We recently had a very positive visit from JISC, our first programme managers meeting, where we had a chance to meet with Lisa and Paul from JISC at Bristol, and also for some of our extended project team to share their involvement and interest in the project. Thanks too to Michelle Shoebridge, deputy registrar, who came for lunch to show her support and commitment to the project.
We had many interesting discussions over the day, which have prompted new thinking and led us to revisit some of what we are planning, but I think one of the most useful products of the meeting was that it encouraged us to reflect internally on just what it is we are trying to achieve, and to think about our own strengths and expertise. It’s easy to take for granted some of what you are planning and thinking, and overlook some of the key strengths that you’re already gained through other experiences, which means that these thoughts and experiences are not perhaps as fully documented for others as they could be. This post hopes to go some way to remedying that, by sharing some of our deeper thinking about the project, and how we see it developing over time.
Key Driver: The Employability ‘Gap’
Our key driver for the project is the ‘gap’ between what employers expect from new graduates when they turn up for work, and what new graduates themselves can offer business on day one of their new jobs.
This gap goes above and beyond the traditional skills gap, the popularist view that new graduates simply need to have the presentation skills, team working skills, or perhaps writing skills, that business requires. There is something else, something more intangible that is missing. It is about an attitude, a sense of what is required of new graduates as individual contributors to the wider aims of the business. It is about the need for them to be self-activating, self-aware of what they need to think about and how they need to contribute to the aims of the business. Critically it is about their need to understand the ‘assessment’ terms that they are now working under.
In business, these ‘assessment’ terms are no longer explicit. Part of the challenge of business is that you first have to work out what you need to do, before you can actually carry out the work to accomplish what you’ve identified is important. There is of course a measure of this in education as well, but the journey within a degree is generally speaking much more guided and defined, with explicit goals and targets that must be met, and extensive support on how to achieve them. This learning framework to all intents and purposes disappears the moment you enter business.
So perhaps the question is, are we actually lining our students up for a fall? Should we be anticipating this shift in learning support, and the new challenges that will be presented once our students reach employment, by actively shifting our assessment practices to be more and more ‘authentic’ as they near the end of their time in higher education. Instead of a greater focus on summative exams, dissertations, essays and the like as we near the end of our university education, should we in fact be shifting more towards formative assessments, assessments which are by their very nature designed to encourage self-reflection and self-awareness during the learning process, and hence more akin to the type of thinking that is required in business.
It is our belief that this shift to more authentic and formative forms of assessment will be the catalyst that is needed to help close this employability gap, altering the thinking processes and attitudes of our students as they proceed through their respective curricula, and hence improve their long term employment prospects.
The Role of Technology
So employability is the issue, and assessment is how we are planning to address this issue, but what tools do we have at our disposal that might help us in this goal? Well, we have a host of stable and emerging new technologies, some well known and well used at the University, others perhaps less so.
In think it’s fair to say though that the role technologies can play in education is still something of an unknown quantity. Whilst some theorists have produced University wide frameworks for the application of technology, it’s equally true that these theories have received only limited uptake, and that they are constantly in need of updating – a consequence in part of the speed of development within the technological world.
Within Collaborate we do plan to utilise technology to aid us in our goal to move towards more ‘authentic’ assessment, but are conscious of the challenges that using technologies raises, and have two concepts that we will be trying to measure our use of technology against as our own form of self-assessment.
The first will be to measure the use of technology to assist learning as opposed to the use of technology to enhance learning. We’re conscious that technology can be very useful in the implementation of an assessment, for example when trying to assess hundreds of students within a very short timeframe technology can be invaluable, but would argue that this is technology which assists in learning, and it should not therefore be considered as enhancing learning. Enhancing learning using technology is a much harder thing to achieve, and an even harder thing to prove.
The second will be an attempt to look at technologies from an affordance point of view (though perhaps cognitive affordance might be a better way of describing it), as opposed to looking at either a specific type of technology (e.g. video conferencing), or a specific technology (e.g. Skype). From an affordance perspective we might then, for example, be looking at the techs ability to both capture and project sound and images, and move them instantly and synchronously. Within this context, technologies that might at first appear to have the same values as each other can be broken down into the specific components that they offer, and then these components can be compared to the educational outcomes that are desirable, and applied as necessary. This will hopefully give us a framework to work with technology which can be applied both to current technologies and also to emerging technologies, as it will be ‘technologically agnostic’.
Affordance is a tricky term, and one with a long and effective pedigree within HCI, and it’s use within e-Learning is not without problems. Nonetheless I feel it has a close enough match, and a wide enough appreciation within the e-Learning community, to be a valuable way of exchanging ideas and cementing the value of specific technologies to what we’re trying to achieve.
Just one part of the puzzle
While this may come across as somewhat grand in scope, we’re at the same time well aware that the project is just a tiny component of a much wider and grander scheme – the University itself, and all it’s employees and students, and for that matter all the myriad research, teaching and learning that is currently being undertaken. Collaborate is just trying to focus on a very specific and small component of this bigger picture (or should that be puzzle!), but nonetheless we hope we have an important and potentially longstanding contribution to make.