Sunday, October 8, 2017

Invisible skills

A recurring theme in the media is the perception that universities are not equipping students with the skills demanded by employers and that there is a serious gap between theoretical knowledge and practical work skills. One common complaint is that university degree certificates generally focus on describing mastery of content rather than the development of soft skills such as critical thinking, communication, collaboration, leadership, digital literacy etc. Of course, matters have improved over the last 20 years with learning outcomes often including practical skills and many programmes that include work experience and close cooperation with industry. However, there still seems to be a problem in reliably assessing soft skills and including this in credentials.

A new report, Skills, Competencies and Credentials, by Alan Harrison (Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario) investigates this issue and argues that university credentials still fail to provide the information that employers require when hiring staff.

This state of affairs does not serve most undergraduate students well: the graduating student’s credential and the associated transcript indicate the extent of the student’s knowledge of content, but neither directly conveys any information to employers about the level of the student’s skills. As a result, employers, in respect of most undergraduate degrees, must infer the level of skills from information about content knowledge.

The report describes an awareness gap; the problem that students themselves are often not aware of the skills they have developed at university because those skills were not explicitly part of the assessment. Developing critical thinking, for example, is integrated in all courses but is often done so in a manner invisible to the students and not explicitly tested. Many projects and assignment aim to develop creativity, teamwork, communication and organisational skills but that aim is not always clear to the students nor are the skills explicitly developed or assessed and recognised. 

Harrison then looks at several attempts to address these issues such as competency-based degrees and e-portfolios and comes to the conclusion that greater cooperation is required between universities and employers in determining key skills and agreeing on how to assess these.

Universities must come to terms with two facts: first, their undergraduate programs are where general skills are developed and second, it is these skills that make the graduates of these programs employable. Universities need to work with each other and with input from employer groups to the point where they agree on both what these skills are and how they are most effectively assessed. Once this is resolved, the next step will be to embed these skills into the curriculum and include the outcome of the assessment of these skills in a concise student record that quickly and effectively tells employers what the graduating student knows and can do. In short, the universities need to do all they can to help students make the match with employers.

One promising element missing in the report is the growing use of badges by universities to provide evidence of soft skills. Badges are awarded to students who meet set skills criteria during their course work and can be a very useful supplement to the more content-based formal credentials. However as long as badges are not tied to the hard currency of credits they may be seen as merely optional extras by students rather than as essential elements of their degrees. I wonder if badges are then the real answer. The answer lies probably in providing more comprehensive credentials that describe both the knowledge and skills acquired. 

Reference: Harrison, A. (2017) Skills, Competencies and Credentials. Toronto: Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario.

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