The skills gap dilemma — Mary Power

I recently attended the annual Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education STLHE 2014 Conference in beautiful Kingston. It was a week of great learning and connecting with colleagues from across Canada and beyond.  The theme of the conference was Transforming our Learning Experiences and in his welcoming address Alan Harrison, Provost and Vice-Principle Academic of Queen’s University told a story about an event that transformed his thinking. While travelling on a plane he struck up a conversation with a young man sitting next to him who, it so happened, was a recent graduate of his university. The response of the young man when asked about his experience at university, which stuck in Alan’s mind and now mine, was: “You never taught me to tell people what I know”.  I was reminded of a Higher Education Quality Council (HEQCO) meeting in November: Beyond the Buzzwords where the skills gap question was being discussed and an employment recruiting specialist commented that it was not that young prospective employees did not necessarily possess the skills they were looking for, but they did not recognize that they had them, or know how to articulate them.  Often these skills that are talked about more and more in academe, the media and the population at large are non-subject specific skills but rather transferable cognitive skills, such as critical thinking, communication, problem solving, team work, professionalism.

When we work with Departments on curriculum mapping exercises the list of so called “soft skills” and values that we desire of our graduating students is often the longest, and I admit sometimes most contentious. Part of that dissention, I believe, arises from the fact that these skills are much harder to define and I would argue, have been implicit in higher education. The question as I see it is: How do we make these expectations explicit and how do we effectively guide assess their development? And perhaps even more challenging, how do we help the students recognize that these skills or attributes were indeed the desired outcomes of the activity, course or program?

At another excellent conference down that road at Wilfred Laurier University in May (yes – I have been blessed with attending a number of these brain filling events lately!) this question was partially answered. I had the pleasure of hearing Robert Shea, Provost and Associate Vice President Academic, Marine Institute at Memorial University give a keynote address entitled “A National Call to Action: Do We Need a New Discourse on Learning?”, in part discussing the Career Integrated Learning project let by MUN. The key take away for me was the idea to clearly define these life skills as learning outcomes on our course syllabi as the first step to making them explicit. Simple but brilliant and more often than not overlooked. We cannot stop at stating these skills as outcomes, however, but need to help students identify where they are being introduced, practiced, assessed and ideally to allow time for reflection on their development. In doing this not only will our students (hopefully) be able to recognize that they are attaining these skills but will be able to then “tell people what they know” once they leave our doors.

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Mary Power

As Senior Instructional Developer, Blended Learning, Mary Power develops programming that promotes the effective use of the online environment in on-campus courses. Working closely with faculty liaisons, Centre for Extended Learning (CEL), and Instruction Technologies and Multimedia Services (ITMS), she helps manage initiatives related to “blended learning” courses. Mary is also involved in research projects related to the impact and effectiveness of blended learning.