My Personal Ponderances: University’s Role in Digital Skill Development

I have been transcribing several interviews with different people, talking about digital literacy and the universities role…I have been seeing how diverse the perspectives are on the topic- how the question of employability- what most students are after- is sometimes seen as different from the question of knowledge, which a lot of academics are more concerned with…Where does this tension come from, and is it a given? Does this issue come back to our system where we are educated by people who are in fact academics- who therefore have less tacit workplace knowledge? If that is the case, is that a bad thing? Would it be bad to begin to see education as only a means to devleop ’employability’? Or would seeing it that way only be a more realistic view of the already existing reality? Is it also possible that academia just has not caught up with the increasingly digital world- not just in terms of teaching and research methods- but in terms of how the world is understood philosophically and scientifically? Surely, when my niece who is 10 now goes to university, she will be a member of the first generation of HE students who cannot relate to a world offline. How education responds to that goes deeper than just what software programs and social media sites people are using, but actually goes to the heart of how the world is; what the world is.

I was sat at lunch today with SPARKS an event of the Global Entrepreunership Week, hosted at the Innovation Centre. I was invited to this lunch as the business president of an alumnus business, but I was minding my time, thinking I did need to get back to work here, in education enhancement.

And then, the conversation began to settle around the exact focus of this project: Digital Technology: Are students getting enough access to digital technologies in education? Just how important are digital technology skills? Do employers perceive that students can learn those skills on the job? Does having a degree in a subject equate to effective knowledge of the prerequisite technologies?

One of the speakers, who I was lucky to sit next to at lunch, runs a business called Student Designers, they work at the student interface of the design world, and help build design student’s entrepreneurial exposure and professional skills. Another speaker, who sat on the other side of me, runs a film production and documentation business. I was excited to meet both of them, as their respective businesses sounded very interesting, but I also felt myself considering this project, and so paying attention to what they were saying about where education fits into their expectations of their employees.

Here, I received very divergent perspectives, perhaps illustrating the diversity of perspectives regarding the role education- in giving digital media skills and just in general. One of my neighbors felt that students  are absolutely getting the digital skills they need, but he is rather more concerned that students learn those skills in the ‘school’ environment and must then transition to the ‘work’ environment- he felt that if a student graduates from a top university, then their digital skills- at least in this area of study-should be top. My other neighbor, on the other hand, he said he doesn’t look at education on someone’s CV; it doesn’t say so much; what he looks at is their ability.  He sees skills as something that you can acquire in a variety of ways, importantly not nessasarilly school, and he cares much more that you do have them. When the conversation progressed later, the question was proposed ‘what can students learn in a 3 year degree that they can’t learn in 6 months in the job?’…there was a comment that universities don’t even train students in the same specific film technolgy that most production uses. Indeed, as the conversation turned to how education is valued, how several of us at the table are in fact not working in our degree field, and to rising tuition fees, there was a noticeable tone of disinterest in university as a place where skills are developed. This was just one tone present, of course, and many different views were being expressed.

But the question really started settling in my mind: Do employers understand university as a place where students gain technology skills required for their work? Is a university just a tick-box, something to show that you have the capacity to follow-through-you can finish something? Or, is university a place where you learn to think, to critically engage in the world, so that whatever you have to do on the job you have the inherent capacity to learn and engage? Or, is university a place where you gain practical skills? Really, it’s probably all of these, but now with some reflecting I can see that whether digital technologies need to be embedded in education depends largely on your underlying assumptions of what the university exists for.

The conversation then progressed to just how digital our age is. I was fascinated by the (male dominated)conversation about web processors and Wikipedia, and the atomic processes involved in information transfers within servers. I learned that Facebook has purchased a piece of land in the arctic- I confirmed for myself –it’s true- they have purchased this land for a European server, in Sweden, which will cut costs dramatically on air conditioning because servers are so hot. Before I go on a completely irrelevant tangent about the relationship between social media servers and climate change, the point is that, as we were discussing, social media, Wikipedia, Google, they are all hosting exponentially more data every day- all the time- the world is becoming increasingly digital- whether you like it or not!

I tried to think about just how dramatic the shift is- the one we are seeing now- to a globally intergrated digital world; is it like the industrial revolution? Maybe. It has made our lives easier (and, similarly while also changing our community structures and social interactions, and, similarly, also probably changing the dynamics of social inequalities). I think, too, though, that digital technology- well, specifically the internet and all of its importance- has affected human society much like the advent of written language-because it’s dramatically affected how we understand communication, knowledge, and society itself. When I started to think about it in this way, I started to think about the old saying ‘knowledge is power’, and I started to consider that in the near future, being technologically literate will be as important as being book and pen literate today. Indeed, this is already probably happening. And, like with traditional illiteracy, surely technological illiteracy will, and is, likely to exacerbate social inequalities and disenfranchisement. Of course, the two forms of literacy go hand in hand- those who cannot read and write are unlikely to read and write on a computer screen! Anyways, I then started thinking about the university and it’s role in learning- I started to think about 1,000 years ago when only the educated- only the clergy could read, and could read the Bible. Go back more than 1,000 years before then and see how written words were beginning to be debated, and taught (I may point out, in India and several other places in addition to Greece) Today, we have a very different world, and the university system looks very different- but it is still following the same format, indeed as we had in ancient Greece. Indeed, while we have dozens of new subjects and departments, and students graduate with all kinds of knowledges, there is still an air of…sophistication… around graduating with a degree in the Classics. There is something special, very special, about the fact that this form of learning- and indeed, these same texts, have been retained in education over the centuries. It is a tradition- and not just a recent one.

So, the point is that somehow I am coming to understand the subtle complexities surrounding this whole question of implanting digital technologies into the university.

Anyways, back here at work, this means that I am thinking more and more about how this topic should be framed and understood and communicated within the university and outside of it.

I am also thinking about what education means to me, because I realised that within myself there are multiple strands to its scope. Education is about learning, definitely. But within that we have:
-Me learning practical physical skills that are valauble and will help me suceed (e.g. digital technologies);
-Me interacting with my peers and gaining social experience (very important to me, and actually important enough that I worry with increasingly digital learning environments this side of education will be marginalised);
-Me learning knowledges, e.g. in texts, facts, figures, papers, things that I could do myself, but the education is there to guide me along the way-digital technology helps this process incredibly, to the point that I don’t even know how learning would have gone on without it;
-Me developing relationships with ‘teachers’; this is a relationship that I have realised I value very much, and I think the student-teacher relationship can be nearly as sacred or important as the relationship to a spiritual advisor, a parent, a friend, lover, or mentor in any other capacity.
-Me making connections that will help me suceed; e.g. ‘I graduated with my master’s degree from the University of Exeter’- yes, it’s really just a piece of paper, but that piece of paper, whatever I actually learned and gained from it, means something about my prospects in the world.

That’s all the personal reflecting I will throw around here today.

3 comments to My Personal Ponderances: University’s Role in Digital Skill Development

  • Really interesting stuff, Nicole!

    I’ll point you to a couple of things which I’ll think will be of interest.

    1. Regarding different way to credentialise learning, you may want to have a look at Mozilla’s Open Badges architecture:

    2. If you’re interested in what the purpose of education is, join the debate! 🙂

  • Thanks, lots to think about there!

    I think it is a bit unfair to suggest your niece’s generation won’t be able to relate to a world offline. Even some of the most plugged-in individuals I know can still relate to that other place they call irl.

    Your point about literacy and power is important. Yesterday, I tweeted along those lines:

    Before writing, those who could talk well had most influence #jiscdiglit

    Once we had writing, those who could write well were added to the core influencers, if they could be published #jiscdiglit

    Now we have many to many tools to aid communication, those with access and skills are empowered #jiscdiglit

    But those who could listen, read, participate are also more able to both learn and be indoctrinated #jiscdiglit

    A key attribute to being on an equal footing is having an enquiring, but critical, mind #jiscdiglit

    – my point being, I guess, that whilst literacy gives the power to be able to express yourself over time and to a wider audience (as opposed to speech, which is ‘now’ and with a limited audience), digital literacy magnifies both reach and, potentially, magnitude, but that we should also appreciate that reading (digitally or otherwise) also opens us to a world of ‘poor’ information, and we need the skills to be able to distinguish good from bad.

    The question of what universities, or indeed the education system as a whole, is for is one which causes no end of disagreement. I’d like it to be there to provide personal enrichment (culturally and academically, not financially), and to help people learn to learn. But, the sad reality is I haven’t seen anyone as optimistic as you, when you say “Would it be bad to begin to see education as only a means to develop ‘employability’? Or would seeing it that way only be a more realistic view of the already existing reality?” for a long time.

    I see that as optimistic because it implies (or perhaps I infer) that there are some who don’t already see it purely as part of the sausage-machine of worker-production. Of course, most don’t phrase it quite that way, but students and staff alike seem more than happy to regard HE as being a way of providing students with skills for work, despite the fact that they clearly cannot train them (and it is only ever training when you have this as an aim) to use/understand all the different tools and techniques in use in workplaces. Worse, I see a growing number of people who are quite happy with the idea that HE is just about accreditation – and essentially accreditation of the ‘time-served’ type of model, rather than accrediting any particular level of competency.

    Anyway – enough of me bemoaning the state of affairs… I like your break down of what education means to you. Mine is slightly different, I think, but that is only to be expected:

    Education, I agree is about learning. But I think it is helpful to distinguish it from training, which is more about conditioning reflexes (which is also useful – and I include here such things as being able to, oh I don’t know, perform Laplace transforms without having to think about it). Education, to me, is about producing understanding, which allows you to build on existing ideas and extend them, whereas training is about performance, being able to do something, but without, necessarily, understanding it.

    So, learning touch typing is a digital skill I can train myself in.
    Using Word, OSX, Blackboard (etc etc) are skills I can train.
    Understanding Word, OSX, Blackboard so that I can build on them, subvert them, understand why they break when they do and thus avoid it (etc) is something I have to learn (educate myself)
    Interacting with peers, either digitally or otherwise, is something I worry about too. It is vitally important (and this is one of the reasons we produced our This Is Me materials), and must not be allowed to be marginalised. The basics of the interactions are the same whether digital or not, I think, but with some minor differences around persistence and findability of information, perceptions of understandability and humour, (false) assumptions about being unable to negotiate meaning in asynchronous communications.
    I’ve never held much truck with learning facts. Probably why I was rubbish at subject like history. With more facts readily available thanks to search engines, I am even less likely to try to memorise a fact now -and I think there is generally little call for it.
    Building networks – with teachers, peers, ‘apprentices’, and, indeed, repositories, I think is a key element of how we will be living and working in the future, possibly even to the extent suggested by Connectivism. Maybe the learning is in the network.

  • Nikki

    Hello thank you for the comments, especially you Pat, you gave me a lot to think about! I agree that education is about understanding more than facts, actually, and I see your distinction that you can be trained to learn how to use a keyboard, but …understanding…the keyboard, that is a whole different matter- I also agree that one thing the web has done is made it so that we don’t remember as many facts, e.g. the history dates- but I have to say that history is one of my favorite subjects, but only became one of my favorite subjects when I was in university studying environmental archeaology, environmental history, and the history of environmental policy and issues- because in that context I learned history as a way of understanding different worlds and introducing new ways of seeing things–I think personally that all forms of education should take this more holistic approach, to engage with ideas and concepts rather than engage students to be like robots who can repeat facts- yes, it is important to know some facts, but a repository of facts is not the same as really being a capable and educated person I think…well, that’s just my opinion!

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