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What skills do students and staff need for the digital future?

Published on 06 July 2021
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Rosie Horton

Marketing and Communications Manager

The second series of The Internationalist podcast from the ACU explores how the work of universities is being changed by the digital revolution, and how they can use their position to confront the challenges posed by digital technology. With thanks to Dr Tammy Tabe, Lecturer at the University of the South Pacific (USP), Fiji; Dr Shikha Raturi, Lecturer in the School of Education at USP, Fiji; and Professor Sue Bennett, Head of the School of Education at the University of Wollongong, Australia, for their contributions and ideas in the second episode, many of which are outlined below.

Each university is different – rural/urban, public/private, regional campuses/online only. The one thing that unites them all is that they have staff and students, and the success of any digital transformation will depend on how well these two groups are supported. But what does that really mean, and how could it work in practice? The COVID-19 pandemic has brought these questions to the fore, but universities have been innovating in this space for decades and there is a wealth of experience to draw from.

Enabling students to flourish in a digital environment

Students are often stereotyped as ‘digital natives’ (people who have grown up with and are therefore comfortable with using digital technology), implying that they will be able to quickly adapt to online learning. Yet research over a sustained period has shown that there are disparities among young people in terms of their knowledge and skills with technology. Interactions with different digital technologies require different skills – for example, consider the different skills needed for curating good social media posts, coding websites, shopping online, messaging friends or playing online games.

Academic digital literacy comes with its own specific skillset, such as participating in online seminars or forums, managing yourself online, searching library catalogues, critically sourcing and reading literature, or producing creative technology-based outputs. At an individual level, supporting students to build this skillset is crucial for their success. At an institutional level, creating the right learning environment in which these skills can flourish is key.

Most of us who have sat in a classroom, seminar or lecture hall will know the deathly silence that can follow when a teacher asks a question of the room. Although there can be many reasons behind this, one factor that may be at play is the lack of wait time for students to formulate an answer. During live classes, teachers will ask a question and then move on to the next one a few seconds later. For students who don’t speak English as their first, second, third or even fourth language, this can be difficult to engage with. This is where asynchronous activities, such as online forums, can have a significant advantage, giving students time to understand the question and to craft an answer.  

Asynchronous activities also have the advantage of being accessible at any time – a significant enabler for students with poor connectivity or restricted access to devices. This type of activity allows students to access content when convenient for them, while still providing a sense of online community, particularly if they are working in online groups.

Dr Shikha Raturi from the University of the South Pacific (USP) has extensive experience of creating environments where online groups succeed. She suggests making it clear from the start of a course that when you are part of a group, you are all looking out for each other. If someone is quiet or not participating, it is the role of group to support them to interact. Fostering this sense of autonomy and responsibility within the group is central to their success.

Supporting staff to flex their digital skills

There is often a deficit view of teachers as reluctant, resistant, uninterested or unable to grasp new technology. Yet many are already experts with technology, particularly in research.

Even for teachers with high skill levels, there are always new technologies to explore, and staff need the same empathy and flexibility when learning new things as is shown to students. Staff need professional development at every stage of their career to support their particular needs and contexts. For example, for some this will be about understanding the appropriate use of technology in terms of the socioeconomic, cultural, and geographic diversity of their students. For others, it will be learning about emerging technology such as virtual and augmented reality.

The success of delivering online courses does not just rest with the facilitator. Support units and collaborations between academic departments play a crucial role. At USP, the Centre for Flexible Learning, Student Learning Support Service, IT Services, Library, and Disability Resource Centre are all involved. Each course is also assigned an educational technologist and instructional designer who work with course coordinators to design courses for different learning environments. This structure means they faced fewer challenges moving online during the COVID-19 pandemic.

This emphasis on collaboration and support is also apparent at the University of Wollongong during the pandemic. They rapidly organised people into small teams and matched staff with varying skills levels and knowledge of online pedagogy to support each other. The university also ran drop-in training sessions and shared information at all levels. Central to their success was a culture that gave permission for failure, and that gave space for teams to change and improve based on feedback. As Professor Sue Bennett reflects: ‘We didn’t have time to think that we might fail. We had to just get on with it’.

The importance of a supportive culture cannot be over-emphasised. Professor Bennett believes that continual professional development must be in any university’s strategic plan. Taking this a step further, the University of Wollongong has implemented a framework for academic performance that rewards teaching as well as research. This encourages innovative teaching that builds best practice, and crucially shares it with others – both in their departments and beyond.

A different way of doing things in the future?

In a post-pandemic future, one thing that is certain is that universities will have to continually adapt, and they will need to further support students and staff to develop their digital skills.

For Professor Bennett, the utopia would be a completely different way of designing educational technology. Currently, universities often adopt technology that has been developed in another sector and wrangle with it to make it work in education. There is no conversation between the creators of the technology and the people who use it – the teachers and students.

Perhaps one of the lessons the pandemic has taught us that we can re-imagine the future, and the technology we use might be one of the first things to change.  

You can discover more podcast episodes here, or by searching for The Internationalist on your preferred podcast platform.