Challenge 2: deliver a relevant digital curriculum

Like earlier studies such as Learners’ Experiences of e-Learning, and reports of student satisfaction more generally, digital student studies have confirmed that the student experience is strongly influenced by course requirements. How digital activities are embedded and assessed in the curriculum, how course tutors model the use of technologies in their own practice, and norms of technology use among student peers all create the context in which students develop their own habits and expectations. Learners are more motivated to develop digital capabilities when they are engaged in meaningful tasks, and when they see digital skills as relevant to their success in the subject they have chosen to study. All this makes the curriculum the most important site for influencing students’ overall digital experience.

On this page:
Key Issues
Further resources

Key issues

Relevant means contextualised. Digital activities should help students to meet authentic learning outcomes, and digital capabilities should be developed as an aspect of academic and professional identity rather than a toolbox of tricks. Although there are generic practices that all students should acquire – such as online investigation and communication, digital presentation, and working with data – there are many ways of being a successful digital student. Students will look to subject specialists to guide them in the skills and practices they need.

Walled gardens, paths out: Students appreciate trying out digital practices and identities in closed, secure spaces before rehearsing them in more public ways. In practice this might mean students using the virtual learning environment and associated closed tools (wikis, blogs, discussion forums) to develop their ideas, before making selected outcomes publicly visible. Ultimately students could aim to be contributing to open research projects and participating in public academic/professional spaces such as open wikis and blogs, professional networks, online conferences etc. Students need to understand both the benefits and risks of an open, global, interconnected landscape.

Make digital the default: With so many devices, services and apps in learners’ hands, it is no longer the case that technology has to be ‘designed in’ to the curriculum. Learners have more choice, learning outcomes are more exciting and varied, and teaching staff can spend less time supporting a specific approach if the default assumption is that digital devices and media can be used. Of course there will be situations where this is not appropriate, but in other contexts students need little other than permission, and clear guidance on how academic criteria will be applied to their digital use.

Design for all: One advantage of making digital an option is that it allows for a variety of approaches to learning and demonstrating achievement. This is good for all learners, not just those with recognised accessibility needs. Jisc provides advice on accessibility and inclusion which outlines the role that assistive technology can play and explains how to design for a range of platforms and devices so that all learners have equal access to the curriculum.

Solutions: learning and teaching strategy

  1. Introduce digital issues to the curriculum design and review process, ideally through dialogue (how are subjects changing?), case studies, examples and principles of good design. In this way, curriculum own and direct the process. Another approach is to see digital capability as a graduate outcome and require that it is addressed in quality processes for courses of study. See also the Curriculum section of the Digital Literacies infokit.
  2. Establish a minimum entitlement for students’ digital experience on course e.g. access to materials via the VLE – but encourage staff to go beyond this.
  3. Ensure staff are rewarded and recognised for trying different modes of learning – enquiry based, group projects, peer feedback, flipped classroom. Non-standard uses of teaching time or of learning resources should not be penalised, and staff should have credible career enhancements for innovation.
  4. Flexible workload modelling and flexible timetabling are both essential if innovative approaches are not to be discouraged.

Solutions: digital environment for learning

  1. Consider issues of inclusivity, both how digital experiences could enhance inclusivity, and how they might compromise it e.g. if students lack basic access and skills
  2. Ensure hardware/software used is as far as possible of professional standard, but provide guidance on which free-to-use and open source alternatives are ‘good enough’.
  3. Plan assessments around availability of key hardware/software – assure robust and sufficient access before asking students to rely on it.
  4. Encourage students to use their own devices and services for learning where appropriate; understand that study habits are changing and support sharing of digital practice among peers.
  5. Ensure appropriate, timely and responsive support for students’ digital capabilities, recognising that students differ both in their previous experiences and in how they relate to the digital environment.

Solutions: student experience

  1. Plan students’ digital experiences across their course of study so that skills are developed progressively and interventions are timely e.g. core systems/skills are introduced when they are actually required for course work.
  2. Support student self-diagnosis and reflection – including reflection about digital skills, practices and attitudes – at key points in the curriculum.
  3. Offer alternative routes to assessment including production of digital artefacts: provide examples of digital outcomes that have received good grades.
  4. Use digital services to build links beyond the course, allow students to be involved in authentic projects, begin building their own professional networks, and experience alternative points of view.
  5. Ensure staff model and explain more advanced uses of technologies – personal digital skills may not translate readily into academic and professional practice.
  6. Provide a platform – digital CV, e-portfolio, blog, learning record etc – for students to collate examples of their work in digital form, to reflect on their progress and to plan for a future career.

Solutions: learning activities

  1. Offer authentic experiences that contribute meaningfully to overall course outcomes: contextualise the use of technology to address real issues in the subject area and meet real professional or academic needs.
  2. Design learning and assessment activities that leave a digital footprint e.g. web page, blog post, wiki edit, video, multimedia production, app. An excellent example is having students design learning materials on difficult topics.
  3. Design learning and assessment activities which require students to communicate ideas, express views, produce artefacts, analyse data and solve problems using digital technologies, not simply to consume digital information.
  4. Where possible include experience with workplace/professional technologies and research-like digital practices. Ensure students encounter a range of digital practices to develop flexibility, work-arounds and resilience.
  5. Use digital means e.g. interactivity, polling, online tasks to enhance lectures; ensure lectures are fully available online i.e. recordings as well as slides.


We collated a large number of examples in this category, and could have included many more. Common institutional features leading to effective embedding of digital issues into the curriculum seem to be:

  • a proactive e-learning development team, often aligned with general educational development;
  • high profile internal initiative around digital literacy or the digital student experience;
  • digital issues embedded into teaching staff development, beginning with the compulsory PGC course and including specialist development opportunities for established staff;
  • digital issues included in course review/documentation and/or as a graduate attribute;
  • student engagement in course design.

Further resources

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