Alasdair White, as part of his portfolio of academic and publishing activities, has taught undergraduate business studies students for the last twelve years. His courses are behavioural and focus on doing business in an increasingly hyper-connected and ICT dependent world.

As the second annual European e-Skills Week comes to end, it is interesting to reflect on some of the learning points that have come out of the various discussions around the subject. One such point should be phrased as a major question: are we actually ensuring that young people have the ICT and e-skills that they really need to obtain, hold and succeed in a job in the current business world?

Based on my twelve years experience of teaching undergraduate business studies students, I feel that the answer is (a) on the whole, no we are not, and (b) we should be doing a lot more.

In a recent article for the New European, John Vassallo, vice president for EU affairs at Microsoft, wrote: “Right now there are 5.5 million young people under the age of 25 who are unemployed. In Europe the youth unemployment rate has just reached a historic high at 22.4% … Not only does this concern low-skilled young people having left school early, but there are more and more university graduates who also cannot secure work.” This, of course, raises all sorts of issues about the curriculum in schools, colleges and universities but when a recent finding by the IDC (International Data Corporation – a research unit) that 90% of all jobs will require technology skills by 2015 is added to the mix, we have a point of focus: we need to do more to ensure that pupils and students have the ICT knowledge and e-skills needed for the real world. As Vassallo adds, “…the digital competencies that we associate with the young generation, for instance when using a phone application or social networking site like Facebook, are very different to the ICT skills in demand for getting a job in 2012 and beyond.” (my emphasis)

Surprisingly, students enrolling on undergraduate business studies courses are often woefully under-skilled in terms of ICT – they are absolute “wizz-kids” when it comes to browsers and social networking sites (and their smartphones), but they have no idea how to use simple office efficiency tools such as word-processing, spreadsheets and presentations … and data base programs, organiser programs and non-web-based email programs are completely beyond them! They all know how “to google” (yes, it has become a verb!) but they have no idea of how to select reliable websites, obtain reliable data or seek out the nuggets of value amongst the millions of pages of utter dross that make up the bulk of the worldwide web. We forget at our peril that any damn fool can publish any damn rubbish they want on the web – and they often do. In years of doing internet-based research, I have come across more ‘random thoughts of empty minds’ than any one should be subjected to. But don’t get me wrong, I am not calling for editing or censorship, or indeed anything in a regulatory form, but rather I am calling for pupils and students to be taught the basic skills and then for the educational institutions to embed those skills aggressively.

At present, by the time I see the first year undergraduates, they have already done a complete semester, they are supposed to have written at least one researched report and one academic essay  (and probably many more than that) but when they start my programme (ICT in a Business Environment), I find that they do not know how to layout or format a page, to select or change fonts and font sizes, to insert headers and footers (or even know what they are) or to use a spell-checker. They have no idea how to under take useful research, offering citations and referencing is beyond them (and so the risk of plagiarism is high), cut-and-paste is their modus operandi (huge risk of plagiarism), and Wikipedia their only thought. When it comes to spreadsheets (a much more complex program) they do not have the intellectual logic processes for data entry, the use of formulas is beyond them, and making charts becomes a revelation (and, for many, a real joy!)

Then there is another issue: the fashion amongst students is to buy an Apple laptop of some description, whereas in the business world probably 90-95% of all computers operate on Windows (and usually something ‘old’ like Windows XP). This means that the students are faced with knowing how to use two different operating systems and probably four different versions of the application program – and a growing number prefer to use the free OpenOffice suit. This makes the arbitrary use of something like Microsoft Office Specialist certification something of a major risk – and to impose this compulsorily is to both disadvantage many and to become a sales agent for Microsoft.

My approach is to use a combination of online e-training programs (thank you, Microsoft) and hands-on practice in a face-to-face learning situation to address the knowledge deficiency in the use of the applications, and a different set of e-training programs and a different face-to-face learning situation to teach research skills. Although I know this works, I find it hard to believe that this sort of skills training is appropriate at undergraduate university level – surely this sort of basic skills training should be provided at school, or, at the least, as a pre-university foundation course. Unfortunately, such skills training at schools is still an exception and we simply cannot afford to carry on this way – digital skills and ICT skills and even online research skills must become central to the current shifting educational paradigm to ensure that we are equipping pupils and students with the access skills needed for jobs in the digital age.

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