Today’s student typically arrives at university equipped with a smartphone, a tablet, and an intimate knowledge of digital devices. University staff can be forgiven for feeling naïve alongside these tech-savvy “digital natives” – but is this perception of students’ skills based on reality?

At Jisc, the UK’s higher education digital technology agency, we have been researching how we can best support universities. We’ve found there are some common challenges in creating the right environments for digital learning – not least that students’ digital skills are not what they might seem.

Lecturers have told Jisc that we shouldn’t make assumptions about the digital capabilities of students. We wouldn’t expect history students to become overnight experts on Mayan civilisation, so why expect learners to be au fait with the latest research software, simply because they know how to submit their essays online? Not all students have equal access to digital resources.

In fact, the results of our 2017 survey of 22,500 learners showed that only 65% feel they have access to digital training and support when they need it. And ourstudent digital experience tracker, run for the first time in 2016 and this year involving 74 institutions, found that students were most motivated to improve their digital skills when tutors inspired them with their own digital know-how.

Equipping staff with digital skills

Key to providing the right digital environment are well-trained, fully-engaged members of staff who can design and deliver courses with technology embedded in them. The case study universities which featured in our Jisc digital capabilities guide found that this approach fosters a climate of digital fluency that diffuses throughout the university, from students to chancellors and everyone in between.

For example, Lancaster University is one institution which is leading the way with their ‘dot.everything’ approach, whereby all processes – from student admissions and assessment to requesting travel and managing payroll – are carried out online.

Developing the right virtual environment

As well as training up staff, universities are also starting to think about how they should create learning experiences and spaces which meet the needs of future students. The learning environment isn’t fixed and technology is far from static, so instead of developing new bespoke digital learning spaces, would universities may be better off embedding digital technologies across the spaces they already have.

At our annual digital festival, Liz Ellis from the Open University argued that the digital learning environment of the future will be a “series of spaces and application programming interfaces so it won’t be a thing in itself”.

Rather than investing in physical spaces and places, we need to invest in the people who can pass on the relevant digital skills to their students and colleagues. In fostering the right environment for digital learning, universities have a real opportunity to upskill at every level.

Getting leadership on board

But transforming a university into a smooth-running digital machine is a big task. It needs a holistic organisational approach, involving collaboration between learners, curriculum teams, departmental heads, support services, leaders and governors. This requires a senior member of staff with the strategic steer and focus to take the university’s digital vision forward. But ultimately it should be student needs which shape their decisions on investment in technology and how to drive forward digital learning.

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