Higher Ed’s Digital Skills Gap: Faculty & Students

railway-1758208_1920“Digital technology is an ally for higher education” —Professor Mary McAleese, Teaching and Learning in Irish Higher Education (2015)

Most educators today possess the digital skills needed to function in academic life. There’s the basics—managing email, using the Learning Management System (LMS), uploading papers to plagiarism checkers among others. Yet some faculty still struggle with basic LMS functions (Straumsheim, Jaschik & Lederman, 2015). Then there’s the ever-expanding array of apps, online platforms, collaborative digital tools to consider and the latest trend—messaging platforms that are replacing traditional methods of communication like email and face-to-face meetings. The skill level that’s required of faculty to keep current with the changes in technology is expanding. There’s a gap between existing skills and what’s needed; there’s a pressing need for educators to learn how to harness the best of digital technology in order to remain relevant, improve leaning outcomes for students and to manage their teaching practice efficiently and effectively. But it’s not just faculty lacking digital skills.

The Student Skills Gap
Intuitively we think it’s faculty over students who need the most support for expanding their digital capacity. It’s tempting to say so when students appear more tech savvy than us. Though students may have mastered social media quite well they lack the breadth and depth of skills to thrive in a global economy where there’s an abundance of knowledge and digitization is transforming business and social institutions. A survey by the Association of American Colleges and University lays bare skills students lack. Employers and college students surveyed on their perceptions of how prepared college graduates were for the workplace reveal that students lack skills in: i) locating, organizing and evaluating information, ii) staying current on technologies and iii) staying current on global events; a significant shortfall (chart below).

survey data from report Falling Short? College Learning and Career Success
Chart from “Falling Short? College Learning and Career Success” by Hart Research, 2015

The Skills Needed
What then is the answer? I suggest the skills gaps need to be addressed at the institutional level for students and educators. The goal should be for students and faculty to thrive in a digital and social economy. The starting point for closing the gap is articulating what faculty and students should be able to do;  what digital skills they need to thrive.

Below are lists of digital skills for both students and faculty. They are designed as starting points; the goal is to get institutions thinking about how to raise the skill level of their students and faculty. The lists are inspired from a variety of sources: i) OECD’s Ministerial Declaration on the Digital Economy; a set of recommendations established by the group of 41 countries to support the recent (and significant shift) to a digital economy and a handful of reports surveying faculty digital skill level (Straumsheim et al. 2015, Wise & Meyer, 2016). 

Digital Skills Required of Students in order to:

  • Locate, curate and organize digital information for academic, personal and/or professional use
  • Create digital web content, websites, blogs, artifacts etc. to communicate concepts and messages effectively
  • Discern credible news from digital sources to keep current on scientific, business and political events from the global to community level
  • Leverage employment opportunities and explore career paths across digital platforms
  • Participate in professional development and lifelong learning using online platforms and digital applications
  • Contribute to and engage in community and national events, causes and initiatives
  • Protect digital identify and privacy, determine how personal data is used and protect accordingly
  • Create and participate in a personal learning network leveraging digital platforms

Digital Skills Required of Faculty/Teachers in order to:

  • Locate, curate and organize digital information for academic, personal and/or professional capacities
  • Leverage digital tools and online platforms following sound pedagogically principles to support student learning
  • Locate and implement open education resources to support student learning
  • Use digital tools, platforms and institution’s learning management system (LMS) to support efficient and effective teaching activities
  • Use LMS and other platform data to identify students requiring additional services and learning support (services provided by institution or faculty)
  • Participate in professional development and lifelong learning using online platforms and digital applications
  • Create and participate in a personal learning network leveraging digital platforms

A Digital Framework In Action
As mentioned, the aim of this post is to get institutions thinking about creating their own framework and strategy for building the digital capacity of faculty and students. Many are already well on their way. A group of universities in Ireland for example have built a digital skills framework, All Aboard, an initiative funded by Ireland’s National Forum for the Enhancement of Teaching & Learning in partnership with a handful of universities. The goal of the program “to increase digital capacity, not only of students but teachers and staff, by empowering students and their educators to flourish in digital world”.  They’ve created an interactive map modeled after a metro map that sorts the competencies of major skill sets into branches, where branches are like routes on a subway. For example there’s Tools and Technologies skill area (grey), Teach and Learn, (blue) and Identity and Well being (black). Along the route of each branch, are sub-sets of skills that support each skill area.

map_no_topics-1024x724This type of visual map is a good tool; it makes sense of the breadth and depth of skills needed for digital proficiency. It’s a good starting point for the novice outlining the skill paths, but it still serves as a tool for planning and organizing how to advance the experienced person’s skills, or for developing a framework for professional development.

Closing
Closing the digital skill gap for faculty and students appears a daunting task—daunting, but not impossible. The starting point is determining the skills needed then creating a plan to tackle each, ideally within a framework as the All Aboard initiative did. Easier said than done, but it’s critical for supporting faculty and college graduates so both groups can thrive in a digital world.

References

Why is Adoption of Educational Technology So Challenging?… ‘It’s Complicated’

“If an institution’s stated strategy is to promote the use of educational technology, that institution must establish an adequate framework for faculty to use technology successfully. This includes not only formal incentive structures but also the development of a sufficient educational technology infrastructure and a satisfactory framework for educational technology support.” Faculty Adoption of Educational Technology by F.Z. Moser

fighting with technology
Technology Integration can be complicated

After reading the paragraph above readers will likely nod in agreement…yes, yes that makes much sense.  Yet most institutions fail to recognize the complexity of introducing educational technology into the classroom and curriculum. Granted, the majority do recognize that faculty and teachers need guidance on how to use the features of a new educational tool or platform, but support usually stops there. Professional education for faculty and teachers that addresses skill development, focuses on integrating educational tools using pedagogically sound methods, for the most part is nonexistent. Yet what can be done? The answer—it’s complicated, which is the thrust of the research brief from EDUCAUSE—Faculty Adoption of Education Technology. Complicated, but by no means impossible.

Author of the paper Franziska Moser, conducted research with nine U.S. institutions focusing on education technology and the types of support strategies provided [or not provided] for ed tech implementation, and the resulting impact on faculty’s teaching behaviors. As part of her research, Moser put forth the Faculty Educational Technology Adoption Cycle, a model for institutions to consider when working with faculty and their implementation of educational technology.

The Model
Moser’s model includes five behavioral characteristics of faculty, observed upon implementation of educational technology in higher education settings. The model includes outside factors and variables deemed to have positive influence on each characteristic.

  1. Time commitment. The time instructors invest in integrating educational technology into their courses lies at the core of the model. Moser suggests that the level of time commitment depends upon organizational incentives provided (extrinsic motivation) and on individual variables such as personal values and goals (intrinsic). Moser also identified a causal relationship between time commitment and competence development of faculty.
  2. Competence development involves focused skill development for faculty; the skill set required to integrate technology in a pedagogically sound way. Competence also leads to quality course design and teaching expertise.
  3. Course redesign includes support from a variety of departments that may include instructional designer, tech specialists, multi-media experts, peers, department faculty, etc.  Using an instructional design model as a guide, serves as a frame of reference for the design team. The redesign process puts the focus on students’ learning, and the accomplishment of learning objectives via pedagogical methods, not the educational technology tool.
  4. Teaching/Learning experience that includes trustworthy infrastructure with a built-in support mechanism and a feedback loop leads to: teaching effectiveness, better learning outcomes, and increased satisfaction—not only for students but for instructors.  I’ll emphasize here, how critical the availability of support for instructors is—without such support, student learning is at risk, as is the motivation of the educators.
  5.  Reflection, the final phase encourages faculty and instructors to examine newly implemented teaching strategies, consider student feedback, discuss and share results with peers.
Screen shot of Faculty Adoption of Educational Technology
Franziska Moser’s model depicts a circuit of faculty behavior activities (bold) which are influenced by several outside factors and conditions (italic).

Moser’s diagram is instructive as it is insightful; it highlights the complexity of the course design process in a simplified format.

Fast Forward to 2014
Moser’s article was published in 2007, quite some time ago in this age of rapid technological transformation. Yet many institutions still face the same challenges that Moser describes in her paper.  There are but a few institutions that appear to follow a model similar to Moser’s. Two that I’ve studied are Purdue University with its IMPACT program and University of Central Florida’s Distributed Learning Program. Both schools’ invested, and continue to invest significant effort and institutional resources in supporting faculty in the redesign of courses and implementation of innovative teaching practices. Though there are others that I haven’t mentioned, these schools are in the minority. Why this is the case I don’t have the depth of expertise to answer completely, but I do see that many institution look externally to address the implementation of technology as a method to increase efficiency and improve learning outcomes rather than creating strategies with the human resources they have within, by human resources I’m referring to faculty, technical and media experts, graduate students, etc.

There are numerous examples of higher education administrators going externally, making decisions about the use of technology without involving internal stakeholders.  A recent example is California’s public higher education system. One school in the California state system San Jose State University, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a pilot project with MOOC provider Udacity in an attempt to solve the schools’ challenge with bottleneck courses in its institutions. The pilot served as a potential model for other California public higher education institutions. The program failed. Yet University of Central Florida dealt with a similar issue of bottleneck courses and limited institutional resources to accommodate students, yet were able to solve the problem by relying upon its own faculty and staff. UCF’s solution involved developing four types of learning formats including, mixed-mode, face-to-face, and video-streaming, all of which were completed by UCF faculty after they engaged in a comprehensive development program that provided skills training and support for course redesign. The result was a roster of courses in a variety of formats that allowed administrators to achieve a significant reduction in institutional overhead, while getting students into courses they needed to graduate.

Screen Shot 2014-03-03 at 5.53.51 PM
Screen shot of the headline from the Los Angeles Times Newspaper

There are other examples of failed roll-outs of education technology programs where there was little, if any instructor development plan in place as per Moser’s model. One that is incredibly expensive is the L.A. Unified School Districts’ iPad program. The program cost is said to be $1 billion dollars, which aims to put an iPad or computer into the hands of every student, teacher and administrator in the district, yet little if any resources are allocated to teacher competence development, support, instructional education, lesson planning strategies or curriculum redesign.

Why is Integrating Technology so Challenging?
So why don’t institutional leaders take a strategic approach to address the challenges associated with integrating educational technology? My guess is that it’s a combination of factors—some that are common to all, and some unique to the institution. I suggest strategic planning is required for educational technology implementation program, course redesign, or roll-out and that takes a strong leader that is willing to challenge things as they are. Doing this is difficult. Also required—a leader who can assess what is needed, create and communicate the vision of the project, build a team of experts, and follow through on its implementation. Also difficult.  It also requires short-term and long-term planning, and patience. Challenging. Course development takes time, as does learning the skills needed for implementing new teaching practices and methods.  Another obvious factor is resources—needed are a significant investment of funds. Most Challenging.  And finally, knowledge of a model or framework such as the one presented here, that outlines the complexities and dimensions of technology integration and course redesign. Complicated, but not impossible.

Conclusion
The transformative nature of technology offers tremendous opportunity to improve learning outcomes, improve access, and even reduce institutional overhead costs that does not involve reducing faculty or instructors, yet as discussed it’s challenging to accomplish given the complexity of such an undertaking. But as stated, not impossible as evidenced by institutions like Purdue and UCF that have forged a path of leveraging internal resources to redesign courses, implement technology and develop innovative teaching practices. I’ll delve into Purdue’s program in a post next week, share details of IMPACT, and a selection success stories from faculty.

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