Teaching undergraduates “survival skills for the digital world” #DigitalSkills16

Yesterday I sat on a panel at a conference entitled “digital skills for graduates” held at the Teachers Union in Edinburgh.

Given that graduates and digital skills have been the life blood of Attacat, inevitably I have some views. And having not worked in the Higher Education sector in any major way, it was fun to put over a viewpoint that is unconstrained by reality!

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Here’s the script of my spiel to those charged with developing graduates’ digital skills:

Here’s what I, as an outsider, think you should do: Teach the survival skills for the digital world.


20 years ago I was taught survival skills at uni. I was taught to present, to use stats programs, to research, to use MS Word and Excel, to solve problems, to analyse, to improve, to fend for myself and work with others. These were the skills I used to do a dissertation on glacial melt water chemistry. These are the skills I still use today at work.


But the world has changed. We need more and different survival skills today.


Yes, more degrees in digital marketing and computer science are great but I’m more excited about the use of digital skills across all degree subjects.


20 years ago I was part of the first wave of undergraduates who had to submit assignments on MS Word. I was forced to pick up the digital skill of the day to get my geography degree. However, things have moved on. At Attacat we’ve banned MS Word and we are steadily moving away from email!


I’d like to see programming as a skill that is required by all students to get their degrees in any subject. I sense that day is not too far off
and this is what I mean by a survival skill for the digital world. But there are more.


There’s no reason why Deep learning/AI tools should not be being used by psychology undergrads. Persuasion techniques should be taught to physics students to help them get their points across. The economic shift caused by the Internet should be being taught to history students etc, business grads should be taught to leverage open data. Projects should be done as global collaborations not with friends on your course. Students should be using online freelancer sites to get parts of their projects done. Engineers need to be using robots to get things done. We are all going to need to use software bots to get things done and so on.


This is what I mean by developing digital survival skills.

What I didn’t go on to say, due to time, is that I suspect universities often feel behind business on such things. I don’t think that is the case. Yes, bleeding edge businesses are using the digital skills I mentioned on a day to day basis but most businesses aren’t anywhere near this yet.

When I first went into the world of work, the Windows environment I’d used at uni was ahead of the DOS-based environment I was expected to be able to use in the workplace. I firmly believe further education in non-digital subjects can and should push business on digital skills in the workplace.

The panel discussion also talked about employers’ expectations about “graduates needing to be able to hit the ground running”. I questioned that. I think that applies in vocational disciplines but not across the board. I summed this up as “I have plenty of time to teach people digital marketing. What I don’t have time to do is to teach them to read, write, communicate and develop the much discussed “mindset”.”

Peter Pringle from West College Scotland said to me afterwards. “What you are really saying is “You [further education establishments] do the life skills, we’ll [businesses] do the rest”. I think that sums it up nicely! Thank you Peter.

What do you think? Should the education system be updated to not only teach “life skills” but “digital life skills” to keep up with our ever changing world? We’d love to hear your take on the idea below!

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