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Unlocking the digital potential of graduates: addressing the ‘employability gap’ through technology

Lisa Gray

It’s in the news at the moment: students struggling to find work, struggling to even afford to attend colleges or universities, universities considering refunding fees if their graduates can’t find work, questions about the value of a university education and the value for money that courses offer.

At Jisc, we have been looking into the hot topic of employability and the growing ‘employability gap’: the fact that the skills students have as they leave our educational institutions aren’t meeting the expectations of employers, and that employers also want wider, softer skills as well as demonstration of knowledge and hard competencies.

This latest report identifies that our sector is missing vital opportunities to equip students with the digital skills they need in the modern workplace, and put the new talents, creativity and adaptability of today’s students to the best use in their chosen areas of work. It’s highlighted some good practice points, and makes useful recommendations.

We’ve delved into the details and fished out some of the most interesting findings and resources.

E-portfolios: underused?

Technology is often woefully underexploited when it comes to giving students the opportunity to develop their professional skills. E-portfolios, although often put to effective use in higher education (HE) and in further education (FE), are often undervalued, and the critical factors involved in using them well aren’t as widely understood as they could be.

Rather than being used as a static ‘repository’, we should be looking into ways to use these powerful electronic tools to do more for students.

There are many excellent examples where e-portfolio tools are being fully exploited, such as the mapping of evidence to vocational competencies in an FE context and, in HE, helping learners make sense of their learning, engaging peers, mentors and employers in that process.

University of Edinburgh: developing ‘career-ready’ graduates

The University of Edinburgh's College of Art is pioneering new approaches with their use of e-portfolios with the introduction of Student-Led Individually Created Courses (SLICCs), where students design their own learning around a project such as volunteering, community or personal development, research, placement or internship. They must articulate their learning as it unfolds (aligned to the set learning outcomes), using an e-portfolio with digital artefacts. Students are better prepared for employment and can understand and articulate their employability skills. 

The college’s National Student Survey (NSS) rating for assessment and feedback has transformed from being low to having the highest NSS scores in the university, and the highest in the sector for art and design. 

Many students are using their portfolios to showcase themselves to employers, and the university is just about to upgrade to a version of the e-portfolio software that will allow students to access to their e-portfolio and associated resources for life at no cost.

Digital skills: undervalued?

We need to make a better case for using technology to develop employability. We need to raise digital aspirations of employers, HE and FE, and develop students as 'digital entrepreneurs' that can go on to act as agents of change for business. Digital literacy often isn’t related to employability skills, and we need to see this change to make a clear link.

There is particular potential for students to work in partnership with employers and mentors as part of their learning. Where students are engaged as agents of change as part of their learning experience, they’re not just developing crucial digital skills but improving their team working, project management and collaboration – all of which they will need as they embark upon their careers.

Creating and normalising this kind of quality learning experience will also set out the tangible benefits to employers of getting the most out of digital-savvy graduates.

University of Greenwich:  practical, collaborative, real-life learning

The University of Greenwich uses Greenwich Connect as a vision to effect change in the university. They worked in partnership with the department of law and the department of computing and information systems to develop a bespoke virtual law clinic, which allows members of the public to submit a web-based query.

Each ‘case’ is assigned to teams of students who draft legal advice, supported by academic staff and legal professionals working pro bono.

When advice reaches an acceptable standard, it is signed off by the supervisor and emailed to the client.

When completed, records are tagged and anonymised to provide a knowledge base of case histories (complete with student comments and feedback) for future teaching, learning and research.

Social media and collaborative learning

Social media is a thorny topic for many in HE and FE. Jisc’s report finds that social media policies are often lacking in detail, and – understandably – tend to focus on restriction.

The problem with this approach, and with central ‘IT systems’ team ownership of social media policies, is that it can inadvertently suppress the organic development of online collaboration and learning, especially for distance or online learners.

But the potential benefits for learners in using social media and cloud tools to engage with employers and alumni worldwide are great, enabling a wider, more culturally diverse and cost-effective reach than before.

University of Southampton: using social media for employability

The faculty of humanities at the University of Southampton enabled students to set up and run a project called ‘Mission Employable’, which included establishing an alumni network, a compulsory employability module in the first year of undergraduate courses, and a peer mentoring scheme. Each of these uses various social and collaborative media, including a team blog, a Twitter account, Panopto video and Facebook.

Students use Facebook to engage their peers and poll online to identify event ideas and to call for volunteers, event topics and feedback on events and initiatives. They use LinkedIn for their work with their alumni network; current students can also join LinkedIn groups through the employability module Blackboard site to engage with former students for advice and guidance.

Scoop.it was used to build research and profiles on HE group activity and employability and students were encouraged to create their own web spaces to showcase events and activities related to employability.

Final thoughts

These examples give you just a flavour of the kind of in-depth, evidence-based detail in the report and are merely indicative of the huge wealth of examples, case studies which we hope will be useful to you and ultimately a catalyst for change in education. 

This article draws on findings from our technology for employability report, written by Dr Peter Chatterton and Geoff Rebbeck.