Skip to content
The UK's only independent think tank devoted to higher education.

Your Ideal Digitally Capable Higher Education Student: Reflections from a transition to Higher Education Workshop

  • 7 December 2023
  • By Nurun Nahar

In today’s rapidly evolving digital landscape, higher education institutions (HEI) increasingly recognise the importance of preparing students to thrive in a technology-driven world. As higher education practitioners, it is crucial to draw a comparison between our expectations of an ideal digitally capable student and the reality of students’ digital capabilities. 

Digitally capable student: What does it mean in a HE Context?

HEIs emphasise the cultivation of digital capabilities among students, envisioning them as future leaders equipped to leverage technology for societal progress. However, the reality often falls short of this expectation. The COVID-19 pandemic was a testament to evidence this discrepancy, highlighting the inequalities related to not only the digital divide in relation to unequal access to technical resources but also the ‘new digital divide’ with respect to differing levels of digital skills in learners as well as educators (Laufer et al., 2021).

In the aftermath of COVID-19 pandemic, as more and more HEIs have been expanding online and in digital provision to offer greater flexibility to students’ learning needs as surveyed by The Student Futures Commission, this accelerated transition to a digital learning diaspora did not correspond with a shift in attitude to support digital skills in students as staff. Rapid development in and adoption of new technologies such as Generative Artificial Intelligence and machine learning, have exacerbated the challenges in more complex ways for UK HEIs as the digital transferable skills that graduates will need to apply for jobs in a decade from now, are not being systematically taught across the sector.

In a Times Higher Education article titled ‘ Digital Literacy in the UK’, Phil Baty emphasised‘‘ Universities must be at the centre of this national movement to create the next generation of highly skilled, adaptable, innovative, and digitally literate graduates entering the workforce’’. This highlights the need for HEIs to critically review what it means to them when they think about an ideal digitally literate or capable higher education student not just in the context of current technological advancements but also technological disruptions that are yet to happen in the future. The article further suggests, to truly cultivate students’ digital capabilities, HEIs should go beyond merely teaching technical operations of emerging digital tools. Students should be offered immersive, all-encompassing training that nurtures versatility in skills, attitudes, and ethics, enabling them to critically apply cognitive skills for effective communication, problem-solving, and innovation using digital tools.

To nurture a ‘digitally capable student’ in higher education requires a multifaceted approach that spans students, staff, and institutional strategies. It demands taking a collaborative approach rather than a siloed effort. As higher education embraces trends such as online learning, AI integration, and immersive technologies, the suggestions below may support their strategies for fostering digital capabilities in students whilst addressing the digital skills gap at a more nuanced level.

Nurturing a digitally capable student: The way forward

HEIs must develop robust support services that cater to students’ diverse digital upskilling needs. Achieving the vision of a ‘digitally capable higher education student’ should be strategically led to ensure a coordinated effort across departments and service centres. Some examples of this kind of approach include:

Administering Pre-Arrival Questionnaires: To assess the digital skills gap, institutions can administer pre-arrival questionnaires to incoming students. These surveys can include measurement items that will help determine students’ digital literacy proficiency levels and access to technology. Based on the results, tailored support plans can be developed to personalise individual learning needs in students to address the digital skills gap. Pre-arrival questionnaires, as exemplified in a case study from Leeds Beckett University, can be a useful way to offer directed support to learners transitioning from further education to higher education.

Student digital champions: these initiatives seen in some universities such as Plymouth University offer students an opportunity to develop their own agency while working alongside staff to support students in the use of technologies and promote digital literacies. It can open opportunities for student-staff partnership collaborations to co-create resources and facilitate skills development sessions for an improved digital learning experience. It helps foster a culture where staff and students actively contribute to co-shaping digital capabilities initiatives.

Simultaneously, institutions should take a scaffolded approach to ensure the nurturing of digital capabilities is integrated at every step of the educational journey, from orientation to graduation. To effectively engage with trends like personalised learning and analytics, students need more than just technical skills; they require adaptable mindsets and problem-solving abilities. Mechanisms that help embed digital literacy development and assessment opportunities throughout the curriculum, and where these skills are assessed progressively, would ensure students are exposed to increasingly complex digital challenges as they advance through their studies and are preparing themselves in line with the rapidly evolving technological landscape.

Offering micro-credential courses that are tailored to up-skill digital capabilities in students in the context of their curriculum discipline, as they progress in their academic studies can be a useful way to align digital literacy skills development with new and emergent technologies that are transforming the employment sector. These short and focused courses as exemplified by Abertay University, can be either credit-bearing or non-credit bearing, aligned to a digital capabilities advancing framework (see JISC) and embedded in a staggered way across an academic programme, to allow students to acquire generic as well as subject-specific digital capabilities in a holistic way. It can ensure graduates are adequately prepared with digital transferrable skills to meet the demands of the 21st-century workforce.

Redefining a digitally capable student is now more important than ever if HEIs are to achieve technological agility and stay ahead of key technological trends shaping the digital transformation landscape in various sectors. Perhaps taking a collaborative sector-wide approach to define strategic pathways, can help HEIs develop and nurture digitally capable students and graduates who can leverage digital tools and technologies to maximise opportunities presented by the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The importance of cultivating adaptability and a growth mindset also extends to staff. Instructors and administrators must be open to continuous learning and experimentation to adapt and redesign curriculum, as the technological revolution continually introduces new tools and pedagogical approaches.

Get our updates via email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.


  1. John Bird says:

    Is the technology driven world new? Obviously not! So why conflate the current technologically driven world with computer-based technologies. The dangers associated with this conflation are that we forget the benefits of older technologies and tend to suggest forms of technological determinism in which technologies develop outside the social world and become irresistible

  2. It’s interesting to see that the phrase ‘critical thinking’ appears prominently in the word-cloud but I don’t think it appears in the blog itself.

    The idea of critical thinking has long been central to the Western idea of higher education (tho more honoured in the breach than in the observance!) but (a) it is surely waning in policy and in practice and (b) it is more necessary than ever.

    Here is a case in point – the digital age. What does it mean for a student to be critical when any text – written, visual, aural – has to be suspect and there is no way of checking its authenticity or provenance? I have yet to see this matter addressed seriously.

    That reluctance is explicable (tho I cannot go into that here) but the danger is that we consign students to be not just extensions of machines but extensions of machines that are themselves being manipulated. (The great corporations that are making money out of these IT engines are not operating in the interests of higher education.)

    Surely this matter – of what it is to receive a ‘higher’ education in a Chatbot age – has yet to be properly addressed. And unless and until it is, grave dangers are emerging.

    Ron Barnett
    [email protected]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *