How to prepare tomorrow’s workforce? Focus less on devices and more on digital thinking

Improving a person’s digital literacy can help them work, think and communicate more effectively in a world driven by technology innovation, notes the CIO at Clemson University. And it all starts by re-thinking traditional approaches to education.

Mastery of technology skills + knowledge.
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Talk to any CIO or IT leader today and they will universally point to one problem facing nearly every organization: Finding and keeping qualified technical people.

A few years ago, roughly 64,000 students graduated from U.S. colleges and universities with a Bachelor’s degree in computer science, with about 20% of that number being female, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. By some estimates, however, there are as many as 500,000 open computing positions available in the U.S., a number that is expected to grow at twice the rate as other jobs in the U.S., notes Bureau of Labor Statistics growth projections. Clearly there is not enough supply to meet an increasing demand for technical talent.

One reason for this technology-talent shortage may be that traditional higher-education curricula and programs are still based on traditional approaches to learning, rather than transitioning and promoting digital literacy across the entire curriculum. Today’s learning does not necessarily align with the realities of today’s digital world. While students may use their devices every day and are comfortable using the technology, they are not totally prepared when they leave a college or university and walk out into today’s workplace because of the lack of digital literacy in current education programs.

Why is this the case? In most liberal arts institutions, students are situated in a brick-and-mortar, face-forward teaching environment that says, “read this book, do this essay, or submit this paper. In their own personal lives, they are digital natives, using an iPhone and technology to do just about everything – from communicating to ordering food. They must push that world aside, however, to conform to teaching methods and teachers that are not digitally literate.

The solution is not just to introduce more digital devices and technical training  into a classroom to get faculty and students to think more digitally about what they are doing, but to improve their overall digital literacy or ability to live, work, think and communicate in a society that is driven by the Internet, social media, mobile devices and other digital technologies. In short, change the education and learning formula to be more closely aligned with the demands of today’s digital world.

Pitching a tent for digital literacy

Earlier this year, Clemson University took a first step towards a solution by launching its ‘Big Tent’ Digital Literacy Initiative, which is a collaboration between Clemson IT and academics to create and support campus-wide digital literacy programs, including credited courses that look at how digital techniques and electronic texts change patterns of reading and comprehension. The initiative was launched with four major objectives in mind:

  1. Create positive impacts for research and learning through innovation in digital literacies.
  2. Encourage creative and critical thinking to drive smart innovation.
  3. Develop an innovation environment that includes both faculty and students.
  4. Develop an agile, university-wide ‘collaboratory’ to invent new skills and literacies for a digital world.

The effort is also designed to foster industry partnerships with companies like Adobe, whose creative tools are widely used at the university and played a key role in the launch of the digital literacy program. In fact, the idea initiative came about when the university started using the Adobe product line to produce creative content.

While most of Clemson’s digital literacy ‘early adopters’ have come from the humanities departments, there are more and more students from the computer science and engineering tracks as well. The objective is to teach everyone to think more visually and digitally in terms of the tools that can be used to produce content, such as the 3D printers that are available across the campus. As a result, graduates are more attractive to businesses who are more likely to hire someone who is more creative, has a variety of presentation skills, and more effective in what they can bring to the table from a learning management standpoint. According to Gartner, by 2020 the greatest source of competitive advantage for over 30% of organizations will come from the workforce's ability to creatively exploit digital technologies. (GARTNER 2018)

The next step in the initiative is to move from thinking digitally to creating and delivering digital products. To do this, we plan to give everyone a basic understanding and capability to develop applications by making coding a core part of the digital literacy framework. This does not mean one needs to take a deep dive into data analytics, but rather understanding at that top layer how you can access and bring data together to make it meaningful and express yourself differently.

Enhancements and growth objectives on the radar for Clemson’s digital literacy initiative include:

  • Establishing partnerships with private organizations to help guide the further development and evolution of the program. I don’t pretend to know all the answers, so I want to work with companies and individuals as stakeholder representatives. In this respect, relationships with Adobe and Apple are key and why we are having conversations with other companies like AT&T and Splunk, Inc.
  • Expanding the scope and objectives of the digital literacy program from its initial core and thinking creatively to better prepare individuals to weather the shift in the workforce driven by such emerging technologies as artificial and cognitive intelligence. You are at risk of losing your job if it is utility-based and you can’t cross that bridge and deal with dynamic changing environments. Being digitally literate can prepare you for opportunities that were previously not there.
  • Integrating aspects of digital literacy competencies into the more traditional college curriculum across the campus. For example, promote and teach the basics of data analytics and its potential and pair that with courses and faculty-run discussions on corporate ethics. You could have that kind of literacy conversation you never thought possible before, and what student would not be engaged in that without even realizing they’re becoming more digitally literate at the same time?

The key thing to remember for any college or university interested in duplicating Clemson’s digital literacy program is that it’s not about the technology. Technology can support and drive creativity and innovation, but it’s really encouraging and motivating people, changing the culture, achieving buy-in from IT and the administration, and building effective teams - all of those things that everybody told us from a leadership perspective we should be doing but many of us just haven’t done.

While it’s very simplistic in nature, it does take hard work to make it happen. It's also worthwhile, because if you do not move in this direction then the risk is that you and everyone else you engage with in traditional higher education curricula may eventually become irrelevant.

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Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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