The Covid pandemic highlighted the extent of digital exclusion, particularly within higher education. Nevertheless, digital education continues to augment (even replace) traditional face-to-face delivery, with educators making increasing use of digital technology. This shift can exclude many learners because of a lack of digital literacy, limited access to technology or disruptive home environments. The cost-of-living crisis has further affected digital inclusion because most university programmes require (at least basic) digital skills and access to digital technology. Meanwhile, employers expect graduates to demonstrate core digital skills.

In a time where digital transformation is redefining the boundaries of knowledge and learning, it is imperative to create an inclusive digital environment in higher education for students, staff and their local communities.

  • Open educational resources to make lifelong learning accessible to all
  • Why hybrid learning needs hybrid faculties
  • The dark side of AI’s promised efficiencies

At Staffordshire University, we have adopted the Digital Inclusion Manifesto, employing the accompanying framework to drive forward our inclusive practice. The framework is based on three core principles: accessibility; equality, diversity and inclusion; and empowerment. We benchmarked ourselves against the framework and identified areas where we could implement measurable interventions, leading to key initiatives.

Build staff confidence

We updated our organisational development strategy and created new persona-themed digital skills training packages for staff. We created a digital skills group, with leaders from across the university, to implement, evaluate and refine the staff digital skills framework, ensuring that a customised journey is mapped out for each staff member to develop their digital skills and confidence.

This has already improved our onboarding process and is helping boost staff confidence in their digital capability. We’ve seen academic staff more effectively use technology-enhanced learning, which is raising teaching standards and improving consistency across our digital offerings to students.

Empower students

We have worked with Jisc to deploy its digital diagnostic tool that allows users to self-report confidence in digital skills and applications. They then receive a personalised report identifying areas of high and low confidence. In our implementation, the user is automatically directed to the most relevant learning resources, thereby hyper-personalising digital skills development. We also embedded the diagnostic into the welcome week activities for incoming students and used it to create learning packages for staff to use during induction and early in the semester. Two-thirds of students who completed it reported a positive improvement in their digital skills, making comments along the lines of: “I’ve gained a better understanding of my digital skills and knowledge gaps and use this information to identify areas where I can improve.” Students who engaged with the digital diagnostic and associated learning resources were able to gain points in our student enrichment programme. These points can be stacked to achieve awards and certificates that can be added to CVs, improving employability prospects.

Alongside the digital diagnostic programme, we have run digital-activation days for students. This starts in welcome week and continues throughout the year, allowing us to deliver face-to-face, interactive and engaging digital skills training for students that ranges from AI to MS Office. These sessions have improved the digital competencies of our students and boosted their digital confidence, and helped them understand the importance and key role of digital skills in career and employability development.

We have also launched a free micro-credit course that potential students can access to familiarise themselves with the university’s digital systems and develop core digital skills. We have partnered with local sixth forms and colleges to monitor and evaluate the impact these modules have on students’ knowledge, skills and transition success.

Meanwhile, the university library team has worked with colleagues across the university to create two innovative tools to help improve digital inclusion. The virtual escape room is an immersive tool designed to invigorate students’ interest in scholarly enquiry and foster critical-thinking and problem-solving skills. We have also deployed Minecraft Education to create an alternative front-end client to the library’s website, improving both the appeal and accessibility of library resources.

Policies and practices

We have taken steps to explicitly incorporate digital inclusion in our teaching and learning resources across the university. We have developed and implemented a mandate for all courses and modules to establish a standardised structure and minimum level of accessibility in digital resources.

Alongside this, we have created a new role, the student digital engagement officer, responsible for engaging with students on their digital skills development. Acting as a bridge between our teaching innovation and learning enhancement hub, library, EDI initiatives, digital services and the students’ union, the officer develops key programmes and work streams aimed at enhancing digital provision for students as well as being the focal point for help and support. The officer was able to engage more than 200 students in initial welcome week sessions and has delivered over 30 training events this academic year.

Access to digital technology

Staffordshire University, along with 11 other organisations, launched the Discover Digital project with support from the government’s Community Renewal Fund. The project is designed to boost digital inclusion in our local communities by identifying, understanding and breaking down barriers to digital access. Through this project, we provided laptops to students who demonstrated need, and digital support and training to some of the most digitally excluded members of our community. We also issued grants for laptops and devices for those facing financial barriers to digital access. The project opened a pop-up shop in the city centre and delivered bespoke digital training and support in community venues across Stoke-on-Trent to reach people who were most digitally excluded.

In conclusion, being involved in the development of the Digital Inclusion Manifesto and using the framework has allowed us to identify our strengths and weaknesses, create and implement a coherent programme of interventions to explicitly embed digital inclusion and create road maps for future digital interventions. We will continue to implement the framework more widely and deeply across the institution.

Written by Professor Raheel Nawaz, Pro Vice Chancellor (Digital Transformation) Professor of AI, Professor of Digital Education at Staffordshire University

This article was originally published here.