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Closing the digital skills gap

06 Jan 2020 | Catherine O’Connor and Jess Sewter 'Universities are expected to turn out economically productive graduates who meet labour market demands.' Catherine O’Connor and Jess Sewter, of Leeds Trinity University, share their thoughts on how to engage students in the opportunities offered by the digital skills gap.

How do universities best respond to labour market issues? It could be perceived that speed of response should be the primary driver for action. Prompt action can help to address skills shortages, support economic productivity, cement relationships with employers and address policy requirements.

Equally, it could be perceived that such an approach is at odds with the need to design in the requirements of the labour market meaningfully at programme level and taking a long-term approach to student development towards and engagement with a broad and flexible view of potential career options.

Working with employers

A recent project at Leeds Trinity University (LTU) has prompted reflection about how best to embed responses to labour market issues in a meaningful way in the student journey. As an institution which runs credit-bearing placements at Level 4 and Level 5 for all students and which works with a network of more than 3,000 employers, LTU has been working on a number of fronts to consider how it can help to address a significant digital skills gap in the Leeds City Region. At one end of the scale, LTU has worked with employers to collaboratively design a new Computer Science degree, shaped to deliver the skills businesses in the region are looking for and adding a new dimension to the University’s portfolio. At the other end of the scale, LTU has considered how it can add to current course content to give all students an insight to digital skills and address employer feedback that “everything is digital”.

With the support of a HEFCE Catalyst grant, LTU worked with employers to design and pilot four digital pathways - introduction to programming, digital marketing, web design and online communities. Level 5 placement module tutors were then involved in deciding which pathway could be best contextualised to their students through alumni and work placement case studies. In total, around 500 students had one of the four digital pathways included as part of their Level 5 experience during 2018-19.

Not surprisingly, the response from employers to the initiative was hugely positive – they could see significant benefits in graduates who had at least an increased understanding of a digital skill and its application, if not a degree of basic proficiency in a particular skill.

The context for students

In terms of students, the response was mixed. Our team of testers, who gave the content a trial run before it was launched as part of the placement modules, were positive about the initiative and the pathway content they reviewed. However, engaging larger groups of students within the context of their programme proved to be a greater challenge. Contextualisation to programmes through professional examples and alumni case studies did not always convince students of the benefit and relevance of what they were doing and there was a degree of resistance to doing something ‘for the sake of it’.

Moving forward

So what next? We’re using the experience to consider how we might take contextualised project-based approaches to introducing students to new skills and to review our placement preparation provision. In particular, we’re looking at how we best offer core content and then allow students to shape their own personal professional development through in-module ‘options’, including content devised as part of the digital pathways. We don’t view these actions as doing something different but about extending and deepening our commitment to working closely with employers on the challenges they face and developing our students to understand the breadth of opportunities on offer to them at the end of their studies. One thing we are clear about is that our conversations with employers and our work with students must have a continuous flow because the digital world will not stand still.

Catherine O’Connor is Head of School of Communication, Business and Law at Leeds Trinity University and Institutional Lead for Learning, Teaching and Employability.

Jess Sewter is Head of Partnerships, Placement and Employment at Leeds Trinity University.

The authors of this blog have contributed to ‘Enhancing Graduate Employability: A Case Study Compendium’. This collection of case studies represents a range of creative response to the challenges of embedding and extending employability in the student experience. ‘Enhancing Graduate Employability’ will be published in January 2020. Look out more updates and content on our website.

Booking for Advance HE's Employability Symposium 2020: Breaking the mould - 22 April 2020 - is now open.

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