It’s always the most exciting part of my professional placement year – the annual PlaceNet conference. For three days, placements and employability professionals from about 20 universities discuss academic placements, employer engagement, and how to provide a quality student experience in an ever more austere funding regime. It’s exciting for me, as, since 2011, I am chairing it. You can follow the conference on Twitter under #PlaceNet15.
At yesterday’s first day, we saw five presentations: Kate Croucher, University Relationship Manager for FDM Group, gave her perspective from having recently moved from the world of university employability into industry. It was very interesting to hear how her understanding of universities – and how they function on the inside – is perceived by employers working with them. This was followed by an informative presentation on the social media habit of university students by Lizzie Brock and Alex Field from RateMyPlacement.They also focused on how placement services can build a content strategy when engaging with their students. Here is where the true theme of the afternoon emerged – the use of video.
PlaceNet Trustee Alex Elkins practising video interviewing
Charlie Reeve from Grad Consult picked up this topic, in his talk about expectation gaps within the world of higher education. He talked about how recorded video interviewing is becoming ever more popular with employers, and how important it is for students to be prepared for this. Charlie demonstrated this by getting the participants to video interview each other using their mobile phones.
A theme picked up again by Vanessa Airth, from London Metropolitan University, who talked about how the Business and Law School, uses video presentations for student assessment on their short placement module. The presentations finished with Mike Grey, from Coventry University’s EC Futures team, discussing how to ensure placement quality.
What followed were fresher’s drinks – sponsored by RateMyPlacement – and celebrating 20 years of PlaceNet with a yummy cake. What struck me as most interesting during this day, was that content creation and sharing (especially video) seems to be the hot topic for employers and students. Without planning it, this PlaceNet conference seems to become more of a hackathon focused on the uses … no, the dominance of technology, which has now clearly reached the world of higher education. This theme will recur in tomorrow’s installment on day 2.
Last week I had the privilege to spend a whole day learning about MOOCs. Proversity had invited a number of heavyweights in the field – and little old moi – to discuss their proposition of using MOOC style delivery to support corporate onboarding (and recruitment) processes. They had secured the lively and quirky Google Campus, and set up a day of presentations and breakout sessions. Here’s the stuff I picked up (broken up in bite-sized chunks):
Laura Overton (@towardsmaturity) started with a great overview on her research of MOOC usage in the corporate learning world. The general usage of technology by learning & development providers is often failing many learners – and what sets the successful organisations apart is not the technology itself, but their attitude towards learning in their businesses. Corporate learners react well to that by changing behaviours more quickly and more consistently. Overton postulated that a new learning agenda is needed, that allows corporates to react faster – driven by learners and their learning styles rather than an organisational agenda.
MOOCs in the meantime are transforming higher education [take note, HE sector!] – not necessarily a sector known for reacting quickly to student learning styles … or anything for that matter, really. Low completion rates (c.10%) are the norm for MOOCs – I would personally think that this is just a matter of time until someone finds a way to increase that enough for the model to become more stable; at which point universities will their industry-wide interruptive moment on their hands. Again – what do learners say (the question for HE in my view)? 88% want to learn at their own pace – not something that finds its way into academic calendars. However Overton thinks that the academic world can really support the corporate world through MOOCs. Let’s hope we collectively wake up in time.
Her final point was that there is an overlap of good MOOC design with corporate learning. Most MOOC learners are engaging from the workplace, and thus the curriculum needs to reflect the demands of the workplace. Overton’s key lessons included:
Create a framework: 75% learners are happy to engage online, but 1/3 don’t find what they need – good design needs a good flow with clear instructions [take note, VLE designers]
Design great learning: 45% of learners complain about uninspiring content – so the recommendation is to use multiple media, not just the lecturer. Also, the length of the programme is often a problem; shorter programmes have higher completion rates [do you see where this is going?].
Support peer cooperation: staff willing to use technology like sharing what they are learning online – good MOOC design requires sharing tools, albeit this is often not encouraged enough in corporate learning and development.
Assess effectively: staff want recognition for their online learning – only one in five L&D departments consider this.
Scale up: MOOCs remove barriers, using cloud learning management systems.
Overton closed with the comment that the MOOC is not a new hype – its concepts and names may change, but good learning practice will prevail. Read up on her work at www.towardsmaturity.org/in-focus/MOOC2014
This blog started out as ‘What I’ve learnt recently … in one short paragraph’. What I tried to achieve was finding my voice on a number of issues that interest me: (higher) education (policy), the impact of technology on (work) life, work ethics and my personal opinions on these topics – but always from the perspective of what I had learnt from the experience, and not with too much effort. Call it an exercise in reflection, or an oversharing of my thoughts, 2013 was really the year I got into blogging a lot more. This is not my only blog – I run one on my personal life as a German in a small town in the UK (yeah, I’m one of those pesky EU citizens who came here taking your jobs…), and one about my decades long commitment to sci-fi role playing games (yeah, so I’m a nerd).
The themes and respective blog posts that came up this year repeatedly were indeed my experience being a foreigner – oh wait, a committed European citizen living and contributing to the UK society and economy. The recent media rhetoric about (the wrong kind of) EU citizens on this rankled with me on a number fronts – and I summed this up in my blog post about the gift of migration. What I learnt though was a bitter lesson – that in the current climate an anti-immigration argument will always win over an economic benefit in public opinion, and the benefits that international students bring to the country are no exception.
I know all this sounds rather pessimistic – however in the deepest time of sadness came a glimmer of hope: I was about to embark on my biggest and most painful personal lesson this year, when I was on my way to say goodbye for the last time to one of my oldest friends – it was one of those young people who showed me that this generation is not lost; they are just in need of the occasional help and advice, but they are perfectly able to find their way – which requires them to have professional careers advice. And this lead me to re-confirm my professional commitment to doing just that: helping others fulfil their potential, which I think lies at the heart of any careers and employability related work. And that’s not necessarily always about raising standards, expectations, or competitiveness – it’s often more about a realistic self-assessment and going for what young people want, not what they should want.
What will 2014 bring? For me (and pretty much the rest of our economy), it will be all about learning to interpret and understand data. That’s my prediction – and I’m looking forward to seeing whether I will look back on my pursuit of this agenda in a year’s time.
Hm, as for an editorial line, this is interesting – we’re confronted with very varied perspectives in the last two days: on how to advise his son about ‘serious subjects’ [NB: the link actually says ‘proper’], Rhiannon, whose writing I normally like, delivers an opinion piece right out of Michael Gove’s (!) toolbox, about how rubbish such advice is – at least as long is out of the mouths of trained professionals.
Let’s get this straight – many ‘professionals’ suck at their jobs, and don’t make good role models. We see examples of bad practice pretty much where ever we turn. So who will guarantee that those industry representatives who are supposed to go into schools give advice to young people that is impartial, well informed and confidential? And – who makes the judgement call who is an appropriate (professional) role model in the first place?
Just like teachers, professional careers advisors are there to help young people understand the world around them, and how to navigate a job market that is so complex and fast-changing that the parent generation has normally no clue what is happening ‘out there’ – at least not if it’s not directly within their own sector. [NB: I work in the field, but I am not a careers advisor]
There’s plenty of space for industry speakers, professional mentors and informal advice from parents – but pulling the direct one-to-one advice (and the funding for it), and then replacing it by online and phone ‘support’, takes away the opportunity for young people to engage with their potential in a safe and unbiased environment. It strikes me more as a cost-cutting measure than an attempt at improving young people’s chances – funnily enough, for especially vulnerable groups personal advice is still available; can’t be that bad then.
And that’s exactly what the CBI is saying on this topic: what was there as a support structure has pretty much been broken by recent policy. So even the employers that are supposed to go in and do a ‘better job’ than qualified careers advisors are asking for careers advice to be strengthened and enabled again.
As someone running a careers service in higher education, I worry about the consequences of these policies, and how they will affect the students coming our way in the next few years – and what repair job we may have to do in order with all those young people who never learnt the basics of career decision making in school. And for that job (not just checking CVs and doing silly online assessments), there are professional careers advisors.
I respect personal opinion and experience (and working in the field, my own experience has been indeed varied) – however I question what the Guardian will do to balance this opinion piece with something that is more informed and balanced.
I am however not really holding my breath, as I normally don’t see much of a rational discussion on education, young people and careers advice.
To which I say Yikes! Probably double Yikes! Why? See my answer below – I’ve just posted this on the comments underneath the article:
The best piece of careers advice I ever got was ‘study what interests you, not what you (or your parents) think will give you a job a number of years later’.
Firstly, you will never be good at something you don’t care about. And if just you’re good at something when you’re 16, that doesn’t mean you’ll satisfied with it for the long time you’ll be in your professional life. I’ve seen this in my professional practice, with graduates coming back crying – thinking they were failures, after having aced all exams and gotten into the ‘right’ industry (mostly finance), but breaking down after a year out when confronted with the realities of having to do something for long hours every day that they were just not ‘built’ for.
Secondly, employment markets change really fast – and what is seen as ‘hot’ when signing up for a course, may be a disaster zone just three years later. This is precipitated by changes in technology, which enables companies to outsource and offshore first, and automate later. Yes, this affects even classic identifyable professions like e.g. law.
But just going back to what counts as interesting, and then ignoring the world around us isn’t the alternative we should be speaking about. I studied something that was deemed to make me unemployable for the rest of my life – but I spent my time during university working fairly systematically on my general employability skills (just in order to deal with the spectre of unemployment at the end), and I worked, worked and worked in a huge variety of sectors and roles to gain as much experience as I could. These skills helped me get my first ‘real’ job (while trying to help my friends who studied a ‘real’ subject and were unemployed for long stretches), while the knowledge I gained during my studies gives me the edge now when trying to understand the complex world of work around me.
In short – every subject in university can become serious, if you make it so.
This is an experiential post – I’m writing about my learning as I learn. I guess it’ll cause some ripples in The Matrix (by reversing the polarity of reality or something similarly esoteric), but I thought as an experiment this should interesting. I’m currently sitting in a fascinating training by @case_europe on managing public affairs in higher education. Now before you go off to snooze, please hear me out: while learning about this…
Bit of a hush in the room at #public13 as we hear about Harvard’s crisis communication problems during the Boston marathon bombing
… I’m also contemplating how I handle broadcasting events like this – and why I do it. As my friend @kleinrules tends to say, during events, I take over his Twitter feed, pushing message after message on what I’m learning.
I’m not good with classic note-taking. If I write something down in a list or on a piece of paper, I will forget it. Being able to browse my tweets is to me almost as useful as creating a mind-map.
It enables me to share my thoughts, and open them up to scrutiny by you. And this instant feedback is then again archived, giving me a chance to record and later go back to the discussion in retrospective.
And it obviously gives me an opportunity to become more visible in my field. Not only for vanity’s sake, but also because my roles require a certain level of sector-based visibility, and this enables me to do just that.
As a professional in work (as well as for any job seeker) all the above are helpful. In comparison to the days of yore (before social media) I can also:
Look up (and connect to) the participants in the room. Trust me, I’ve done this today already: I’ve looked up all speakers on LinkedIn and Twitter, and have followed and interacted with a number of participants on Twitter. This creates better, and more active relationships than giving each other business cards and then losing them or forgetting to email each other afterwards.
Create a write-up on my blog – this is what you’re seeing now. Again, it helps me remember better, and gives you a chance, dear reader, to perhaps learn from what I’ve learnt.
It is events like these, and the connections I’ve made in the last three years, especially using Twitter, which have made the strongest and most beneficial impact on my professional life, and I can only recommend this approach to anyone.
This week, I participated in a placement event, organised by Cogent, the sector skills council for sciences. They asked me to moderate a panel discussion, which I happily did. But the part where I was shutting up and listening was (us usual) the one where I learnt the most. The life sciences sector employs about 150k people in the UK, and although universities churn out 30k qualified graduates per year (according to latest DLHE figures), only about 2k actually start working in their field of study. This leads to two things: companies having trouble finding candidates, and an aging workforce.
It should come to no surprise that placements are being seen as an excellent way to improve relationships between education and the industry, right along the lines of the Wilson review, which recognised their importance. And with some well deserved government funding, Cogent has launched a placements service (www.cogent-placements.com), helping to actively place students – and as part of that they are also launching a charm offensive trying to improve links between higher education providers and employers. Which is where the event fitted in.
It was well attended by more than 20 universities who run specialist courses, and we were situated in a lovely (albeit it hot) room at Nottingham Trent University (of which I’m proud to say – as it’s chair – that they are a PlaceNet member). So I saw some known faces, and met many new placement professionals, academics and employability specialists. Industry knowledge was represented by Cogent themselves, as well as an excellent industry speaker (Anthony Brown from CellCentric) from who showed not only great knowledge about what universities offer, but also a strong commitment to placements in general.
It would be foolish of me to attempt to summarise the whole discussion – have a look under #livescienceplacements on Twitter for details – there are a number of take home points that stuck with me:
The first one was really about the drivers within the industry that affect placements in this specific industry. Budgets are tight, and they affect the amount of resource which can be spent on R&D – which is of course critical in this industry. There has always been an extremely high staff turnover in the industry, which has driven the development of cross-company networks, and the creation of new ideas. Now this may sound useful from a placement perspective (students are a highly flexible, cheap resource), but it may create barriers, as HR departments (who sometimes don’t fully understand the specific skills needs of their labs) can become risk averse or just become ineffective under the strain. And it is of course a (business) risk to take on placement students, who will need more supervision (at first). However, those who do, pretty much invariably appreciate the input of fresh ideas (and questions) being brought into what is a sector which is dependent on curiosity and innovation. The question was raised who will need to make sure placement students have the necessary lab skills to ensure quality and safety standards (I can’t obviously resist from also bringing up the possible creation of a zombie virus in this context) – and some universities prepare their students specifically for this in advance.
But what really struck me was that while there was a lot of focus on the scientific aspects of student placements in life sciences, the panel discussion focused on the classic issues which surround pretty much every discussion about employability. I promise, I didn’t steer this – the panel was put together at the spot by audience participation and the questions they raised (pretty much the same format I used last year at the NUS zones conference) – you ask questions, you move on to the panel. The main issues raised were about balancing the interests of the four stakeholders involved: employers, who seek a flexible, qualified and cost effective resource; students often lacking the confidence and resilience needed to go through gruelling recruitment processes; academic departments who like the idea of industry links, but who sceptical of the employability agenda; and placements staff who feel underrepresented and who are generally often under resourced. Time and again, in these circumstances, the need for strategic clarity and institutional leadership in higher education seems to the deciding factor: if there is more than nominal buy in on the top level of an institution, coordination between academic and professional services, and addressing the classic barriers students face to take on placements (confidence, communicating their skills, and lack of mobility – often in response to economic factors).
All in all, I thought it was a very successful day – and it’s good to see that there is momentum behind fostering placements – from which all involved stakeholders benefit from.
My colleague @julianchilds forwarded me an article by Rory Sutherland, vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK, in the Spectator (normally not part of my news diet). @rorysutherland made an interesting point – he observed that pressure to succeed in university had led to a culture of drone-like graduates, all driven by the so-called ‘top’ recruiters’ demanding first or upper second class degrees. He stated that there is no evidence that what makes you a great student turns you into a great employee, and therefore thought it would be worthwhile to improve his chances of getting to real talent by looking where none of his peers seem to be looking – the lower seconds and thirds churned out by universities every year, not tainted by conformity and overfishing by large recruiters. In an entertaining way, he describes how he would want to subvert HR’s usual hiring practises by offering references and a fast career track to stoners.
I liked the article a lot (it aligns with my sense of humour, and my disregard for established conventions) – although I don’t really align with his general praise of the economist Hayek (albeit mostly due to lack of understanding on my part), and not really understanding game theory – and it seems to go down a storm with my Twitter followers. And rightly so, as it calls the bluff created by education and recruiters, namely that being told what to learn in advance gives you a) better knowledge, and b) makes you more employable. I didn’t learn this anew, but his quote of Hayek is spot on: ‘Often that is treated as important which happens to be accessible to measurement.’ (see my re-blogged post on performance related pay).
So, what have I learnt? Let’s not even look at the socially exclusive tendency to openly only go for ‘top’ universities – this is a measure to restrict the graduate pool to a manageable number – nothing more, nothing less. I’m not aware of employers actually complaining about the quality of students as students – so his central premise is in my humble opinion a valid one: just being best in class does not make you a good employee. It shows many valuable traits, but the requirements of education and the workplace differ wildly – and from that follows that the degree classification alone is a bad predictor of success as an employee. In fact, in our daily practice at work, we often see high achievers struggle with adapting from a student to a worker identity – and those struggling academically shine in the workplace – especially when given the chance to do a sandwich placement. So I align with Sutherland’s view, in fact I greet it and encourage students to challenge convention – and be proud of their achievements, yes, even if that’s ‘only’ a 2.2 or a third.
PS: This post kind of links to an earlier one on challenging conventions – The power of giving up. Have a look.