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Microsoft Industry Blogs - United Kingdom

I was lucky enough to spend my placement year at Microsoft, experiencing first-hand how the company helps organisations to achieve more. I learnt more than I thought possible, and developed a brand new set of skills. Armed with those new skills and an appreciation for the world that greets me when I graduate, I have returned to university life thinking about how it is preparing me for that reality.

The worlds of study and work have changed

I’m in the final year of my degree, an overwhelming time of assignments and group projects, with a 10,000 word dissertation looming over me. But if I ever dare mention my student life stresses to my dad, he can’t help but remind me how different things were during his Computer Science degree in the 80s. It’s almost impossible to imagine how different student life was back then – no PowerPoint, no recorded lectures to watch back. And if you were writing an essay, you had to go to the library and actually read the books.

I’ll need a different set of skills than previous generations

When I (hopefully!) graduate, I’m going to be greeted by a very different workplace than my dad was. My closest colleagues may be based across the Atlantic, almost everything I do will be a collaborative effort rather than an individual essay. I’ll be on a constant learning journey where knowledge can become outdated in a matter of months.

With this in mind, it got me thinking about the extent that my university is equipping me with the digital skills I need to thrive in this ever-changing world of work.

University study mimics workplace reality

Visit any undergraduate lecture and you’ll be greeted by rows of laptops. Pen and paper are in the minority, with students preferring to take notes digitally. I recently bought a Surface Go for this purpose – small enough to carry around campus and perfect for taking notes. They’re organised in OneNote, with hyperlinks to videos, articles or books that my lecturer mentions. My Surface travels with me from lectures and seminars, to the library and to my desk at home.

College student using Surface Book

Work-wise, some students prefer to set up station in the library from 9am-5pm, others prefer to work into the evening from home, or fit their studies around a part-time job.

University is strong on collaboration – not simply how to work in a team, but how to collaborate on a project effectively when meeting in person is a challenge. Students may have group calls via Skype, set up a Teams page or work on a shared document together.

Combined, our use of technology, flexible working and collaboration mimics the workplace that I witnessed on my placement year. In that sense, I think university gives students both the digital and work-related skills needed to transition effectively.

What could be done better?

There are some ways I feel universities could further develop the digital skills of their students. To me, these skills aren’t simply about learning how best to use the available tools, but about empowering students to think creatively around the future of the technology which will shape our lives.

We are undoubtedly experiencing the fourth industrial revolution, with predictions that 85% of the jobs that will exist in 2030 aren’t invented yet. So to what extent are graduates ready for this world?

I would argue that this is where universities could do more:

  • Teaching people of all abilities to code

Coding is now taught at primary school, using simple devices like the BBC Micro:bit. My generation has missed out on that provision, so could find themselves being at a disadvantage. Everyone should have the opportunity to learn to code, with free courses offered to every student regardless of degree.

  • Bringing technology into career discussions

All universities have a careers service. But to what extent is the fourth industrial revolution and digital skills embedded into the advice they are giving? Students should leave university with an awareness of how AI is going to change the world of work and ensure that the path they are taking is future-proofed.

  • Nurturing soft skills like creativity

Students are assessed at every stage of our academic journey, from Year Six SATs, to GCSEs and A levels. University is a continuation of that, so we’re really, really good at passing exams. The real world isn’t like that. It values innovation, creativity and individuality. Universities need to ensure that despite the need for assessments, they are producing a generation of people who aren’t afraid to think differently. My generation is going to be responsible for trying to solve a range of the world’s most complex issues where there is no correct answer – we’ll need to be creative.

In my experience, universities are creating students equipped with the digital skills they need to thrive in the modern workplace. However, I think universities need to go beyond that and empower their students with creativity, innovation and problem-solving skills so they have the best chance possible of thriving amongst the fourth industrial revolution and beyond.

Find out more

5 steps to embed digital skills development into schools, colleges, and universities

About the author

a woman smiling for the cameraKatie is, a 22 year old student at the University of Bath. She spent my placement year at Microsoft as a Technical Account Manager. Since then, she’s now returned to University, armed with new digital skills to help her navigate student life more effectively. Katie is fascinated by the future of higher education and how universities can prepare students for an ever-changing world of work. She is passionate about promoting women in STEM and empowering young women to consider a future in technology.