Digital Footprint: not everyone is equal and why unis need to teach managing DF as a 21st century skill

By Rachel Buchanan

Australians are among the most digitally connected in the world and young people spend a lot of time online. Most young Australians have an extensive digital footprint, especially university students.

Digital footprints are created through interaction with the internet and social media. Increasingly, digital footprint management is an important career development skill and one that is vital to the professional opportunities of university students.

However, we know very little about what university students know and do, in regards to their digital footprints. This post provides an initial overview of our* investigation into Australian university students’ understanding of their digital footprints. This research and our data collection are still taking place.

ABS data indicates that over 90% of Australians aged 18-40 regularly use the internet. The increase in online activity and social media usage has implications for digital footprints given that 800 000 Australians post videos online, and of the 47% of 16-25 year olds that use platforms such as snapchat, 25% admit to posting material of a sexual nature online.

Digital Footprints

Such social media activities can create a negative, publically accessible digital footprint that can detrimentally impact an individual’s current prospects and future careers.

However, responsible online engagement can create a positive public persona which acts as ongoing résumé of achievement and identity.

Management of digital footprints is a 21st century life skill, a lack of which could have serious social and professional consequences for students. Popular media is full of warnings about the problems caused by poor digital footprint management:

From The Age: “What if today’s sexting teenager is tomorrow’s prime minister – adult lives can be marred by the digital footprint students are laying down now.”

From the SMH: “Young ones, your online reputation is, like, forever”

Professional social media platforms, such as LinkedIn, make the professional implications of a badly managed online presence clear: “Your digital footprint is ruining your job application

Higher Education, Social Media and Digital Footprints

Yet, with our increased digital connectivity having no online presence can be as detrimental as having a badly managed one. Research tells us that

  • Human Resources practitioners are increasingly using social media in recruitment, selection and hiring practices.
  • Social Networking awareness is largely absent from the Higher Education curriculum.
  • Curation and management of digital footprints is emerging as an essential skill for career development, yet universities are not adequately addressing this.

In regards to university students:

  • Students with a high Socio-Economic Status (SES) background are coming to university with more technological knowledge and skills, have more experience with, and positive attitudes towards the use of ICT, than students with a low SES background.
  • These students are better placed, than students from other backgrounds, to develop and manage their digital footprints while at university.
  • Higher education institutions must help students who are coming to university without the digital education confidence and knowledge develop the required digital skills for success and achievement at university and beyond.

The Equity and Digital Footprint Project

Our project focuses on this emerging equity issue to better understand what undergraduate students from low SES and non-traditional backgrounds know and do in relation to their digital footprints. Information from this research will be used to develop resources to help students build a positive digital footprint.

To achieve this we are currently:

  • Reviewing the relevant literature
  • Conducting an online survey of university students across Australia to determine their knowledge and behaviour in relation to digital footprint management.
  • Running focus groups with University of Newcastle students to speak to students in more depth about their use of professional social media.
  • Doing an audit of university online resources on digital footprint to determine how well Australian universities are addressing this issue
  • Conducting an online survey of ICT educators, policy makers and higher education career service personnel to garner collective wisdom and evidence of which educational approaches would be most effective for students.

Preliminary findings

While it is very early days, our initial explorations reveal that:

  • “Anecdata” abounds – There is lots of anecdotal evidence about the uses and abuses of social media and digital footprints, and media reports of the sensational examples provide only a distorted picture.
  • There is conflicting information about the extent to which employees are using digital footprints to vet applicants.
  • Students are aware that their internet usage creates a digital footprint, and they employ a variety of strategies to minimize or manage their digital footprints. These strategies range from a refusal to use social media, judicious use of privacy settings, minimal or highly strategic use of their real names when online, through to working from an assumption that privacy does not exist. Most students see their digital footprint as a liability rather than an opportunity.
  • While Universities in the United Kingdom are producing some excellent comprehensive resources and services for digital footprint education the approach is very uneven in Australian universities.

Given the emphasis on excellence and equity in Australian universities and the pattern of increased access to universities from students from all backgrounds it is important that universities provide adequate support to all their students. Increased access to university is not an achievement if students are not provided with the resources and skills to participate and succeed in, and beyond, university. Not all students come to university with the necessary digital skills and knowledge.

Given the increased importance of social media management and having a traceable online presence, digital footprint education can provide students with opportunity to turn access and participation in university education into success; a positive online presence acts as an on-going record of identity and achievement.


BuchananDr Rachel Buchanan is a Lecturer in Education at the University of Newcastle. She teaches educational foundations and researches into the equity and social justice implications of education policy and the increased deployment of digital technologies within the education sector. She can be contacted via Rachel.Buchanan@newcastle.edu.au or found on twitter: @rayedish.       *Rachel is undertaking this research with Dr Jill Scevak, Dr Shamus Smith and Dr Erica Southgate. This project was funded by the Australian Government Department of Education, through a HEPP National Priority Pool grant. More information about our research can be found here

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