July 30, 2014

Producing ‘innovative’ graduates and how online learning can help

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© Heath Robinson 1939

© Heath Robinson 1939 – it’s not just engineers needed

Avvisati, F., Jacotin, G., and Vincent-Lacrin, S. (2013) Educating Higher Education Students for Innovative Economies: What International Data Tells Us, Tuning Journal for Higher Education, No. 1

Hoidn, S. and Kärkkäinen, K. (2014) Promoting Skills for Innovation in Higher Education A Literature Review on the Effectiveness of Problem-based Learning and of Teaching Behaviours Paris: OECD Education Working Papers, No. 100, OECD Publishing.

Innovation, higher education and online learning

OECD’s Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI) has recently published two interesting papers which while not specifically about online learning, address issues that are very relevant for teaching in higher education. These papers give some useful directions for the design of online learning for developing the skills and knowledge that lead to innovation.

In this post, I will discuss the paper by Avvisati et al, and in another post the paper by Hoidn and Kärkkäinen.

The paper’s goal and methodology

Avvisati et. set out to address the following question:

What is the broad mix of skills needed in innovative societies and sectors, and how can higher education institutions and innovation policies contribute to fostering this mix?

Avvisati et al. analysed the responses to two OECD surveys of tertiary graduates five years after their graduation, namely the twin surveys Reflex and Hegesco.

Avvisati et el. define “highly innovative” professionals as those working in innovative organisations and involved in the introduction of innovations; they represents on average 56% of tertiary-educated professionals in the 24 or so mainly European countries that were surveyed.

Main results

  1. Innovation requires a broad mix of academic subject domains. For instance:
    • in manufacturing industries, 50% of ‘highly innovative professionals’ have an engineering/science degree
    • in business and finance industries, the bulk of the highly innovative workforce is formed by business graduates, social sciences graduates, and law graduates
    • a significant proportion from all fields [of study] work in a highly innovative job: 60% of engineering/science graduates; 58% of arts/agriculture graduates; 50% of education graduates

This conclusion has important policy implications, as innovation policies concerned with human resources tend to have a narrow focus on scientists and engineers (and sometimes entrepreneurship). An overly exclusive focus on the training of scientists and engineers to promote innovation is largely misplaced, given that other graduates do also contribute significantly to innovation and that the relative importance of the manufacturing sector, where STEM graduates predominate, [is] decreasing in most OECD economies.

2. The critical skills that distinguish innovators from non-innovators the most are:

    • creativity (“come up with new ideas and solutions” and the “willingness to question ideas”), followed by
    • the “ability to present ideas in audience”,
    • “alertness to opportunities”,
    • “analytical thinking”,
    • “ability to coordinate activities”, and the
    • “ability to acquire new knowledge”

3. ‘Highly innovative professionals’ tend to agree that universities developed mostly their thinking and learning skills (analytical thinking and the ability to rapidly acquire new knowledge) as well as their domain-specific expertise (mastery of their own field or discipline).

4. At the same time, respondents were dissatisfied with the level of social and behavioural skills acquired through their university programme; ‘presenting ideas’ and ‘coming up with new ideas and solutions’ were not considered to be a particularly strong point of university education.

5. Respondents also reported that their progress as students was consistently and significantly associated with the quality of teaching and learning inputs:

    • graduates are more likely to participate in innovation processes after having attended …programmes stressing practical knowledge, such as student-led projects and problem-based learning
    • theory-based forms of instruction, such as lectures and the learning of theories and paradigms, have a positive, but weaker association with innovation
    • the emphasis on theoretical knowledge and conceptual understanding are particularly associated with … analytical thinking, in acquiring new knowledge, and in writing
    • the emphasis of programmes on practical knowledge, on student-led projects and on problem-based learning are reflected in the level of creative skills, of oral communication skills and of teamwork and leadership skills of students
    • thus a diverse offer of pedagogies is the most effective way to foster all skills for innovation in the working population.

6. The mastery of one’s own field is not among the very top skills that differentiate the most highly innovative from less innovative professionals. Many of the critical skills for innovation can be fostered in all domains, even though it could take a different shape from one subject to the other.

7. There is overall no strong evidence of a shortage (or coming shortage) of tertiary education graduates in STEM disciplines in the OECD area.

Comment and discussion

Some care is needed in interpreting these results. It should be noted that they reflect the views of ‘innovative workers’ five years into post-degree employment, not employers or more senior executives or managers, and most of the responders would have been European. Innovation itself is not clearly defined other than it’s what people in the survey say it is. For most of us, these results will not appear surprising, and will reinforce beliefs that are held by many – but not all – academics. However, the results of this study do challenge conventional wisdom sometimes found among policy-makers and the general public.

I draw the following conclusions from this study:

  • we need to continue to support a wide variety of disciplines and subject domains in our universities if we really want innovation across our society and economy; STEM subjects are important for innovation in many but by no means all areas of innovation in work and society
  • as always in pedagogy, it is not a question of either theory or practice, of information transmission or knowledge management. We need diverse approaches to pedagogy/teaching methods, and these need to be fine tuned within different subject domains
  • more empirical work needs to be done on the link between productive innovation, intellectual skills development, content, and teaching methods
  • nevertheless, it seems clear to me that knowledge management, independent learning and lifelong learning will become increasingly important skills for the promotion and development of innovation in work and society
  • learning technologies and in particular online learning can contribute significantly to developing skills that will foster innovation, but the technology must also be wedded to appropriate teaching methods
  • teaching for innovation is still more art than science, but it is not totally a shot in the dark.

Next

I will review the other OECD paper that is a literature review of the effectiveness of problem-based learning for promoting skills for innovation in higher education, and what that might mean for online learning.

 

 

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