Graduate employability and the danger of generic / soft / transferable / key skills

I promise that the third part of my series ‘the university of the future’ is still coming up! I got distracted… Over the weekend I read some documents about transferable skills, which reminded me that I had an idea for an article about them way back in 2007 around the time I was writing my ‘the graduate attributes we’ve overlooked’ paper. Here are some of the thoughts I was going to put into the paper I never managed to write.

For the last 20 or so years, the dominant way that universities have demonstrated their engagement with the graduate

 "Danger_2" by openDemocracy is licensed under CC 2.0

employability agenda is through the notion of development of generic (aka transferable aka soft aka key) skills. By definition, these skills are non-task and non-context specific, and they are argued to enhance graduate employability by appealing to all employers. The argument is that once learned, these skills can be transferred from context to context – they can be applied across different subject domains. A few examples of generic skills include (there is no universally agreed list): written communication, teamwork, digital literacy, problem solving, and information literacy.

The generic skills approach is a simple one, and it has a lot of appeal. We teachers can map our curricula to demonstrate that we are teaching these skills through our programs; students can cite that they possess these skills when they develop their resumes; recruiters can easily find skills matches between job advertisements and applications; employers can be happy that they are employing graduates with the right kinds of skills.

The problem with all of this is that generic skills don’t actually exist. There is no such thing as a non-task, non-context specific skill.

Skills are learned in specific contexts and through specific tasks, and they are deployed in specific contexts through specific tasks. These specific skills that are acquired and deployed in specific contexts and tasks may have features in common, and this is what the generic skills approach does. However, to point to the presumed features in common to the exclusion of the specificities is what I would describe in an academic paper as ‘highly problematic’, and what I will describe here as superficial and dangerous. It lulls educators into a false sense that we’re covering off on the capabilities that are important, when in fact this is not necessarily the case.

It leads to the practice of context / domain / discipline ‘free’ skill development, which rather than being without domain/discipline/context (impossible!) asks students to learn generic skills in domains/disciplines and contexts completely alien to those in which they will be applying those skills in the future. Examples of this include generic written communication and information literacy courses one sometimes sees in foundational university programs. The challenges here are first that students can’t see the immediate relevance of, or have interest in, what they’re studying, so engagement tends to be lower. Second, they have trouble translating the skills they’ve learned into other contexts and applications later on. This translation is not a simple ‘transfer’ – it is a complex process involving assessment of which previous learning can simply be applied, what needs to be changed for the new context and how, and which entirely new things need to be learned and how. The process of translation is made much more difficult by greater differences between the specificities of the first context and the second.

The easiest way to build skills that employers are going to find appealing is to make the skill acquisition specificities as close as possible to the application and deployment specificities – or, put another way, make the learning activities as authentic as possible. This means that less translation is required between learning experience and work experience. However, students continually encounter new situations and tasks and will therefore need to engage in skills translation throughout their lives. No two learning/skill application contexts are the same. Therefore we must scaffold and support students to build what I’m calling skills translation bridges for themselves — that is, we must teach how the specific skills learned in one context can be translated for the specificities of a new context.

To what extent and how do you build skills translation bridges in your teaching?

Building a bridge between different skills contexts "Bridge" by Astrid Westvang is licensed under CC 2.0
Building a bridge between different skills contexts
“Bridge” by Astrid Westvang is licensed under CC 2.0
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The ‘most amazing course ever’: The university of the future part 2

In an age where learners can download all of the content they want for free, there is limited value in continuing to feed them a pre-digested, pre-prepared curriculum. The institutions that will thrive in our age of digital hyper-connectivity will do so because of the quality and depth of the learning experiences they offer, the relationships that they foster, the networks that they broker, and their bespoke content generation (research).

A few days ago I published part 1 of a post about the above quote. In the post I discussed higher education’s addiction to content. I talked about how teacher preparation and pre-digestion of course content is not only highly inefficient, it also runs counter to what we know about good pedagogic practice and the development of graduate capabilities such as information literacy and lifelong learning. I also implied that in the near future, as global market competition between universities heats up, continuing to focus on packaging content will not be a productive strategy (particularly if much of that content is available online at zero cost to the student anyway).

Imagine asking a student to describe the most exciting and interesting feature of their course. They are never going to say ‘the content’, and they’re never going to say, ‘the prescribed readings’. They are certainly never going to say, ‘the lecturer’s powerpoint slides’!

I’m not saying that we should do away with content, readings or powerpoint entirely. What I am saying is that in designing university courses for the future, we need to think carefully about what is going to attract and engage students, and what is going to yield the most valuable (and marketable, let’s be pragmatic here) learning.

Recently, I conducted a market research survey with more than 700 intending and existing students in my faculty. Inthe final section of the survey, I asked them to describe “the most amazing course ever”. The students could write whatever they wanted – and they did, with many giving me extended descriptions, learning approaches, and even fully thought out course titles.

I boiled down the 25,000 words I received from the students. The key elements of an amazing course turned out to be about:

(1) pedagogic approaches (‘hands on, minds on’ and a course that is personally meaningful / tailored to individual interests and needs),

(2) relationships (being part of a supportive, exciting community of learners, teachers and industry representatives), and

(3) being able to make tangible and positive contributions to the world.

This is the stuff I’m getting at when I say ‘the quality and depth of learning experiences’ and ‘the relationships that they foster’ in the quote at the beginning of this post. Incidentally, these are also some of the key features of optimal informal learning for professional development (Bridgstock, 2014). People tend to learn naturally by experiencing something that piques interest or poses a challenge. Often this experience is ‘hands on’ — the person is trying to do something, and through this process they discover that they need more information, or a strategy, or a specific skill. They then undertake research (broadly defined) to meet this need — they read, check online discussion groups, Google the topic, or wander into the next cubicle to ask their colleague. Thus, there is immediate, just-in-time relevance to the further learning that they are undertaking. Other ways that interest can be piqued is through informal discussion, reading magazines, surfing the web, or encountering new places. You get the idea.

A big point to make here is that no one is asking these people to memorise facts on faith that they might need them at some point in the future, or to acquire decontextualised skills that aren’t applied immediately. Human beings are actually really, really bad at learning using these approaches. However, this is exactly what we in universities ask students to do most of the time.brain forgets exam content

Right, so here are some questions for thought and discussion. I’m keen to know what you think.

 – how do you approach learning when you are able to do it naturally?

 – how do your approaches to informal / natural learning differ from your approaches to learning in formal contexts / courses that you have attended? How are they similar?

 – what would happen if we designed courses where students were able to learn more naturally?

Re the last question, I wonder: is anyone (a) feeling a bit anxious that we wouldn’t cover the required content if we did this, or (b) worrying about how Timetabling might cope?? 😀   Ah the realities of teaching…

In my next post (part 3) in a few days I’m going to talk more about the ‘community’ and ‘network’ aspects of learning in the future university, picking up on the students’ responses about relationships being the second element of the most amazing course ever.

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The university of the future part 1: just say no (most of the time) to pre-digested content

In an age where learners can download all of the content they want for free, there is limited value in continuing to feed them a pre-digested, pre-prepared curriculum. The institutions that will thrive in our age of digital hyperconnectivity will do so because of the quality and depth of the learning experiences they offer, the relationships that they foster, the networks that they broker, and their bespoke content generation (research).

I’ve been waiting to put the above two sentences into an academic article for a few months now. I haven’t finished writing the article yet (still!), so here it is in all its opinionated glory.

This is part 1 of a 3-part (I think) discussion.
In just about all of the university courses I know of, we continue to teach students using an ‘industrial model’ – that is, we pre-package content that we think is relevant, and then transmit it to learners. Often this is via lectures (or, in the modern teaching world, online recorded lectures for maximum efficiency (although its questionable whether online recorded lectures are actually very effective. But I digress). However, in an era of MOOCs, Youtube, Slideshare and Lynda.com, to mention a few, the digital world is awash in content. We teachers like to think that the lecture content we’re preparing is unique and better than anyone else’s, but in reality this nearly always isn’t the case. So the first point is that we’re spending a lot of time making and packaging learning materials, when there is a lot of existing content out there already that most of us don’t access or use (cue discussion for another day: how do teachers become effective curators of learning?)
"The lecture bored me to death" by Graham Stanley is licensed under CC 2.0
“The lecture bored me to death” by Graham Stanley is licensed under CC 2.0
What good teachers can say in our defence is that we tweak and optimise the content we make for the particular cohorts we’re teaching. We create learning experiences around the content that are designed carefully to engender deep learning in the cohorts we’re engaging with. This is pretty cool – one of the best reasons that teachers exist. However, this argument doesn’t address why we are spending too much time making redundant powerpoints in the first place. I guess some teachers might say that in the time it would take them to identify suitable open content online and tailor it for the cohort that they may as well have built the materials from scratch… in response though, I’d humbly suggest that sometimes this is because university teachers aren’t as well networked as they could be, and don’t know where or how to look.
I also wonder why we would WANT to spend a lot of time searching for and retrieving learning materials, filtering them and then making them relevant and useful to students, when information literacy and lifelong learning are key graduate capabilities. Students are going to need to do all of this themselves in an ongoing way for the rest of their lives. Why not start them off while they’re at uni? Yes, I’m talking about research and enquiry-based learning. Why don’t we as teachers spend less time focussing on content delivery, and more time and energy doing what we add the most value doing – creating learning experiences and facilitating learning? Don’t get me wrong — I’m not saying that ALL learning experiences at uni need to involve students doing their own research. Some types of content do lend themselves to a direct transmission approach (e.g., TED talks, which are specific genre of direct transmission teaching).
As I finish part 1 of this post, I wonder whether our collective addiction to content delivery comes from an (erroneous) belief held by both learners and teachers around what ‘quality’ and ‘effort’ is in teaching. Do we assume that because the teacher has spent hours on lecture slides and preparing readings that the learning experience is a high quality one? Would students ask whether they were getting value for money if the teacher provided less pre-digested content and instead focussed their efforts on supporting and facilitating the learners to find both questions and answers themselves? How scary might it be for a teacher to go in without the ‘safety blanket’ of their slide pack and talking points?
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