Implementing digital capabilities

Last year I wrote a post on the concept of ‘digital capabilities’ and how it has taken over from the previous term ‘digital literacy’. To recap the generally accepted definition, digital capabilities are those ‘which support living, learning and working in a digital society’ (Jisc, 2015). This post revisits the topic, through a personal distillation of some practical examples and advice from UCISA’s 3rd Spotlight on Digital Capabilities, a two-day programme of talks and discussions held in late May at The Spark, Southampton Solent University.

Initiatives involving students

The Spark houses a number of innovative learning spaces, including the extraordinary ‘Pod’.

The most detailed example of these initiatives – and, I felt, the most useful one for us – was described by Fiona Harvey from Southampton University. The project was prompted in part by the realisation that the assumption that students could ‘cope’ digitally was a false one. With internal funding, Fiona and her colleagues embarked on a range of activities, including:

  • individual partnerships between students and academics to implement technology in a specific aspect of their teaching;
  • informal ‘iPad coffee clubs’: safe spaces for students and staff to talk about themselves and IT;
  • TED-style talks; and
  • annual conferences.

A current initiative is the use of the Pathbrite e-portfolio, which students can use with minimal expertise (ease of use is essential to sustained engagement!), to develop their digital skills within the curriculum: in this case, professional skills for first-year geographers. The students submit work that they are proud of to the e-portfolio as evidence of the digital skills that the learning activity was designed to develop. Fiona has set up a feedback rubric (score and comments) in Pathbrite, and also allows space for students to provide the teacher with their own feedback on the activity.

Fiona reported that, initially, it can be a challenge to ask students to think digitally and to embrace the idea of a one-to-many conversation, showing their work to the world rather than to just their teacher. Depositing one’s work in the e-portfolio was optional, although promoted within the context of the discipline by the academic involved. Students responded well to the initiative, but only a few accepted the open badge (see ‘Key Links’ below) that was also on offer.

Working with students in partnership projects

Most presentations included advice on working with students; here are some snippets that caught my attention:

Fertile areas for student-staff partnerships. The presenters from Southampton Solent ran a live poll (using Mentimeter) to solicit ideas from the audience: the result (below) was fairly conclusive!

‘Embedding new VLE’ appears in green just above the ‘design’, as I believe our students will have an important role to play if the current VLE Review results in a move to another provider. (Click the image for a full-size view and to read other ideas.)

Making a business case. Jane Secker told the tale of the LSE’s SADL programme (2013-16) for developing digital capabilities and why it hadn’t succeeded, including issues of scalability, alignment with institutional strategy and, importantly, the lack of a proper business case up front. The phrase ‘business case’ provided the trigger for Jeni Brown of the LSE to take us through a practical exercise using a 7-step model developed by a commercial provider. For copyright reasons I can’t reproduce the provider’s handout, but the group in which I worked found it helpful in focusing our ideas in the 20 minutes that we had for the activity (unfortunately our resulting hand-drawn graphic is difficult to read).

To pay, or not to pay, students? At least one of the presenting universities said that it pays students for participating in partnership initiatives. The reasoning is that students are not only doing the work on top of their studies, they’re also doing a semi-professional job. Furthermore, it’s inclusive, in that participation is not restricted to the more affluent students who don’t need to supplement their loans with part-time jobs. There can also be savings for the institution in other areas: one speaker referred to a university whose investment in a partnership programme has reduced student attrition.

Diagnostic tools for staff digital capabilities

Julie Adams, from Staffordshire University, led the audience through three tools intended to assist staff in all roles (not just academic) to assess their current capabilities and decide where they need support and training.

Excerpts from Staffordshire University’s diagnostic tool for digital capabilities

The first was a simple ‘home-grown’ tool comprising a 20-question survey developed in Qualtrics. University staff take the survey anonymously and can repeat it at intervals in order to track their progress; suggestions have been made to link the diagnostic to performance reviews. Julie gave us access to the tool to try it for ourselves: I found its simplicity a strength, but felt that a wider range of roles to choose from would have been useful. However, because it was built in an easy-to-use and flexible tool, it would be straightforward to customise for additional roles or for individual departments.

Jisc’s Digital Capability Discovery Tool is currently undergoing public beta testing, and is available for anyone to explore (see ‘Key links’). It’s much longer than the Staffordshire tool, with more than 12 categories, each with a number of questions. However, it isn’t customisable at present. Because of the limited time available, I didn’t try it during Julie’s session.

The ‘Metro map’ of resources in All Aboard!

All Aboard! is a free diagnostic tool that has been produced by a consortium of Irish universities. It allows students as well as staff to assess their digital confidence in six areas, and creates a personal profile from the results. One of its features is a ‘Metro map’ that links to appropriate resources. The tool has been written in Articulate Storyline 36o and carries a Creative Commons licence, so universities can customise both the functionality and the accompanying resources.


Key links


Photo image credits: Liz Masterman

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