Why We Need to Teach Marketable Digital Skill Sets in Higher Education

I have taught at the college level for over a decade now, and though it may be bold to say as a pre-tenure faculty member: we need to do better when it comes to teaching marketable digital skill sets. The current global economy is becoming increasingly digital, meaning that key business processes are now being conducted online. Consumers are using Internet technologies to research product information, share news about their favorite brands, make purchases, and even launch their own small businesses as part of the emerging “sharing economy.”

An image of the Facebook icon with a college graduation hood on it; Published as part "Why we need to teach marketable, digital skill sets in higher education"

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Allow Me To Define What I Mean By “Marketable Digital Skill Sets”

By “marketable,” I mean: yes, as college educators, we should be paying attention to industry trends. We should be attending industry-based conferences, working in collaboration with people who are working in non-educational contexts, and doing everything in our power to stay abreast of current trends in the economy.

I’m certainly not saying none of us in higher education currently do this. Many of us do this, but we need to do it more, and in greater numbers. In fact: this should be the entire purpose of higher education, or one main purpose. We should be in the business of getting people jobs.

As I’ve written elsewhere, however, there are serious obstacles to making higher education about getting people jobs. A process as simple as creating a new class or major is currently so bureaucratic and difficult at most institutions, that many educators, including myself, end up folding new skill sets into existing classes, rather than attempting to add new classes in topic areas that aren’t well-understood by administrators and other decision-makers.

At the same time, nothing stops us from doing exactly this. Have a Shakespeare class to teach? Why not teach students a marketable skill set in connection with Shakespeare, such as by having them design simple websites about Shakespeare using open source technologies like WordPress? Teaching math? Why not teach some coding? Don’t have any of those skill sets yourself? Why not partner with a member of a local company, or a neighboring educational institution, who does?

We need to be solution-oriented if we are to change the culture of higher education in a manner that benefits students more directly. This change will not be easy, but it is necessary if we are to fulfill our obligation to produce engaged, critical, productive professionals who are competitive in the current economy.

What Are Some Marketable Digital Skill Sets We Could Teach?

This will vary a lot based on the major, and field, from which educators originate. In my own field of technical communication, emerging skill sets like UX, content strategy, and digital marketing are the skill sets I’m currently focusing on in my research and teaching, as they are the ones that recent graduates of my program tend to leverage to get jobs.

Students are often the best people to ask what they need to learn, especially students nearing graduation. I ask students all the time what skill sets are cropping up in the job ads they’re researching. When a graduate is successful at landing a great job, I also interview that person to see what was most important to their success.

The biggest way I stay abreast of trends in the job market connected to my field, however, is: I go to industry-sponsored conferences. I try to alternate my conferences. I go to an academic conference and then I go to an industry conference.

This is not easy to do. The rates of many industry conferences are prohibitive for educators, especially since our travel budgets haven’t kept up with current travel rates. Like searching for discount flights on big travel sites, however, I look for deals. I have also been moderately successful at developing partnerships with members of industry who submit collaborative presentations with me in exchange for paying my way if we get accepted.

Again: let’s propose solutions, not more problems. Higher education is a space in which many people, from many different walks of life, discover their professional selves. We owe it to our students to at least keep an eye on market trends attached to our own fields.