A training gap?

A late (but final) posting from UCISA’s User Support Conference.

John Peart from the National Union of Students (NUS) gave the student perspective at the Conference on IT use in higher and further education institutions. One of the statistics he quoted in his presentation was that 46% of students who responded to a NUS survey on IT use felt that they did not have the IT skills they needed to take advantage of the computing facilities available to them. I found this a little surprising. I know that some schools in the UK at least are educating children in the use of the standard Office software and whilst I recognise that this may not be true in all schools, I would have expected more than 54% to have the skills needed. Part of the problem could be that many of the applications used in teaching do not have a good user interface, a problem of legacy software. Some respondents may have interpreted their inability to drive software with poor interface as not having the skills. However, given the relatively high number who felt this way the NUS were calling for more student training.

Later on in the conference I attended a session on certification of student training given by Jeni Brown of the LSE and Suzanne Hodges from the University of York. The evidence from the two institutions contrasted with the call in Peart’s presentation for more training – both York and LSE had a relatively low take up of student training. So does this mean that the students have the skills they need? Not necessarily. There could be a number of reasons for the low take up. It could be students don’t have time to fit in a course, that the course does not meet their requirements (if it doesn’t address the area where they feel they lack skills), or that they acquire the knowledge they need from their peers. ‘Peers’ here includes those on their social networks – as Peart cited in his presentation an increasing number of students make use of social networking as part of their learning. Alternatively they may just not regard it as important. There was some evidence for this in that when the institutions advertised that employers liked students to have certain skills taught in the courses, numbers rose. Clearly the students then perceived the course to have real value so thought it worth attending.

So is there a way forward? Part of the problem is that students don’t know what they don’t know – so they are unable to articulate their training requirements clearly and consequently IT services have no way of easily meeting their needs. There will still be some students that will need the basics so there will still be the need for the Introduction to… courses. But perhaps different approaches are required to meet the needs of the remainder. Another session at the conference highlighted the success of 15 minute training sessions – these were run on a drop in basis and had proved popular. Another route forward could be for a series of online top tips videos for applications (such as those Russell Stannard produced for teachers) but it would be important for students to be able to find the relevant tip by describing the problem they were facing or understand why they might require the skill for their future working life. Alternatively the virtual learning environment could be used to deliver the same.

There is feedback on the IT facilities for every course through the National Student Survey. IT service departments need to react to the NSS survey and work with those departments whose students did not rate the IT facilities to improve the rating. It would seem a good starting point to identify the students’ concerns and hence their true training needs.

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