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Ready for the World of Work?

In the new Master’s minor program in Digital Skills, launching at UZH in fall 2024, students will not only acquire technical affinity, but will also work with researchers on pressing questions surrounding the digital transformation. This new concept prepares students – and the university itself – to meet the challenges of the future. (UZH News, 28 Feb 24)

Tackling challenges with an interdisciplinary approach: DSI co-director Titus Neupert; curriculum developer Ursula Brack; Hatice Kübra Parmaksiz and Till Hermann Walter Baier – both pilot students and assistants in the DSI Minor Digital Skills. (Picture: Dan Cermak)

After she graduates, biomedical student Feng plans to develop digital healthcare services to close gaps in healthcare provision. She wants to get a head start by using her student years to acquire the technical know-how she’ll need and also get to grips with the ethical and legal aspects of the field.

The challenge

The digital transformation opens up a range of opportunities to approach longstanding problems in a new way; with it, the nature of work is changing radically. For students, this means keeping their digital skills up to date and learning to use new programs and tools is more important than ever. But they must also be able to critically reflect on the consequences of the digital transformation. Good-old social and communication skills are still needed too, and let’s not forget the ability to work in interdisciplinary teams – often the only way to solve the complex challenges of the modern age. How on earth are students supposed to prepare themselves for such a demanding labor market? And how can the university equip them with the necessary practical skills and far-sighted vision?

Making it happen

The Digital Society Initiative (DSI) is a UZH center of competence focusing on the digital transformation of society and academia. It comprises more than 30 professorships, whose teams conduct research into digital change and use findings from basic research to shape future developments in society, culture, politics, the economy and the academy. The DSI also offers courses for students from all faculties who wish to critically examine and actively shape the digital transformation.

In 2024, the DSI launched a unique minor program which aims to meet the needs of students like Feng. The curriculum will be updated each year, ensuring it continues to respond to current developments. As well as learning programming, students taking the minor will put their new skills to use in solving interdisciplinary problems. “This new minor program is not just a mini IT class; it takes a really broad approach,” says curriculum developer Ursula Brack. Students from all faculties can register for the program, which aims to raise participants’ awareness of the ethical, legal and social implications of digital progress through a variety of perspectives and methods. “In this course, transdisciplinarity itself is taught,” says Titus Neupert, co-director of the Digital Society Initiative.

The solutions

Jobs nowadays usually require a combination of hard and soft skills, and the program therefore teaches both across the three module groups: Interdisciplinarity and Digital Transformation; Programming, Machine Learning and AI; and Digital Skills and Tools. When choosing their module combinations, students decide for themselves which skills they want to acquire. The transdisciplinary course “Teamwork on Digital Transformation Challenges” is at the core of the program: here, students get together and combine the experience from their different professional backgrounds with their newly acquired digital skills to jointly develop innovative solutions to real-world challenges.

These challenges are set by UZH researchers and relate to a current issue from their field of research in relation to the digital transformation. The interdisciplinary teams of students choose one of the challenges to work on together. “The great thing is that the course contents are already there in the DSI network. It’s simply a matter of bringing the right people together.”

In the 2023 Fall Semester, Neupert and Brack tested the novel course format with two challenges. In the first, Janna Hastings, professor of medical knowledge and decision support, invited the students to investigate what kind of anatomical errors image-generating AI makes and how to use prompts to minimize these errors. The student researchers then trained an AI model to find out how much it was able to improve itself.

The second challenge, set by Fabian Winiger, a researcher in the area of digital religion, was less solution-focused and more about reflecting on possibilities and consequences. He had noticed how extremely realistic the virtual realities used in shooter video games were and wondered whether VR could be used for other purposes. The students were asked to examine, using a digital-ethnological approach, virtual realities that stimulate empathy, community, admiration or inspiration.

The two researchers acted as supervisors for the student teams as they grappled with the possibilities and limits of digitalization within the scope of each challenge. As they worked on the challenges, the students were always able to call on other experts to run ideas by them or get fresh inputs. “With such close collaborative work, we see that teaching can also be beneficial for research,” says Neupert. The teamwork module also provides impetus for development of the curriculum, as the challenges indicate which digital skills will be relevant for students in the future.

Our teaching community

All the minor program classes and events take place on Mondays at the DSI premises. Neupert and Brack established these regular “Minor Mondays” because they realized the advantages of people being on-site at the same time: coffee breaks and shared lunches lead to informal chats on an equal footing, resulting in closer relationships and greater mutual trust.

The network aspect is probably the most important component of the DSI minor. It is also the first UZH study program to have been created outside of a specific faculty. “For transdisciplinary teaching, everyone is important,” says Brack. Neupert and Brack are therefore developing the minor curriculum together with a Community of Practice (CoP) made up of teaching staff, researchers, students and facilitators – completely without obligation. The DSI regularly invites interested parties to CoP meetings to discuss current developments. The idea of the challenges and the contents of the new introductory module “Digital Transformation – a Scientific Overview” were developed in these brainstorming sessions, for example. “We want to show how valuable it is that we are a comprehensive university – and how innovative we can be when we work together,” says Neupert.

Find out more here about the Future of Teaching at UZH initiative.