Developing employable students in a digital age

What does an ’employable student’ look like in a digital age? And how can universities use technology to help support the development of student employability? Sarah Davies of Jisc has answers to both questions.

Both the government’s January 2017 industrial strategy green paper, and HEFCE’s Institute of Coding competition have flagged up the importance to universities, students and the broader economy, of students leaving higher education armed with the skills and attributes that employers need. But what does an ‘employable student’ look like in a digital age? It’s not as simple as a degree in an in-demand subject: the Shadbolt Review highlighted the apparent paradox of industry complaining of a lack of coding skills at the same time as a relatively high rate of computer science graduate unemployment.

A 2015 Jisc report written by Peter Chatterton and Geoff Rebbeck identified seven dimensions of the ‘employable student’: basic work-readiness, professional skills and knowledge, high-level capabilities (eg problem-solving and entrepreneurship), attributes (eg adaptability, persistence), authentic experience, lifelong employability and lifelong-learning capabilities. In a world in which almost every job will require effective use of technology, there are digital components of each of these dimensions.

So what about those mentions of ‘digital entrepreneurialism’? what’s that, apart from being a perfect storm of buzzwords?

Basic work-readiness, for example, includes understanding, managing, customising and efficiently using core ICT devices, apps, services and resources. Add to this communicating effectively with different stakeholders using a range of digital media, devices and tools. High-level capabilities include using digital tools for complex research, data gathering, engaging public with research and data analysis and presentation. Or digital entrepreneurship – the ability to creatively shape and influence the use of digital technology in pursuit of goals.

Involve employers in programme design

So how can universities support the development of student employability? Our study found that it’s important that employability is embedded into the curriculum, along with support for students’ personal, professional and academic development.

Assessment that promotes student learning, provides feedback from a range of stakeholders, and prompts them to act on that feedback, is also key. As is employer engagement in programme design and delivery, including the provision of authentic learning experiences such as ‘real-world’ projects and placements.

Sounding like too many plates to spin all at once? Technology can be used to enable, support, or track much of this. We’ve identified a few ways in which universities and colleges are using technology to enhance their students’ employability.

Technology-enhanced authentic and simulated learning experiences – including cohorts of students collaborating on real-world or employer-relevant tasks, or the use of online simulations or virtual reality to provide valuable practice in simulated employment-like environments.

Digital communications and engagements with employers – including researching and developing contacts and relationships with employers, and developing and showcasing a professional digital identity and examples of work.

Technology-enhanced personal and professional development – supporting the planning, reflection and managing of learning, such as through e-portfolio or reflective blogs, and using technology to enable feedback from key stakeholders such as employers.

Technology-enhanced employability skills and digital capability development – using a range of techniques from learner skills diagnostics and targeted online learning resources to projects to promote digital entrepreneurialism.

That last area, of student digital capability development, is emerging as increasingly important, and goes hand-in-hand with the need to develop staff digital capabilities, since we know that one of the strongest drivers of student digital capability development is the use that staff make of discipline – or profession-relevant digital technologies and approaches in their teaching practice and the assignments they set.

More on the digital capabilities required by learners and graduates is available from Jisc’s digital capability project, and there is a mapping between the digital capability framework and the employability-focused capabilities listed above.

Digital entrepreneurialism

So what about those mentions of ‘digital entrepreneurialism’? What’s that, apart from being a perfect storm of buzzwords? I believe it’s a really key element of the digital employability jigsaw, and overlooking it can cause problems for students, universities and industry.

Read more: How the University of Manchester is boosting the employability of wider participation students

It’s centred on the idea that what is really useful to all types of organisations is people who can see the opportunities that technology brings to do things differently, to apply technology in new ways, or transfer practices to new areas. However, we know from previous studies that employers can often be quite limited in their digital skills requirements, seeking ‘more of the same’ rather than new possibilities.

Universities are well placed to support the digital entrepreneurship of their students, through project work tackling real-world challenges, through competitions for new ideas such as our Summer of Student Innovation, and other types of initiatives using students as partners and co-researchers.

When employers are brought into these relationships too, all parties develop and benefit, cementing universities’ position as centres of innovation, and raising employers’ aspirations and increasing the pull for these kinds of creative graduate digital skills.

For more detail on student employability, see Jisc’s quick guide, (which includes examples): Develop your students’ employability skills through technology, or for more support, have a look at Jisc’s Technology for Employability toolkit.

Sarah Davies
Sarah Davies is head of higher education and student experience at Jisc.