Digital skills – raising aspirations?

In a recent blogpost my colleague Lisa Harris presented an overview of the idea of the ‘digital native’, that is, someone who has grown up with the technology and uses it proficiently and naturally [How competent are new students with technology (really),].  In the post, she shows that while there is some evidence for the existence of the digital native student, there is quite as much against.  She highlights that Bennett, Maton and Kevin (2008) consider that ‘it may be that there is as much variation within the digital native generation as between the generations’ (p779).

Indeed in our everyday experience (we work together in  the University of Southampton’s School of Management) we find many students, both postgraduate and undergraduate, who are quite weak in technology skills and reluctant to engage with new learning styles based around, say, social media. Underneath this debate, informal conversations with undergraduate students worry me – they seem at times to reveal an over-confidence in their skills (perhaps fuelled by the digital native discourse) that may not be justified in a fast-changing world where the use of social media and mobile communications is changing what is needed.  If universities are to respond to this, and support our students in their efforts to meet the needs of the job market, we need to be clear about what is meant by digital competence.  With that in mind, reflecting on all the conversations I produced the categorisation below:

Passives Creators Disruptors
Use email, access information on internet

Register accounts on eg flickr, twitter, FB, but little use beyond reading or storage of limited amount of info

Use non-smart mobile phone, talk, text, photo

Watch youtube, tv, download mp3

Access digg, delicious

Use realtime webcam

Play simple games, maybe online with others

Build collections of links on sites such as Digg, Delicious

Create video, picture, sound file, upload to youtube, twitter, flickr

Use FB for social events largely among existing friends

Use Smart phone, maybe download games

Participate in distributed games such as World of Warcraft

Keep blog and update regularly

Use social media to develop new activities,

maybe with people outside their existing sphere of influence

Main space of professional/personal identity is online, rigorously maintained

Build new games

Look out for new applications and technological developments

In short, passives are quite adept with using technology to acquire and re-present information and communicate with others, using mobile phones, or sites such as Facebook.  Essentially they consume the outputs of others.  And they may do this very efficiently and effectively, although their usage tends to be largely at the individual level – they join and use group, but again not very proactively.  Creators however take things a little further – they produce material, perhaps uploading videos, soundfiles, acquire collections of bookmarks and perhaps keep a (regularly updated) blog.  They are more active users of say, Facebook, perhaps using it to organise events, rather than just tag along.  They may well network actively online, but largely among existing friendsDisruptors are the most skilled, defined by their maintenance of a strong online personal identity; they may download applications to smartphones, develop new activities as a result, and use social media to bring in contacts and resources from outside their sphere of existing influence.

Experience suggests that there may be a pyramid here, with most students falling into the passive category, and only a few  aspiring to be disruptors. I would very much like to continue my research on this topic!!  What is worrying is that those in the passive category may consider themselves to be quite skilled.  This needs to be challenged if students are going to impress employers.  Just this Tuesday, I flew back from Guernsey sitting next to a guy from one of the town’s leading accountancy firms.  As we compared our views on the performance of our Blackberry Bold phones (yeah, I know) it was clear that he was expected as part of his everyday job to be able to download, and use new applications on a smartphone – this is not tomorrow in business, this is not for technologists, this is NOW.  We owe it to our students to take this agenda forward.  I’ll finish with a quote from Lisa, as I really couldn’t have put it better myself,

“At a time when universities face criticism for declining standards and graduate unemployment is at record levels, producing individuals with the skills, time and confidence to navigate and manage the online environment is increasingly important. Such students will stand out from the crowd by gaining access to new career opportunities, finding niche or potentially global audiences for their work, or enriching the lives of others. Those who do not display such initiative risk being marginalised or left behind.”


Bennett, S., Maton, K. and Kervin, L.(2008) The ‘digital natives’ debate: A critical review of the evidence, British Journal of Educational Technology 39/5 775-786

Harris, L. J., Warren, L., Leah, J. H. and Ashleigh, M. J. A. (2009), Small steps across the chasm: ideas for embedding a culture of open education in the university sector, OpenEd2009, August, Vancouver

This entry was posted in academic, digital economy, digital skills, emergence, emerging technologies, entrepreneurship, innovation, publication, social media, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Digital skills – raising aspirations?

  1. Mike says:

    What I find interesting is that the vast majority of all users are consumers of content, i.e passives. Why is there this concern that this pattern follows down through the generations. People seem worreid that young people aren’t all creators or disruptors, when the rest of the population isn’t either.

    If 1% of the population is meant to produce the content, why would that figure change for younger people. The underlying psychology behing content creation is still the same; even if content creation is easier, if people don’t want to share, they won’t.

  2. Pingback: Twitted by monkchips

  3. Lisa says:

    Indeed – many people are “passives”, whatever their age. Younger people are just as likely to be “passive” as older ones – but at least this group is starting to engage. What about the group (of all ages!) that’s not even got that far? There was a sobering comment tweeted yesterday in the conversation around the upcoming ALT-C event – how do we engage people in topical debates when they don’t even realise there IS a debate, because it takes place online…and they’re not there…

Comments are closed.