University of Liverpool:

Closing the digital skills gap through student partnership

Three students - one is on a laptop, two are looking at a tablet

The Digital Accelerator Programme at the University of Liverpool works with students as partners to enhance overall learning and professional development.

This case study has been adapted from an article first published in Phoenix, the journal for The Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services (Issue 164, February 2022, page 36).

As part of the OfS's Improving outcomes for local graduates Challenge Competition, the University of Liverpool worked collaboratively with commuter students to deliver internships investigating the digital skills gap in the Liverpool City region, and trained them to deliver digital skills sessions to their peers in a new Digital Coach role.

The aim of the Digital Accelerator Programme was to close the digital skills gap between employer demand and graduate skills. As a high growth area of the economy,1 companies in this sector are central to the growth and prosperity of Liverpool City region.2

A report on Digital Skills for the Northern Powerhouse identified the most pressing issue was to 'target those young people currently at transition points in their education or training, in order to encourage them to choose a path which could lead them into a digital career.'3

By providing training developed with employers, not currently delivered within course curricula, this project sought to upskill and reposition students from a wide range of disciplines into existing local vacancies that required digital skills.

From the outset the project team focused on the type of student partnership they wanted to create. Any student partnership should result in students feeling a stronger sense of belonging to both the university itself and the city they reside. Belonging increases confidence, which in turn increases the likelihood of academic and future success.

There were two stages to the programme.

  1. The team first focused on developing the partnership by creating a community of Digital Coaches, focused on professional practice and digital skills enhancement.
  2. Once in place, partnership delivery was established to support digital skill pedagogy, developing the skills of not just commuter students but the wider student cohort.

For this approach to succeed, it was integral to establish an environment for students that was both comfortable and informative.

The project team communicated regularly with the Digital Coaches, sharing knowledge and facilitating learning via introductory events to enable them to develop friendships and a network, and to provide a platform whereby they could liaise with careers and employability professionals.

The project sought to disrupt the 'boundaries between staff and student identities and roles' and challenge 'traditional hierarchical relationships' (Chambers and Nagle, 2013) to enable transformational learning to take place naturally. Once this environment was established, the Digital Coaches undertook a 12-week training programme with Agent Academy where they carried out their investigative task, met with employers at the forefront of digital in the Liverpool City region, and devised the digital skills sessions that would be delivered to other students.

To instil a sense of belonging and community, the project team located a space at Liverpool Science Park for the Digital Coaches to work, which is near the university campus. Feedback demonstrates that this was a convenient workspace and a suitable place to meet with other Digital Coaches to develop ideas.

Pre- and post-programme survey analysis revealed significant increases in students reporting that they have made meaningful connections during their time at university. Their sense of belonging to a community of students increased by 77 per cent.

Furthermore, there was a 54 per cent increase in students feeling connected to their city community.

The programme has encouraged the Digital Coaches to flourish. The students reported:

  • an increase in diplomacy skills and an increased confidence in approaching employers about job opportunities
  • that the programme has been something that will enable them to gain a graduate position upon completion of their studies
  • that they had gained confidence in liaising with university staff
  • 87 per cent of those asked would be happy to liaise with external organisations.

Skills enhancement for the students participating in the sessions delivered is another major achievement of the programme, with participants reporting a 100 per cent success rate in terms of the content of the sessions being relevant to their digital skills development.

Tracking of participants of the first year of the programme has shown that 100 per cent are now in highly skilled employment, a 25 per cent increase on those students graduating before the programme.

The Digital Accelerator Programme lead to meaningful and unexpected outcomes. Not only did the Digital Coaches build effective partnerships within the framework of the programme, they were also called upon by careers and employability staff to support other initiatives that had a digital and innovative approach to recruitment.

The project has been embedded at the university as business as usual and the students’ contribution is informing future work in this area.

Published 18 September 2023

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