Getting a feel …

We have been engaging in some observation and informal semi-structured interviews, which we have been documenting as part of our work towards a strategy for ascertaining a baseline view of digital skills and competencies at the university.

The informal interviews were held during Freshers week – the week before the first week of the academic term, when new 1st years are arriving, finding their feet and the best watering holes.  It is generally a good time to ask them a few questions, as they are generally feeling well-disposed and adventurous, and have not been told how much work they are expected to be doing over the next ten weeks.

In order to avoid intimidating students, notes were taken rather than recording the interviews with either audio or video equipment.  These views represent a quick snapshot, providing some indication of the range of digital literacy skills in the (mainly incoming) student population:

  • Student A (Fresher, BA English) described her IT abilities as “I don’t really know what I am doing on a computer, but my boyfriend is a computer science student, so I can just ask him for help”. She did, however, say she uses Facebook to keep in touch with friends.
  • Student B (Fresher, Maths) said he had been contacting other freshers through Facebook and were following the student services and RUSU accounts on Twitter, but wasn’t sure how to use technology beyond office products and Google
  • Student C (Fresher, Chemistry) said he would look for resources using Bing (because they didn’t trust Google), and that they hadn’t heard of Google Scholar. When asked if they knew about the library resources, they said they hadn’t but they thought they would probably do most of their studying from books they bought.
  • Student D (2nd year, Agric) said she used Scholar quite a lot, and had started learning about endnote, and that they used Facebook for social and learning purposes (organising and running a book group)
  • Student E (2nd year, English) mainly uses MS Office, Facebook and Hotmail but has some experience of Photoshop, webdesign applications and databases from an IT course she did at GCSE. She rates herself as ‘probably not too bad’ and able to pick things up once she’s been shown the basics. She feels that this is what will be expected of her in the workplace too – to be able to find things out for yourself after basic training/induction. She was aware of training and services on offer at the university but said she found things out mainly from friends.
  • Student F (MA Social Development & Sustainable Livelihood) said she always feels she is behind. She uses MS Office, SPSS, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google +, Skype and follows a number of blogs and has been on training courses for Excel and using Word for dissertations.
  • Student G (3rd year, Law) said she didn’t feel her degree really prepared her for the ‘real world’ but that she was able to pick things up herself pretty quickly. She uses MSN, Yahoo, Twitter and YouTube for social networking and hobbies. In terms of work and study she uses MS Office and uses careers and job websites to keep an eye out for opportunities. She went on a placement with a property lawyer where she had to use a specialist database for land registry. She thought that graduates working for big commercial law firms would be expected to help with company websites, Facebook pages and podcasts produced by them.
  • Student H (3rd year, Accounting & Economics) feels that she can just pick things up without any training and is digitally ready. As a brand ambassador for Ernest Young she has her own Facebook page and Twitter account to promote them which she updates on the go from her Blackberry.
  • Student I (2nd year, Accounting & Economics) reckons she is ‘ok’ and able to pick things up quickly but feels the university isn’t doing enough to publicise training and services on offer. She has an iPhone but still prefers hardcopy for some things which are hard to turn into an online format (for example essays). She doesn’t use digital resources much beyond the university network (Blackboard, RISIS, Reading email) and MS Office and doesn’t use Facebook, Twitter or blogs.
  • Student J (3rd year, Art and History of Art and Architecture) says she is not particularly interested in digital stuff and has to be shown first, although able to pick things up. She feels the university provides a lot of support, with technicians and lecturers with specialist knowledge to help out with specific queries. She uses the internet to keep up with art magazine websites and receives daily email digests and job alerts. She has various email addresses and uses Facebook, MSN and Skype to stay in touch but only tends to use specialist software casually for her art (e.g. used video editing software for one project). She did an internship where she had to use archiving software and a database of previous exhibitions and press releases.
  • Student K (3rd year, Theatre Arts, Education and Deaf Studies) feels University services are very well publicised and that she is ‘quite happy with computers and IT support’ which she uses a lot more through university than before. She mainly uses MS Office and email for work and study, and is a ‘big’ user of Facebook for social networking.
  • Student L (2nd year Speech and Language Therapy) rates her IT skills as ‘average – I know the basic ones’. She uses MS Office, Google and email, Facebook for social networking but not Twitter as she doesn’t own a smartphone and thinks of this as something you really only do on the go. She thinks she will probably be expected to use specialist speech therapy software in her job but isn’t aware of any.
In addition, I engaged in some observation of students both during leisure time and during seminars:

Classroom observations.
100 students were observed in 4 classroom settings. In these classes they were divided in to groups of 4 to 6 students, and had ice-breaker sessions (Smartie game, 2 truths & a lie) and were asked to pick which Belbin role they thought suited them best. They were then given a simple exercise. Each group were to send a ’round-robin’ email, each adding their name, chosen role and email address and then passing the email on to the next person in their group, with the final person in the chain sending the email on to the instructors.

In each of two of the sessions, one student had a tablet computer with them. These were used during the early part of the sessions to make notes. However, in one case the tablet was not used at all for the email task. 4 groups used their mobile phones in class to start the round-robin off, but no group had sent the final email at the time of writing (2 days after the first group, 1 day after the second group, and 2/3 hours after the 3rd and 4th groups), even in groups where every member had phones capable of sending and receiving email. It is quite likely, however, that they had not set their phones up to work with their university email accounts at this point.

Leisure observations. During a break, I observed approximately 60 students. Of these 10 were actively using mobile phones for non-phone call purposes (1 was engaged in a personal phone call, and may have been better advised to have had the conversation in private!), and another 3 were using MP3 players of various types. The other students were all engaged in conversation or reading. Of the 10, at least one was accessing blackboard (he was discussing it with his friend) and another was trying to find a campus map (again, discussing it with a friend). This drew me to checking the mobile experience of BB and I was pleasantly surprised to find the campuspack wiki switches to a mobile friendly view (although the navigation model of BB is disrupted by this).

Two of the students using their devices were involved in an exchange about Epicureus and death (so I assume they were 1st year philosophy students). I was impressed at the number of students engaged in learning-related tech use in a social space, especially during the first few days of term, before many of their courses have actually got underway.

It will be interesting to see whether the impressions gained through these exercises are reflected by further work in the area.  One thing which stands out for me is the diversity of experience students have in a wide range of technologies.  This suggests we either need to consider a very focused set of skill areas to try to improve (but how would we select which ones, and make them applicable to individual students?) or focus on a broad, far reaching policy of engaging people to improve their meta-cognitive skills in support of their own learning and needs analyses (which may not work for everyone, but which hopefully should bring benefits for the majority).  Any thoughts?

About patparslow

I am a researcher in the School of Systems Engineering, working in the fields of social media, digital identity and learning. I have previously worked in IT training/education, land survey, civil engineering, IT support, and as a software engineer.
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