The recent presidential executive order “Expanding Apprenticeships in America” and the proposed JOBS Act, which would amend the Higher Education Act, both look to solve the skills gap by increasing support for short-term training in current technology.
Such training can provide some students with current technical skills. But according to a World Economic Forum report on employment trends across a wide range of industries, the competencies most needed for long-term employment are more foundational: critical thinking, collaboration, communication and creativity -- as well as digital fluency.
To close the skills gap and provide long-term employability, we in higher education must continue to offer a broad-based education in which digital skills are not developed within a single set of courses, but rather throughout the entire curriculum and the wider array of co-curricular experiences.
This approach has three advantages.
First, by infusing digital skills into all aspects of education, faculty members, administrators and students must think about which digital skills, competencies and fluencies are actually needed for success and leadership in a given area -- beyond the boundary of a single course and in ways that reflect the fact that digital skills are interdisciplinary, interconnected and contextually embedded.
Our colleagues at Bryn Mawr College have developed just such an approach to maximize our students’ digital competencies. We obtained extensive information from faculty members, staff members, parents and graduates from a diverse set of fields and professions to create a matrix of the kinds of technical understanding and critical use of data and digital tools that students need to thrive in their course work, research, internships and future professional pathways.
We then mapped to that matrix the learning opportunities that students had in our curriculum and co-curricular programs. Using that approach, we were able to see and show how students attained needed skills and also identify and address skill gaps. We found many areas of overlap, too, which often opened up several different pathways for students to reach the same objective.
The second advantage to this approach is that it allows all students, not just those focused on careers in technology, to reflect purposefully on their professional interests and aspirations and to build the digital abilities needed for opportunities and success. Thus, all students are engaged in digital development that can build on skills and knowledge they already have, and not everyone has to start in the same place.
Finally, this approach encourages critical analysis and positions digital skills as means to an end, rather than a pursuit in and of themselves. Through students’ reflection on what skills are useful to meet their goals, students learn to write and speak about their new abilities and to consider how well the tools serve their ultimate purpose.
While colleges should include courses in programming, data visualization and statistics, more students develop digital fluency more quickly and easily when digital tools are integrated throughout the curriculum -- from classical and Near Eastern archaeology to behavioral economics. Digital instruction is most effective when it’s in the service of students’ individual interests and goals.
Digital skills are also learned through many student campus jobs -- as research assistants or IT or library support staff -- and through co-curricular activities in clubs, community service and preprofessional internships. By infusing opportunities to gain digital competencies throughout students’ entire experience, we help students obtain skills in context; learn to use skills in new environments; and practice the inherent interconnectedness of skills and ideas, theories and outcomes. They also analyze digital tools through close examination, challenging assumed ideas and advancing evidence and arguments.
This approach to technology education produces students who are truly prepared for the jobs of tomorrow -- with transferable and flexible digital skills, the ability to understand the best tool for the job, and the knowledge to use and improve those tools thoughtfully and ethically with an understanding of the context where they will be deployed and the people who will use them.
In this transitional age, digital tools, data science, the internet of things, complex social media networks, and virtual and augmented reality generate both innovative practices and distinctive ethical and social issues. While there is a place for short-term technology training to meet immediate workplace needs, we cannot neglect investment in preparing students for the jobs of tomorrow. To close the skills gap in the long term, we need to offer students broad educational opportunities that help them to understand the tools they are using, that support the development of the skills and creative and critical thinking needed for continued innovation, and that empower graduates to influence the ways that these technologies are employed in their fields and communities.