How can technology best support the development of employability skills?

A little while ago I had the pleasure of being part of a panel as part of a course for senior institutional managers looking at entrepreneurship, exploring the topic of ‘how can technology support employability’. This was an interesting question, as we have over the years explored this issue through a number of projects, but not necessarily under the ‘employability’ banner. My research for this panel provides the substance for this blog post, looking at how some of our Jisc projects have explored different elements of that challenge – how technology can indeed support not only subject knowledge, but also the capabilities and skills necessary for the workplace?

We know that employability is a key driver for change. Sir Tim Wilson’s review of university-business collaboration (2012) suggests that there is a gap between UK business and HE, stating that ‘Universities should reflect on the opportunities that are provided for students to develop employability skills through the formal learning methodologies used within the university” (Wilson, 2012, p.10).

Institutions tackle student employability in a number of ways, including through for example PDP and employability modules, careers services, work-placements and experiences, work-based mentors, volunteering and increasingly through looking at employability awards and the notion of ‘graduate attributes’ (more prevalent in Australia and the US). We know there is already some excellent practice, particularly in vocational and professional disciplines (e.g. medicine, physiotherapy, education, social work) where notions of ‘what it is to be professional’ are embedded in the curriculum, but for others this is less apparent. Few use technology really effectively in an integrated way to support student employability, although some are exploring this.

An initial look back at some of our previous research shows that technology can be an enabler to the development of employability skills, for example:

• ensuring that opportunities are provided throughout the curriculum in a scaffolded and supported way for learners to reflect, plan, and articulate and showcase their knowledge and skills in an integrated way (e.g. through e-portfolios, see our e-Portfolio Implementation Toolkit and employability opportunities offered by Keele University
• embedding digital literacy skills more broadly across the institution and within disciplines, and empower staff and students to lead this agenda (see the Digital Literacies infoKit)
• ensuring that assessments and learning are ‘authentic’, and more closely aligned to the workplace and real-world tasks (e.g. the Collaborate and SpringboardTV projects)
• ensuring assessment is for learning not of learning, with regular opportunities for self, peer and tutor review (e.g. MAC, InterACT)
• using a principles-based approach to change which places the importance of developing self-aware, independent learners (which some argue is the main purpose of education, see David Nicol’s research) at the heart of institutional strategy, policy and practice (e.g. Viewpoints, e-Affect, iTEAM)
• empowering students as agents of change, which evidence shows benefits all stakeholders including students in the development of wider employability skills (Digitally Ready, FASTECH and the Change Agent Network)

We know however that although there is a lot of excellent practice, it is not widespread. Technology can support all of the aims above, but further work is needed to ensure that good practice is shared and staff are supported in maximising the affordances offered by technology, and in exploring how existing employability opportunities can harness technology to best effect. We are initiating work in this area very soon, and would welcome your comments around how best to support universities and colleges in this area, please contact me at l.gray@jisc.ac.uk.

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