following up the survey with a number of case studies during Spring. In line with the recommendations in the survey report, we are also working with Jisc to join up our work in this area, and we’ll be presenting jointly on digital capability at the Jisc Digifest next week. The final UCISA Digital Capabilities Report is due out later in March, but the Executive Summary is available now. Both the case studies and the survey report will be shared at a number of events, conferences and webinars over the coming months. These include UCISA 2015 on 18 March, UCISA’s Spotlight on Digital Capabilities event in Salford’s MediaCityUK on 3-4 June, at which Jisc work is also well represented, and EUNIS on 10-12 June 2015.

For more on UCISA’s digital capabilities work, see http://www.ucisa.ac.uk/digcap or follow #ucisadigcap.

Gillian Fielding is Digital Skills Manager at the University of Salford, and Chair of UCISA’s User skills group.

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