A compassionate approach to digital needs (WAS-up)

Published by Caroline Carlin on

Author: Sam Pywell – Principal Lecturer: Social Prescribing Unit Coordinator at the University of Central Lancashire

With the new academic term upon us, the case for a more compassionate approach to conversations of student and staff digital needs, is placed contextually in our world of rising costs, climate anxiety and barriers to learning.

On achieving Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy (FHEA), and supporting colleagues in a digital development coach role last year, it continues to fascinate me how both student and staff needs can fall under these three areas – rather than the fallacy that they only need digital skills training.

Asking these questions in this order, reframes the challenges students can face with a compassionate, social equity lens. With learners who respond more to questions about what they feel – rather than what they think about a digital task or activity being asked of them, it is possible to go deeper into the root cause of challenges and barriers they face, by exploring digital needs through the themes: ‘digital wellbeing’, ‘digital access’ and ‘digital skills’.

W = Wellbeing

  • What do they feel about doing the task digitally? Why is that?
  • What can we do to help? Is there anything which is making them feel uncomfortable or emotionally challenged?
  • If so, why?

As academics, we often don’t like ‘not being good at something’, or showing any signs of perceived weakness. For students, they don’t like being seen as ‘incapable’ – either in front of their teacher, or their peers.

Is it that they need or want time and space away from class to get familiar with using something, and then re-join the main group? What strategies could you employ to help that individual to feel ok with starting the task?

A = Access

  • Do they have internet access at home and/or by mobile?
  • How permanent is that access, and how good is it?
  • Do they experience power cuts?
  • What are they prioritising? (e.g. battery power on their mobile, in case nursery rings during the activity)
  • Could the activity be done in pairs/small groups, or without a device?
  • What are your contingency plans for achieving the session learning outcomes if an individual struggles with accessing the internet or software?

I once read that a professor with no internet does not mean they ‘can’t’ – it means that digital access is their fundamental barrier (before skills).

S = Skills

  • What do they think their skill level is?
  • What are they good at? What are their digital strengths? (rather than focusing on weaknesses first)
  • What do they think they need to focus on regarding digital skills?
  • What do you want them to learn, and how do you bridge the gap?


A strengths-based self-assessment of digital needs may reveal more constructive information on both sides. Automated triage prior to students starting courses may identify students whose main barrier is their lack of access to technology and the internet, rather than an automatic assumption (or fallacy) that their challenge is a lack of digital skills.

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash


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