Digital Tools: Building Skills in Higher Education

In recent years, higher education instructors have embraced more digital tools than ever before. Today’s higher education leaders know the importance of incorporating digital tools in their learning and teaching environments.   

During Fierce Education’s recent virtual event Higher Education: Helping Faculty Navigate Top Challenges in This New Blending Learning Environment, the session "Digital Tools: Faculty Case Studies Share Successful Developments," focused on the most successful digital tools that faculty are currently using for accessibility, engagement, and fair course assessment. During this session, Rachel Leatham, Associate Director Carleton College, Career Center, shared with the audience how Carleton College is using technology to reach its students. Leatham used three case studies to demonstrate how they use technology tools as a way to forge connections and help students to build skills.

Leatham began by summarizing the three experiences developed by Carleton to help their students:

  • Software engineer externship: A short program which shows how they used online resources and how they brought students to a learning environment to help them develop their engineering skills
  • Internship reflection program: Generally supports students over the summer on intentional learning. Students focus on different skills and using techniques in different ways
  • Skill building grants: This has been in place for the last three years. It touches on what skills students are learning and how faculty can support them

Next, Leatham presented the following Case Studies based on the three experiences:

Winter Externship: Careers in software engineering, innovation in cohort-based learning environments

“The challenge for Carleton,” said Leatham, “was to help students be more competitive applicants to get jobs where they can apply their liberal arts background, their problem solving skills, and their creativity.

The Winter Experience consists of a two-week experience with 11 students externs, and 16 alumni facilitators and mentors. They would develop a project, build relationships, and articulate skills. “The setting was 100 percent virtual with students participating from all over the country to try to improve their software engineering skills,” Letham explained.

“We used Slack as the collaborative tool. Over the course of 10 days we found we had 886 messages sent over the course of 10 business days between students and alumni, helper to helper, from which 18 percent were in public channels, 37 percent in private channels, and 45 percent in direct messages,” she said.

Using Slack enhanced student support and the way they engaged. “They had no limitations between 8am to 5pm, but they also had support during the night,” Leatham said. Alumni also offered workshops during this experience with one workshop being practicing mock interview questions and how to enhance their resumé, or how to use Ruby on Rails, a web-app framework.

What Carleton learned from this program:

Students were very satisfied. By and large, the majority either agree (45.5%) or strongly agree (36.4%) that they were satisfied with the opportunities they were presented in this externship.

The course received feedback from the participating students. According to Leatham, one of the students said that “practicing the collaborative workflow of a developer, scheduling meetings, meeting deadlines, and troubleshooting as a team was an engaging and rewarding form of connection.”

“We learned from this experience that students want more project-based experience and alumni can be tapped to provide real-world insights and programming,” Leatham said.

The goal was not to develop the most sophisticated app but rather to realize the results they can get when they work together as a team. Students built something for their portfolio and made meaningful connections in the technology world.

Internship Reflection Program: Using technology to create space for reflection and meta-cognition

Last summer, Carleton College was able to support 200 students with funding they received for the program, averaging $35,000 for unfunded or underfunded internship experiences.

Leatham explained this program uses Moodle, a Learning Management System (LMS). Using Moodle@Carleton, the 200 student interns who took part in the experience made 2,375 reflection blog entries in Summer 2023. Students learned how to ask better questions and gained confidence working in teams.

What Carleton learned from this experience:

  • Students ask for and seek out ways to connect with their college community when they are on breaks
  • Active reflection prompts provide depth to enhance meta-cognition 
  • Learning Management Systems/platforms can scale programs while allowing for personalization

Skill-building Grants: Augmenting the Liberal Arts

“This is a new program that we have put in place since Covid,” said Leatham. With an annual gift of $5,000, Carleton was able to fund 60 students over three years taking on skill courses mainly focused in technology (43.4%), followed by medical (22.4%), business (21.1%), humanities (11.8%), and special (1.3%).  

The experience helped students not only to make decisions for their plans after college but also helped in their future job search and industry jobs.

From this experience Carleton learned:

  • Center resources around student choice
  • Be creative with flexible donor funding
  • A little funding can go a long way

Leatham ended her presentation by reflecting on something of great significance that they learned: “Not that much money can make a difference in students' lives.”

For more news from the Fierce Education virtual event, see:

Top Gun Instructor: Engaging Students on all Learning Platforms

School Develop Programs to Raise Student Preparedness Levels

Course Design Strategies for Hybrid and Asynchronous Learning

Overcoming Student Engagement Regardless of Learning Platform