The Digital Education Debate – by Jane James (HEFi)

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This term’s theme for the Big Conversation is Digital Education. Over the next ten weeks, you will have the  opportunity to discuss and reflect on a range of articles around the Digital Education debate. This takes us to the inaugural HEFi conference on the 29th June at which the Birmingham Digital Education team within HEFi will be showcasing the use of digital tools that can be embedded into student learning.

This week’s MicroCPD about Digital Capabilities opens up the debate for us. It seeks to define digital literacy but also asks how students apply their digital skills to their studies. However, we can’t limit the application of their digital skills to their learning context. Our students live in an immersive digital world which offers great opportunities for connectivity but comes with significant challenge. In terms of the use of social media tools, for example, there is often a blurring of the lines across the educational, personal, public and professional contexts. Understanding of what is an acceptable use of digital tools in those respective domains is important, as is the impact of poor judgment when it comes to inappropriate management of individuals’ digital footprints. How well are we supporting our students to navigate their way through this digital fog both at University and beyond?

Do we then need to ask the question, “are we preparing students to be digitally savvy for the global workplace?”   What are the professional expectations? How do we define savvy? Is it a case of not how to be proficient in the use of digital tools but rather educating our students where and when to use which digital tool?

Recent research from JISC certainly indicates that Higher Education students are not well prepared for the digital workplace. They declare that, “while 81.5% of university students feel that digital skills will be important in their chosen career, only half believe that their courses prepare them well for the digital workplace”.

In this opening Big Conversation piece, I would like to make reference to a recent research report by Fujitsu “the road to digital learning”. Fujitsu is a global communication and technology company and it takes a step back in this report to  consider the work to be done by HE providers across the globe to prepare young people for a digital future. The research team spoke to over 600 digital leaders across a mix of schools, colleges and universities from seven different countries. The key findings of the research revealed that fully embracing digital learning is clearly much sought after but remains very much an aspiration.

In particular, the research report asks the questions, where are we now and how do we close the digital skills gap? The report argues that we in education must concentrate on getting the basics in place before we can adopt a more sophisticated digital education strategy, for example reliable wifi, reviewing and improving current systems and balancing levels of access and security.

In terms of closing the digital literacy gap, 84% of respondents questioned in the report said “they have a duty to prepare their students for a digital future” and therein lies the global challenge! All this set against a backdrop of the relentless pace of digital innovation. Data presented across seven countries suggested that Australia actually has the smallest digital skills gap between staff and students (13%) with 55% of students’ digital skills deemed excellent or good and 48% of staff deemed good or excellent. The UK was a close second with a gap of 14%, 60% student and 46% staff ratio respectively. Notably the biggest gap was Thailand with students at 54% and staff at a mere 17%.

To conclude, Fujitsu’s Director of Education, Ash Merchant emphasises the role of digital tools as the “enabling factor for education” and the preparation of young people for their digital futures. However, he proposes a cautionary and pragmatic approach that the technology “must be robust, reliable, progressive, adaptive and resilient. And ultimately it must meet the needs of students and staff.” This is the challenge HE providers are currently grappling with, with varying degrees of success whilst balancing the competing demands of offering value for money for students and preparing them effectively for their digital futures.

So there you have it. A starter for ten in this summer’s big conversation on digital education which broadly considers: “are we preparing our students effectively for what lies ahead in their digital future?” In terms of the University of Birmingham, we need to ask the questions where are we now? where do we want to be? and how are we going to get there?

Fujitsu Research Report: “The road to digital learning”

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