An introduction to this post and the idea of future readiness
The news is littered with stories about how robots, automation and AI will impact our lives. Some are highly amusing, some seem hardly credible, but without question, pressure will only increase on universities to turn out students who can thrive in a rapidly changing world. Employability as a primary educational aim can be contentious - for some, it calls into question the value of higher learning as a goal in itself. So here at PebblePad, we tend to talk in terms of future readiness, a construct which accommodates employment, further study, research, entrepreneurship, volunteering - indeed, anything beyond any immediate episode of learning. Around the same time as the Dearing-inspired PDP initiatives in the UK, America’s AAC&U's LEAP Initiative offered a reasonable sense of what we might mean by future ready, suggesting that students “acquire the broad knowledge, higher order capacities, and real-world experience they need to thrive”.
Now, before I move on, I am aware that you may have arrived at this blog because you've heard about our Global Trends in Higher Education Thought Leadership Paper and you may, therefore, want to prioritise reading the paper over reading this blog. You'll find a link to the download immediately below, and, if you haven't already, I would also recommend subscribing to our blog, as the paper forms the first in a series of ideas we'll be sharing over the coming months. If you've not heard about the paper, then stick with me to the end of the blog and you'll discover more about the research we recently undertook to create the paper.
The rise of Robbie the robot
If we believe what we read then opportunities for gainful ‘employment’ in the future will not only be contested by too many graduates for too few positions, but also by Robbie the robot. And it’s not just the obvious candidates like manufacturing that are under threat. The increasing sophistication of AI means that the threat of automation looms large, even in fields where human thought and ‘intuition’ were thought to protect a highly educated workforce, like the financial services industry. The emergence of entirely new industries, the growing gig economy, lifestyle choices - and choices made for us - will all contribute to the growing number of jobs and careers that we each have over a lifetime. This Australian example of job mobility echoes census findings in the UK and the US. For example, the Bureau of Labour Statistics found that every year more than one third of the entire US labour force changes jobs and that today’s students will have 10-14 jobs by the time they are 38.
The wind turbine of change
Universities are a little like oil tankers - alterations to their navigation take a lot of planning and are slow to be executed. Nevertheless, a general and widely observable change in direction is afoot. Whilst subject disciplines rightly seek to protect the accumulated knowledge that defines them, knowing is no longer enough. Nor is the application of this knowledge in restricted contextual settings. Skills, abilities and aptitudes are increasingly expected to be transferable, and for good reason, with many of today’s professions not even existing when I taught in university only 15 years ago. Think of wind turbine engineers and photovoltaic engineers - and also the huge growth in forensic scientists, virtual reality designers, cyber security, nanotechnology, digital services and, just around the corner, block chain engineers. Of course, some graduate professions are on the point of extinction with journalism one of those under increasing threat. See these two BLS tables for the fastest growing and the fastest declining employment rates in the US.
PebblePad is just entering its teenage years and whilst the technology and tools behind it have developed significantly the idea behind it hasn’t. That central idea has always held that we each learn from our experiences, whether planned or unplanned, formal or informal, independent or guided. To squeeze the most value from each and every experience PebblePad provides templates for reflection, planning, evidencing, linking and tools for sharing, revising, combining and commenting. The unique thing about PebblePad is that it has the learner, not the institution, at the centre of its design; upon a premise that learning is derived from experience, not from reading content. For much of our existence, PebblePad has been championed by relatively small numbers of practitioners whose approach to learning, teaching, and assessment was similar to our own - reaching a wider audience has felt like rolling a rock uphill. However, despite academic misgivings, universities are increasingly concerned with developing more rounded, future-ready graduates - if only to respond to the 70% of students who stated that improving job opportunities was the most important reason to go to university.
Consequently, we have witnessed a significant and increasingly important rise in co-curricula and extra-curricula awards, opportunities to study abroad, work placements, collaborative group projects, undergraduate research and other rich, experience-based learning opportunities being afforded to - and often required - of learners. That’s encouraging for us, of course, because making sense of your own learning experiences, keeping a learning journal, evidencing the skills you develop and being able to share your thinking, learning and development with others - wherever you are in the world - is exactly what our platform is built for. Happy days for us!
Believing your own hype
However, there’s a potential trap waiting to claim another victim here - the pitfall of believing your own hype, of listening with happy ears. Danger lurks also in our particularly connected community. The danger of only speaking with people ‘like us’ or of losing track of the progeny of an idea - ‘was that something we suggested to you, that you’re now repeating back to us?’ One way to test our assumptions that we really were witnessing a shift from the hegemony of content and courses to learners and learning-focussed paradigm was to undertake a collaborative research project across our main territories - perhaps enhancing our own future readiness in the process! Our teams in Australasia, the UK and North America reviewed the published learning and teaching strategies for all of our larger customers - typically those customers who don’t just use PebblePad to support a single course or programme. In total, we looked at 50 strategies in order to discern the targets, tactics and timelines being promoted by the universities we work with to try and get a sense of the learning and teaching priorities.
What our analysis showed
Unsurprisingly, many more universities (76%) outside of the top 100 featured recruitment and retention in their strategies than those in the top 100 (50%). With students now paying so much for their university education, and with funding increasingly tied to completion, it’s little wonder that we are seeing PebblePad used much more to support initiatives like personal tutoring - the excellent UNFOLD project at the University of Edinburgh is a great example.
If you’re spending a lot of money on a university education it follows that you want good value from your investment - whatever that means. A quarter of strategies from UK universities spoke explicitly about adding value, typically in the context of opportunities above and beyond the degree itself. It simply doesn’t seem logical that the remaining 75% would want to offer ‘just a degree, and nothing more!’ - the fact is that different strategies couch their intentions in different forms of language, presumably to satisfy their particular constituents. A number of the analysed strategies also expressed a general need for universities to develop greater capacity to change and evolve more quickly.
Three-quarters of the institutions we looked at featured employability, graduate-ness, or 21st Century skills in their strategies. If we consider this alongside a stated desire to provide opportunities for real-world learning (63%), and for ‘educating the whole person’ (42%) then one might feel a bit more encouraged that the learners might be getting more than just a degree for their money. Although only 44% explicitly referred to student-centred approaches, and only 1 in 5 expressed a desire to empower learners to manage their own learning, the overall balance of the strategies does tend towards placing learners at the heart of the enterprise.
In conclusion, although some of the strategies do stress the importance of their maintaining ‘world-class research’ and having ‘research-led teaching’ I am encouraged by the trends evident in the strategies. Because I am privileged to routinely witness what is actually happening in the universities we partner with I would have been surprised to find things otherwise. Whether research-led or teaching-led I have been as blown away by the Durham Award, University of Edinburgh’s SLICCs and Duke University’s language learning portfolios as I have been by Edith Cowan University’s employability curriculum, Plymouth University’s workplace collaborative learning projects, and the wonderful legal case simulation portfolios at the University of the West England - and too many more to mention. I encourage anyone involved in making higher education a better place to download the paper and have a look through the findings and our recommendations. I hope it sparks ideas and acts as a catalyst for conversations at your university - after all that's why we decided to make it freely available. And if it inspires you to learn more about what we do and how we do it, terrific - one of our knowledgeable and passionate team will be more than happy to help.