Nurturing Digital Skills in Further Education

The following is a guest post written by Gerald Haigh.

Microsoft works with partners and colleges to improve employability among job seekers. Microsoft technologies, globally respected and used, are the heart of this, and selected colleges will assume leadership and become exemplars, by becoming Microsoft Associate Colleges within the global Microsoft Showcase School Programme. Some colleges in UK are already making significant strides in the drive for transformation.


Employability is a concern across the whole of education. For the further education and skills sector, however, it is key focus, a driver of strategy and a measure of overall performance. As a result, successful colleges make sure they are continuously aware of the qualities which employers look for in job-seekers.

Unsurprisingly, according to research by the International Data Corporation (IDC) the top requirement is for good communication skills – applicants who can express themselves confidently and well in writing and speech. Close behind, though, come digital skills, which will include, for example, competence and experience with business software, confidence with the internet and awareness of e-safety. None of that should be out of reach, and yet a recent report from the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee opens with the words,

‘The evidence is clear that the UK faces a digital skills crisis.’

The report goes on to report that some 12.6 million UK adults lack the basic digital skills which are required in 90 percent of jobs. Even more telling is the fact that nearly three out of four employers (72percent) will not even interview applicants who lack basic IT skills. Other research, from the point of view of the young people themselves, tells us that fully half of them are not convinced that post-16 education has helped them to find a job,

So what’s to be done?

Microsoft believe that they have a particular role to play in improving employability for post-16 learners. This is because when digital skills are mentioned in the context of job recruitment the name of Microsoft comes up first. In fact, according to that same IDC research, Microsoft Office is listed as a required skill by employers five times more frequently than all other software programs combined. Microsoft Word and PowerPoint are also prominent among employers’ preferences.

The advent of the Microsoft Cloud, and of Office 365, which achieves the feat of being both a suite of separate applications and also an integrated, all-embracing, cost-effective cloud-based learning resource, have materially improved both accessibility and ease of use to high quality, globally respected enterprise resources. The impact on the level of digital skills among job applicants will inevitably be significant over time.

Perhaps the most significant of Microsoft’s innovations in this area is their drive to support the concept of a ‘holistic’ approach to IT – working with colleges to bring the curriculum and the whole of the learning environment in line with business needs and the employability agenda. This means taking digital competence beyond its specialist niche and disseminating it across all staff and all curriculum subjects. So if, for example, in any class -- childcare, stage costume, mathematics, any of the dozens in a college handbook – learners and lecturers will ideally be using Microsoft technology, usually elements of Office 365,  to support teaching and learning. By doing that, learners will not only achieve more efficient mastery of their subject, but become doubly more employable by significantly improving their digital skills and knowledge. Staff and learners can then be encouraged to take, within their college, any of a number of Microsoft certified qualifications, all of which are globally recognised and respected, thereby improving their employability even further.

It doesn’t stop there, either. Digital competence also supports those numerous ‘soft skills’ sought by employers and reported by the IDC research. These include, as well as the all-important written and oral communication, qualities such as ‘detail orientated’, ‘self-starting’, and ‘problem solving’. All of these, though not obviously or necessarily digital, are materially supported and improved by the proper use of 21st century technology, which is built around collaboration, initiative, data analysis and creative risk-taking. A bonus for the college which works in this way is that it gains best value from its IT infrastructure – quite simply making it work hard for its living.

Microsoft Associate Colleges

The best way for a college to take full advantage of its relationship with Microsoft and Microsoft products is through the Microsoft Associate College Programme. This is a part of the already well-established Showcase School Programme, and requires the institution to demonstrate a wide range of practice and commitment to 21st Century learning making full use of Microsoft technologies. In the case of a college, this includes showing leadership in extending the approach to private and public educational institutions across their region. In return, they gain significantly from membership of a global, Microsoft-supported, community of innovative and successful educational institutions.


Among colleges which are already on this path are Derby College, Liverpool College, Cardiff & Vale College, Walsall College, South & City College Birmingham, Accrington & Rossendale College, The College of West Anglia and Kirklees College. More than 20 Colleges across England and Wales are working to become Microsoft Associate Colleges

Derby College is one of a number, strategically placed across the country, which are working with their region’s Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) and Microsoft partner Risual to deliver Microsoft Academy content to learners. Ian McCormick, IT Director at Derby College, says,

‘Embedding digital skills into the classroom provides learners with key employability and functional skills. What we are doing is trying to make learners work-ready – not just training for the vocation but for tools like the Microsoft Office suite that will touch every person.’

The process of embedding technology in the classroom at Derby College involves creating Microsoft Certified Educator champions – currently there are 25 who, says, Ian,

‘…will start to create the necessary content and cascade it across the workforce.’

At the same time, the college’s data centre is being optimised to make use of the efficiencies within Microsoft Azure.

At The City of Liverpool College, their status as the first UK Associate College was announced on 27 June 2016. It’s been journey of hard work and creative endeavour; one notable development has been their innovative ‘classroom of the future’ concept. This involves creating technology rich, flexible, colourful ‘smart classrooms’, using Office 365 and equipped with Microsoft Surface devices, a large screen, and with space for a number of technology-based activities to take place at the same time. The plan is to increase the number of smart classrooms, progress based on feedback as the whole project develops. One important feature is the level and sophistication of feedback on use of the room, which involves the use of Microsoft technology for tracking the movement of students within the room, and also enabling students to use touchscreens to report on their reactions to lessons. Alasdair Redmond, Group Chief Information Officer at the college says,

‘This is an agile project, and we’re trying to focus on what data we can and should gather, that will influence the learning.’

There are currently two smart classrooms, with more to follow, all acting as testbeds, exemplars and training facilities for staff, students and visiting groups from within the region. As is so often the case with such developments, the difficult part is to bring all academic staff on board, moving out from pockets of excellence.

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‘It’s a challenge across the whole sector,’ says Alasdair, ‘A different way of interacting with students that blurs the boundary between classroom and online learning.’

What will undoubtedly help here is that the smart classroom project has proved popular with students, and attendance and engagement have improved as a result. One of many student reactions reads,

‘The environment is more of a working area and it makes us want to work and the innovation of the connecting hub between the display and the keyboard is excellent.’

The implication is that less adventurous staff will find themselves being pushed by learners. Amanda Parker, Head of Innovation at Liverpool College Group reports that the smart classroom project…

‘ .. continues to be truly groundbreaking work, with the development of this prototype by the City Of Liverpool College Group and Microsoft , being the only one of its kind in the UK.’

Alasdair explains that moving to Associate College status has also involved ‘backroom’ improvements.

‘We’ve made changes to our infrastructure, moving some services to the Azure Cloud which will bring efficiencies and cost savings – we’ve seen a tremendous amount of change in just over a year.’


The recommendations of the Further Education Learning Technology Group (FELTAG) are centred on the need for institutions to make better use of technology for learning. This agenda is always on the radar of innovative colleges. At the same time, it’s fair to say that the main priority of these colleges is to improve the learning experience of their students rather than simply to tick FELTAG boxes. As Jisc write in ‘The Evolution of FELTAG’,

‘Research has shown that students respond favourably to authentic, meaningful digital activities that are linked to or directly embedded in their learning and assessment, especially if those activities are relevant to their future employment ambitions.’

This aim, of course, is directly reflected in the purpose and structure of Microsoft’s Associate College Programme.


Colleges like Derby and City of Liverpool, working with Microsoft, a range of Microsoft  partners and Jisc are at the cutting edge of real transformation in the post-16 sector. As a result we will begin to see a generation of confident and empowered young school leavers, more opportunities for employers to realise their plans and, ultimately, a real boost to the national economy.

Further Reading:

Evolution of FELTAG:

Commons Select Committee Report, June 2016:

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