Universities and colleges are investing large sums of money on their digital environment both in terms of infrastructure, learning materials and supporting their staff with the development of their digital capabilities.
But how do we know if the investment being made in these areas is impacting on our students’ digital experience?
What do students’ expect in relation to technology? How are they using digital to support their learning? What are colleges and universities getting right and where are the areas where further work is needed?
Using the student digital experience tracker:
Through extensive consultation with staff and students in further education and skills and higher education, our Digital student project developed the student digital experience tracker. The tracker allows universities, colleges and skills providers to:
• Gather evidence from learners about their digital experience, and track changes over time
• Make better informed decisions about the digital environment
• Target resources for improving digital provision
• Plan other research, data gathering and student engagement around digital issues
• Demonstrate quality enhancement and student engagement to external bodies and to students themselves.
The Tracker, delivered in BOS an online survey service especially developed for the UK education sector, is based on a concise set of questions that have been intensively tested with learners for readability and ease of response. It builds on resources such as the Jisc/NUS Digital Student Experience benchmarking tool, and the Jisc guide to Enhancing the Digital Student Experience: a strategic approach. The questions cover issues that are important to learners and/or to staff who have a focus on the digital learning experience.
This year, 74 UK institutions ran the tracker with their students collecting 22, 593 student responses. Institutions had the options of running surveys designed specifically for their learner types, HE, FE, adult and community learners, skills learners and those learners studying remotely online. The high level findings from the 2017 report are outlined below together with the implications for institutions in how we can better support our students’ digital experience.
Digital environment and services
The digital environment is key to a successful student experience. Colleges and universities should endeavour to make their systems easy to access and to provide a safe, secure and seamless online environment for learning. Many learners assume it’s a given that they will have access to free Wi-Fi whilst having the freedom to bring their own devices on campus.
What are our students saying in relation to the digital environment?
• Only 69% of FE and 80% of HE learners say they have reliable access to Wi-Fi in comparison with 90% of ACL and Skills and 96% of Online learners
• FE students use an average of 2 institutional devices (most commonly desktop and printer) and an average of 2 personal devices (most commonly smartphones and laptops)
• HE students use an average of 1.4 institutional devices (most commonly desktops and printers) and 2.7 personal devices (most commonly laptops, smartphones, tablets and printers)
• 83% FE students and 66% HE students use institutional desktops
What does this mean for institutions?
There is further work to be done in ensuring FE learners have seamless access to Wi-Fi and to ensure a parity of experience across all sites and areas of study. Despite the increasing number of learners bringing their own devices, they still like to feel that everything they need to succeed will be made available by their institution. This includes infrastructure (fixed computers and printers), access to online and off line learning resources and a physical learning environment where staff and students can work both individually and collaboratively.
Jisc offers guidance on providing a robust, flexible, digital environment and how to develop policies for supporting students’ use of their own devices.
Using digital systems for learning
Our research on student experiences and expectations of technology (Beetham, H and White, D. 2013) has shown that students respond favourably to authentic, meaningful digital activities that are linked to or directly embedded in their learning and assessment, especially if those activities are relevant to their future employment ambitions. The integration of technology in so many aspects of our daily lives means that learners now enter university of college with increased experience of technology, and have the expectation that technology will feature in their learning journey in some way.
What are our students saying in relation to how technology is supporting their learning?
• Over 90% of learners in all sectors have access to online course materials
• 70% HE and FE learners agree that when digital technology is used in their course they are more independent in their learning, and can fit learning into their lives more easily
• 80% HE and 62% FE learners agreed that submitting assignments electronically is more convenient
This suggests that learners value the convenience and flexibility that the use of digital technologies provides.
• 80% HE and 61% FE rely on the VLE for coursework, but only 40% agree they enjoy using the collaborative features or want their tutors to use it more
• Fewer than 50% of learners agreed that they feel connected to others when they use digital technology on their course
• A minority of learners (ca 10-15%) find digital systems increase their sense of isolation: they may have difficulty with distraction and information overload
What does this mean for institutions?
This suggests that learners tend to experience digital technologies that aim to solve practical issues rather than support alternative pedagogic practice. Technology is still being used to support the ‘transactional’ learning elements rather than ‘transformational’ learning opportunities.
Make it clear to students how and why technology is being used to support learning from induction and at the start of new modules to establish an institutional digital entitlement. Reinforce this by embedding digital activities and assessment opportunities as part of the curriculum design to set the expectation that students will use technology throughout their study. Accompany this with responsive support to establish a base level of digital capability and confidence and a platform to explore and develop subject and discipline specific uses.
Technology can be particularly useful in bridging the gap between study and work – apprentices and students on work placement can use technology to access resources, monitor their own progress and keep in touch with employers, tutors and assessors. Jisc offers guidance on how to develop a digital curriculum which offers students’ opportunities to develop their digital skills which will also prepare them for a digital workplace.
Support for digital skills
Not all students have clear ideas on how digital technologies can support their studies or how they may be important in their lives beyond education. Technology is so pervasive in everyday life that ensuring students are digitally capable by the end of a programme of study has to be considered as one of the key employability skills that institutions need to help students develop. Where do students go to access support with their digital skills? Can we assume that learners are confident in using technology for their learning?
What are our students saying in relation to support for their digital skills?
• 46% of learners in FE/ACL and skills look to their tutors first for support with digital skills in comparison with only 16% HE learners
• HE learners most commonly look to online resources first (37%)
• Collectively, informal support (totalling across friends, family, other students and online resources) is more common than formal support (tutors and other organisational support options) for all learners in all sectors, but especially for HE and Online learners (76% and 80%)
• Few learners in any sector look to specialist support staff first: but 65% do know where to get help with digital skills
What does this mean for institutions?
The 2017 UCISA Digital Capabilities Survey identifies the importance of staff digital capabilities as a positive influence on students highlighting the need for staff who are confident and proficient in using technology and designing appropriate digital activities.
Threading the use of digital technologies throughout the whole learning experience from pre-entry to induction, to specialised and contextualised use and emerging professional practice will help students become familiar with common workplace practices and embed technology more naturally within personal practice.
From our digital learner stories with in-depth interviews with students, Helen Beetham reports:
‘As in the pre-digital age, learners still need access to rich resources, opportunities to practice, and supportive interactions with their tutors and peers. They make notes, organise ideas, prepare assignments, collaborate, express themselves, manage their time and motivation, revise and review, listen to feedback and showcase what they can do. But there are also some striking discontinuities. Learners are making more use of graphical, video and audio resources, both to learn and to express what they can do. They curate their personal learning resources in ways that were unimaginable in the days of paper. They share, comment, mix, remix and repurpose freely. They use digital networks to connect across boundaries, whether the barriers between learning and work, or between learners in different countries, or between formal learning and all the other opportunities and interests they have.’
The traditional approach to skills development by training staff and students separately is a model that is at odds with the fast pace of change and can result in delays in implementing new technologies and new approaches. A more agile approach where staff and students are supported to work in partnership is proving to be more effective. This helps to overcome difficulties of identifying separate time, resources and offer a more responsive approach. See our guidance on supporting organisational approaches to developing digital capability.
Preparing students for a digital workplace
‘The UK will need 745,000 additional workers with digital skills to meet rising demand from employers between 2013 and 2017, and almost 90% of new jobs require digital skills to some degree, with 72% of employers stating that they are unwilling to interview candidates who do not have basic IT skills.’
Digital Skills Crisis, House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, Second Report of Session 2016-2017 (https://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201617/cmselect/cmsctech/270/270.pdf)
Our research into developing student employability found that expectations from employers and education providers in relation to digital entrepreneurialism is low. To ensure students are developing these skills, their learning experiences need to be embracing these practices.
What are our students saying about being prepared for a digital workplace?
• While over 80% of HE learners and 63 % of FE learners, feel that digital skills will be important in their chosen career, only 50% agree that their course prepares them well for the digital workplace
• 40-50% of learners didn’t know or weren’t sure what digital skills their course required before they started it
• Fewer than 50% agreed that they have been told what digital skills they need to improve
What does this mean for institutions?
Learners need to understand the digital environment they are entering and the kinds of learning practices expected of them as they prepare for employment. These expectations and requirements should be embedded into induction processes as well as the curriculum and the wider learning experience. Our technology for employability toolkit (pdf) provides effective practice tips on incorporating technology-for-employability. Several universities have adopted digital capability, digital citizenship, or similar as a graduate outcome. Others have required digital activities and outcomes to be discussed during course design and review. Further work is required to ensure students are effectively supported with the development of their digital skills.
There is a range of approaches to using technologies in the development of students’ digital skills for the workplace. For example, some institutions are helping learners to enter into partnerships with employers around the world to identify and solve real world problems. This approach can prove highly motivating for learners, while also enabling providers to develop efficient and cost effective authentic learning experiences for learners, an approach that can bring benefits for employers too.
Engaging learners in planning for digital
Learners who feel a sense of belonging with their college or university and who feel the institution cares about their learning experience are more likely to succeed, to maintain good relationships beyond their initial course of study and contribute more through alumni activities. Engaging with learners in a genuine and meaningful way regarding their digital learner journey is one such way to build loyalty and enhance their learning experience.
What are our students saying on being involved in developing their digital environment?
• 35% HE students and 44% FE learners agree that they are involved in decisions about the digital environment
What does this mean for institutions?
This mirrors the 2017 UCISA Digital capabilities survey report , which stated that 43% of Universities that responded to the survey are working with students as change agents (another 38% said they were working towards this).
Through engaging in meaningful and collaborative dialogue and partnership whilst working with students as “change agents”, colleges and universities can encourage a deeper understanding of how digital technology can support learners’ needs. Effective use of technology can enhance the learning experience, for example, by providing additional channels of support or opening up enriched opportunities for learning and communicating to those who may otherwise find it difficult to participate.
When students and staff work together to combine their skills and expertise, results can exceed expectations. Here are some examples of how colleges and universities are engaging learners in the development of their own digital environment.
You can read our report, Jisc Digital Experience Tracker 2017: the voice of 22,000 UK learners to gather further insights into what students are saying in relation to their digital student experience and join us for the Connect More events where further discussion around these findings will take place.
Sign up for 2018 Tracker here: http://bit.ly/trackersignup18
Join the tracker mailing list http://www.jiscmail.ac.uk/jisc-digitalstudent-tracker
Follow #digitalstudent and @jisc on Twitter