Special focus: Digital Inclusion
These days it seems as if the younger people are, the more time they spend staring at a small glowing screen. It is clear most young people have at least some digital skills, but are they the right ones to get on in life?
This is the question being posed at Sheffield Hallam University, where teaching staff are trying to integrate digital training across all aspects of the students' work to ensure their students are not only learning the subjects for which they registered, but a range of vital modern skills that everyone now needs to succeed in the jobs market and the workplace.
"From their arrival at university, we have students using digital tools to develop confident communication skills", says Sue Beckingham, educational developer at Sheffield Hallam.
The university works to a model of the 'networked learner' using a range of techniques including mobile learning; place-based learning; self-directed learning; competency-based learning; social learning; active learning; and personal learning networks, Beckingham says.
Mobile learning in particular is expanding rapidly, as the latest advances in smartphone and tablet technology have led to the creation of more and more apps to help learners connect, communicate and collaborate, she says.
Projects to encourage digital skills in students from the moment they arrive include asking them to create digital 'About me' videos using a variety of techniques; online group meetings and digital collaboration; interview simulation; and embedding of videos into individual reflective journals.
With all such techniques, however, the vast scope of the internet means it is vital for students to develop strong critical analysis and evaluation skills, encouraged by student-led digital newsletters, how-to guides and the lively, engaging 'shuTech' blog.
As part of boosting their employability beyond university through developing strong digital skills and confidence, students are also taught to understand the value of a professional online presence, Beckingham says.
"We highlight to students the importance of developing digital skills to enhance their employment prospects after graduation."
As well as nurturing the digital skills employers are seeking, this may also mean cutting back on the types of digital activity an employer may not be so keen on - those hilarious pictures of oneself in full party animal mode, for instance, intended for friends but now somehow posted in places which anyone can find in an instant.
Quoting a statistic from online recruitment platform Jobvite which found that 93% of recruiters are likely to look at a candidate's social profile, Beckingham says: "It's about being aware of the negative implications of thoughtless open sharing online. Social media interactions leave digital footprints."
This is not to say social media cannot be a useful tool for students' learning and jobseeking, however, she says. There are many ways of encouraging "social learning" through students sharing information and using networks such as Twitter and Facebook as rich sources of information on current affairs and special interests.
And when it comes to helping students find work, the main social network to master is currently LinkedIn, she says, with around 300 million registered members, of whom around 30 million are students and recent graduates. There were 5.7 billion professionally-oriented searches undertaken by LinkedIn members in 2012 alone.
A range of LinkedIn groups for alumni are now emerging, Beckingham says, "which means even after they leave, students still keep an affinity with the university which lasts through changing email addresses." These groups can be platforms for job opportunities and internships or be used by the university to identify graduates to invite back for guest lectures, she says. Accordingly, the university is holding LinkedIn workshops for students, which cover topics such as "understanding the potential of second and third degree connections."
Among the social media advice materials the university has produced are a series of student guides that can be freely accessed by anyone, Beckingham says. These cover How to use social media responsibly; Staying safe online; Managing your digital footprint; and Using social media for learning.
Have all students been able to benefit from these digital advances?
Beckingham says digital inclusion - making sure students from all social backgrounds can access digital tools and methods - has been an important consideration, but was far less of an issue now than it was a few years ago.
"When we asked people to use mobile phones to create video or photographs, for example, one workaround we always had was to create opportunities to borrow or share them out, or work in groups. But in the past two years, the increase in ownership is incredible: this year, only three out of 67 students did not have a smartphone, and each Christmas it changes again."
Like many other universities, Sheffield Hallam has also invested significantly in Wi-Fi throughout the university, so as soon as students arrive they can hook up to free internet access, Beckingham says.
"This has made a big difference to a lot of people - it means they can do things online wherever and whenever they want to. It changes how they learn, how they get quick information, how they make notes."
Some students do need digital skills training as well, she says. "There does need to be some direction from the beginning, because if it has not happened in schools, you have to show students how to use technology to help in studies. Young people all know how to use it socially these days, but it's how you then adapt that to the learning process, or to developing an online presence."
The university is now considering a move to embed digital skills across the curriculum, including enhanced training for all teachers, rather than being additional work or just focused on some subjects, she says.
"Things have changed so much: technology is so easy to use, it is now possible for anyone to create a mock-up of a website, with art and design students potentially being more creative, for example."
Pictured: Sheffield Hallam University - the main entrance, City Campus
shuspace social media guides: http://go.shu.ac.uk/socialmedia
shuTech blog: https://blogs.shu.ac.uk/shutech/
SHU Careers and Employability Centre: www.shu.ac.uk/employability