Challenge 6: engage and empower students

This challenge is about how institutions engage in dialogue with students about their digital experience, and empower them to develop their digital environment. Most institutions already engage with students in a number of ways, such as:

  • carrying out surveys of students which include questions about their digital experiences or expectations;
  • gathering student opinions on specific aspects of digital provision e.g. the Virtual Learning Environment or library services;
  • including student representation on groups that make decisions about the digital environment;
  • working with digital issues when they come up in general student voice/student rep sessions.

However, students we have spoken to sometimes feel that these efforts are tokenistic and that they are not being involved in a way that would allow them to actually make a difference. Those are who are critical of digital provision are often the students with high levels of digital expertise, and they will happily use their expertise to make things better if they are given opportunities to do so and recognition for their input. A ‘ladder of engagement’ model can be useful in identifying where your institution is up to in its approach and in moving from the consultative to the truly empowering.

On this page:
Key Ideas
Further resources

Key ideas

From feedback to dialogue and partnership: Students are often surveyed about their satisfaction with institutional services including IT, TEL and digital information/library services. However, students do not often feel that these surveys fully reflect their views or that feedback is acted on effectively. Via the NUS, students are asking universities and colleges to look for partnership approaches wherever they can be made to work. Partnerships around improving the digital learning environment allow students’ own ideas and expertise to be brought into play, in a way that is not possible when the focus is on customer satisfaction.

Bringing digital issues into student co-design/change initiatives: Many universities and colleges have put into place effective mechanisms for engaging students in the curriculum, which may be called co-design, ‘students as agents of change’, student-as-producer, or (again) partnership approaches. However, the staff and students involved may not be highly experienced at managing digital change and may not be aware of the impact that digital provision has on the overall student learning experience.


  1. Undertake regular surveys of student digital practices, views on the digital environment, and digital aspects of their experiences, building a picture over time. Include some open as well as closed questions.
  2. Explore what students actually do with digital technologies as well as what they say they do and what they think. This requires more subtle, participative and qualitative methods e.g. observation and elicitation, guided focus groups.
  3. Acknowledge the importance of demographics – the different experiences of students from different backgrounds. Ensure a range of student groups are included when eliciting data e.g. mature, users of assistive tech, work-based, overseas etc. Students participating in different ways constitute very different user groups.
  4. Similarly acknowledge the importance of subject/discipline – encourage local (faculty, school, dept) engagement with students and ensure voices from different parts of the institution are heard.
  5. With students’ full permission, capture information about their digital practices by tracking their interactions in learner systems and/or by using social media.
  6. Have an ongoing institutional forum for student ideas – which different professional services, depts and initiatives can tap into to explore specific issues. This allows students to see all sides of the conversation and get feedback on how their ideas are being taken forward. Third-party services e.g. Padlet, twitterfall, virtual suggestion boxes, instant polling can be used for quick feedback.
  7. Ensure students are informed about what is being done to address their concerns and feedback; involve them where possible in finding solutions.
  8. Student representation: ask the student body to consider appointing a TEL/digital officer; ensure digital strategy/planning meetings include student reps; link up student reps e.g. library user groups, IT user groups, so they can learn from one another. Involve students in working and steering groups that actually get things done.
  9. Employ students in TEL teams or on TEL projects e.g. creating resources and course materials – videos, animations, etc – developing the digital environment. This provides useful experience of employment for the students as well as valued outcomes for the institution.
  10. Engage students as co-researchers and co-developers, collecting feedback, carrying out interviews, identifying and finding solutions to issues in the digital environment.
  11. Students should be resourced, recognised and rewarded for engagement. Develop their skills and ensure there are rewards in terms of digital identity and reputation (open badges, entry on their HEAR record, routes to a graduate award, opportunities to be entered for a specific prize). Student bursaries can work as well as or sometimes better than hourly payment.
  12. Organise a student digital conference or event: hackathon, digital festival, digital week, lunchtime showcase, digital identity session to recognise and celebrate students’ contributions in this area.
  13. Normalise engaging students in dialogue about their digital learning experience as part of routine course feedback and continuous improvement e.g. simply asking students in class for feedback on how they approached an activity that involved digital media or resources.


Further resources

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