Designing for digital capabilities in the curriculum: what’s new?

When we launched the digital capabilities community of practice, a whole number of people signed up for a session on developing the curriculum. I noted some of the ideas that came out of that session, and I’ve been using it as a handy reference ever since.

It’s no surprise that session was so popular – we’re in the business of learning and the only outcome that really matters is our learners being able to thrive in a digital world. And while they gain many valuable skills informally and outside of the curriculum, the evidence is that complex, specialised digital practices need the support of subject specialists – people who understand their value and can introduce them in a subject context. So: how can we embed those digital capabilities into courses of study, in ways that engage both students and staff? What have we learned from previous conversations and programmes?

Some principles

I’ve been running workshops on embedding digital capabilities into the curriculum for some years now, dating right back to a Jisc workshop series in 2011/12. If you’re interested in some of the resources Jisc has developed since then, there is a good summary of curriculum resources on the Design Studio from the Developing Digital Literacies programme, and the Curriculum Change section of the Jisc Guide to Developing Digital Literacies (2014) is a more up to date selection. There are a few principles I’ve learned over the years.

Digital capabilities are subject specialised. Even the use of generic tools such as a spreadsheet or annotation app are highly dependent on the task at hand. But we know that students really value subject specialist technologies such as data analysis software, design tools and digital instrumentation, and specialist resources such as e-journals, reference management software and subject-specialist networks.

Every student brings their own personal digital practices to their subject, just as they bring their own literacy and numeracy practices, and their own preferences for different media. This variety of digital skills, experiences and preferences can be treated as a resource – for example through group exercises that allow students to learn from one another, or by offering different routes to assessment. They can also be discussed openly, rather than letting students feel their digital practices are not approved or not relevant to effective learning.

Staff need to be confident in their subject, their teaching, and their digital practice as part of those other forms of expertise. Digital confidence is an important quality. Students need to feel that their preferred learning practices are being supported and developed, and that staff are up to date with their professional skills. But they don’t need staff to be creating amazing digital content, to be as proficient in media production as they are, or to be engaged in all the same social media.

Digital capability is not a separate aspect of learning but integral to being effective in a subject area, or a vocation or profession. Nor is it separate from other agendas such as employability, sustainability or internationalism. Our world is digital, and global issues have a digital aspect. So look for digital activities that are complex enough to address several agendas. Introduce approaches that are genuinely used by digital researchers or professionals, not for the sake of being digital, but for the sake of achieving meaningful outcomes.

So yes, think about learning outcomes (the big picture conversation about what learners need to know) before thinking about methods and means (the technologies learners need to encounter). Digital technologies are changing every subject we teach. There are new research questions and methods in scholarly subjects, new approaches and ethical issues to consider in professional subjects, whole new branches of knowledge and qualifications that did not exist fifteen years ago. Change in the subject of study is interesting – for staff as well as students. Think about how the digital world changes the purpose of the course, and you will naturally be led to interesting activities that involve digital technologies in a meaningful way.

Using the digital capability framework in the curriculum

Many curriculum teams are already referring to the Jisc Digital Capability Framework – and especially the learner profile – to support their thinking. This can be helpful, but the profile is both too generic for detailed planning, and too specialist to be easily used by teaching staff who do not have an e-learning or digital capabilities background. If you do want to use the Framework to support curriculum design, here are some suggestions.

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  1. Don’t start with ICT proficiency or productivity, which creates a technology focus too soon.
  2. Also, don’t start with digital identity and well-being. Many aspects of this will be defined at the organisational level e.g. in terms of graduate outcomes/attributes, learning contracts, fair use policies and so on. However, it can be helpful to consider any digital aspects of the overall course outcomes, and to have those in mind while focusing on the four areas of practice.
  3. Focus curriculum conversations on the four ‘situated practices’ in the centre of the framework. Of these, the most productive and straightforward conversations with teaching staff are usually in the area of digital creation, problem-solving and innovation. This is about how problems are raised and solved and new knowledge or artefacts are created by subject specialists (‘scholarship’ may be a useful term in academic subjects).
  4. Next, think about information, data and media. Your conversations about method should have already raised issues about how these are created, managed, shared, visualised and used. It can be helpful to involve specialist staff e.g. from the library, learning support, or research support to think about what information, data and media literacy mean in this curriculum. This is an important place to discuss critical thinking and judgement.
  5. The other two areas of practice – communication, collaboration and participation, and learning (development) – are more generic across different subject areas. They include issues such as how learners make notes, record their achievements, set goals, organise their time and tasks, collaborate and so on. But it is still important to ask where in this  course of study these digital aspects of learning will be practiced and progressed.
  6. Once learning activities have been proposed to reflect these four areas of practice, then we can ask what technologies learners will be using – their own, or the organisation’s – to support the practice. And at that point learners’ proficiency and productivity may need to be addressed. If there are subject specialist systems that learners need to master – e.g. for data analysis, design, project management, instrumentation, administration etc – they need time to do this, and they need regular opportunities to practice and review. If learners are using generic systems, they will have to learn the specialist ‘rules’ for using them in scholarly or professional settings, rather than in personal or social ones.
  7. Finally it’s important to consider learner differences. How will you support students whose general digital skills need improvement? Do you know where to signpost them and how to do this without embarrassment? Schedule in an activity early on that will allow students to identify for themselves if they are under-prepared. Also think about students whose general digital capability is higher than average. They will be frustrated if they have to sit through scheduled sessions that introduce skills and systems they already have or can quickly master on their own. Allow them to progress quickly using self-paced support, and think about how their skills could be used to everyone’s advantage.

What’s new from Jisc for curriculum design?

Because of the importance of curriculum design for the digital capabilities agenda, Jisc has been offering short sessions at ConnectMore events to explore the framework in the light of curriculum concerns.

ConnectMore 1Resources from those sessions are now available from the links below, as many people have been asking how they can embed these ideas into curriculum practice at their own institution.

Sarah Knight, Head of Change (Student Experience), has this to say:

ConnectMore 2What I valued from running the Curriculum confidence workshops was the opportunity for us to re-focus on learning. Having conversations with staff about what they care about – their students and how best they can support them to acquire the knowledge and skills required to follow their career pathway. We are often led to focus on the technology rather than on the principles of what makes an effective learning and assessment experience. So for me its back to first principles and then seeing how we can utilise the affordances of technology to add the enhancements in order to prepare our students for a digital workplace.

Recognising that those sessions were not long or detailed enough for most participants, Jisc is now offering a one-day workshop entirely devoted to curriculum design for digital capabilities. Curriculum confidence: designing for digital capabilities in the curriculum will be running initially on 16 November 2017 in Birmingham: more details and a sign-up form are here. If you  join us you can be sure of opportunities to share ideas and practices with experienced curriculum staff from other universities and colleges, as well as an introduction to all the Jisc resources and current development projects.

Curriculum confidence resources mentioned in this post

Current Jisc resources:

Earlier resources (collated links):

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