I’ve been on holiday the last two and a half weeks, but also doing some writing for my open textbook on teaching in a digital age.
Are universities teaching the skills needed in a knowledge-based economy?
This is one of the questions I have been asking myself, and there of course a couple of ways to respond to this:
1. Of course – we teach critical thinking, problem solving, research skills, and encourage original thinking: just the skills needed in today’s work force.
2. That’s not our job. Our job is the pure exploration of new knowledge and ideas and to pass that love of knowledge on to the next generation. If some of that rubs off in the commercial world, well and good, but that’s not our purpose.
I have a little bit of sympathy for the second answer. Universities provide society with a safe way of gambling on the future, by encouraging innovative research and development that may have no immediate apparent short-term benefits, or may lead to nowhere, without incurring major commercial or social loss. Another critical role is the ability to challenge the assumptions or positions of powerful agencies outside the university, such as government or industry, when these seem to be in conflict with evidence or ethical principles or the general good of society. There is a real danger in tying university and college programs too closely to immediate labour market needs. Labour market demand can shift very rapidly, and in particular, in a knowledge-based society, it is impossible to judge what kinds of work, business or trades will emerge in the future.
However the rapid expansion in higher education and the very large sums invested in higher education is largely driven by government, employers and parents wanting a work-force that is employable, competitive and if possible affluent. Indeed, this has always been one role for universities, which started as preparation and training for the church, law and much later, government administration.
So it’s the first response I want to examine more closely. Are the skills that universities claim to be developing (a) actually being done and (b) if they are being done, are they really the skills needed in a knowledge-based economy.
The characteristics of knowledge-based workers
To answer that question let’s attempt to identify the characteristics of knowledge-based workers. Here’s my view on this (somewhat supported by bodies such as the Canadian Chamber of Commerce and the OECD – I’m searching for the actual references.)
- they usually work in small companies (less than 10 people)
- they sometimes own their own business, or are their own boss; sometimes they have created their own job, which didn’t exist until they worked out there was a need and they could meet that need
- they often work on contract, so they move around from one job to another fairly frequently
- the nature of their work tends to change over time, in response to market and technological developments and thus the knowledge base of their work tends to change rapidly
- they are digitally smart or at least competent digitally; digital technology is often a key component of their work
- because they often work for themselves or in small companies, they play many roles: marketer, designer, salesperson, accountant/business manager, technical support, for example
- they depend heavily on informal social networks to bring in business and to keep up to date with current trends in their area of work
- they need to keep on learning to stay on top in their work, and they need to manage that learning for themselves
- above all, they need to be flexible, to adapt to rapidly changing conditions around them.
It can be seen then that it is difficult to predict with any accuracy what many graduates will actually be doing ten or so years after graduation, except in very broad terms. Even in areas where there are clear professional tracks, such as medicine, nursing or engineering, the knowledge base and even the working conditions are likely to undergo rapid change and transformation over that period of time. However, we shall see that it is possible to predict the skills they will need to survive and prosper in such an environment.
Content and skills
Knowledge involves two strongly inter-linked but different components: content and skills. Content includes facts, ideas, principles, evidence, and descriptions of processes or procedures.
The skills required in a knowledge society include the following (Conference Board of Canada, 1992):
- communications skills: as well as the traditional communication skills of reading, speaking and writing coherently and clearly, we need to add social media communication skills. These might include the ability to create a short YouTube video to capture the demonstration of a process or to make a sales pitch, the ability to reach out through the Internet to a wide community of people with one’s ideas, to receive and incorporate feedback, to share information appropriately, and to identify trends and ideas from elsewhere;
- the ability to learn independently: this means taking responsibility for working out what you need to know, and where to find that knowledge. This is an ongoing process in knowledge-based work, because the knowledge base is constantly changing. Incidentally I am not talking here necessarily of academic knowledge, although that too is changing; it could be learning about new equipment, new ways of doing things, or learning who are the people you need to know to get the job done;
- ethics and responsibility: this is required to build trust (particularly important in informal social networks), but also because generally it is good business in a world where there are many different players, and a greater degree of reliance on others to accomplish one’s own goals;
- teamwork and flexibility: although many knowledge workers work independently or in very small companies, they depend heavily on collaboration and the sharing of knowledge with others in related but independent organizations. In small companies, it is essential that all employees work closely together, share the same vision for a company and help each other out. The ‘pooling’ of collective knowledge, problem-solving and implementation requires good teamwork and flexibility in taking on tasks or solving problems that may be outside a narrow job definition but necessary for success;
- thinking skills (critical thinking, problem-solving, creativity, originality, strategizing): of all the skills needed in a knowledge-based society, these are some of the most important. Businesses increasingly depend on the creation of new products, new services and new processes to keep down costs and increase competitiveness. Universities in particular have always prided themselves on teaching such intellectual skills, but we have seen that the increased move to larger classes and more information transmission, especially at the undergraduate level, challenges this assumption. Also, it is not just in the higher management positions that these skills are required. Trades people in particular are increasingly having to be problem-solvers rather than following standard processes, which tend to become automated. Anyone dealing with the public needs to be able to identify needs and find appropriate solutions;
- digital skills: most knowledge-based activities depend heavily on the use of technology. However the key issue is that these skills need to be embedded within the knowledge domain in which the activity takes place. This means for instance real estate agents knowing how to use geographical information systems to identify sales trends and prices in different geographical locations, welders knowing how to use computers to control robots examining and repairing pipes, radiologists knowing how to use new technologies that ‘read’ and analyze MRI scans. Thus the use of digital technology needs to be integrated with and evaluated through the knowledge-base of the subject area;
- knowledge management: this is perhaps the most over-arching of all the skills. Knowledge is not only rapidly changing with new research, new developments, and rapid dissemination of ideas and practices over the Internet, but the sources of information are increasing, with a great deal of variability in the reliability or validity of the information. Thus the knowledge that an engineer learns at university can quickly become obsolete. There is so much information now in the health area that it is impossible for a medical student to master all drug treatments, medical procedures and emerging science such a genetic engineering, even within an eight year program. The key skill in a knowledge-based society is knowledge management: how to find, evaluate, analyze, apply and disseminate information, within a particular context. This is a skill that graduates will need to employ long after graduation.
Most faculty, at least in universities, are well trained in content and have a deep understanding of the subject areas in which they are teaching. Expertise in skills development though is another matter. The issue here is not so much that faculty do not help students develop skills – they do – but whether these intellectual skills match the needs of knowledge-based workers, and whether enough emphasis is given to skills development within the curriculum.
Embedding skills in the curriculum
We know a lot from research about skills and skill development (again, references to come):
- skills development is relatively context-specific. In other words, these skills need to be embedded within a knowledge domain. For example, problem solving in medicine is different from problem-solving in business. Different processes and approaches are used to solve problems in these domains (for instance, medicine tends to be more deductive, business more intuitive; medicine is more risk averse, business is more likely to accept a solution that will contain a higher element of risk or uncertainty);
- learners need practice – often a good deal of practice – to reach mastery and consistency in a particular skill;
- skills are often best learned in relatively small steps, with steps increasing as mastery is approached;
- learners need feedback on a regular basis to learn skills quickly and effectively; immediate feedback is usually better than late feedback;
- although skills can be learned by trial and error without the intervention of a teacher, coach, or technology, skills development can be greatly enhanced with appropriate interventions, which means adopting appropriate teaching methods and technologies for skills development.
- although content can be transmitted equally effectively through a wide range of media, skills development is much more tied to specific teaching approaches and technologies.
What should we do?
So here are some questions to discuss at the next departmental meeting discussing curriculum:
- what are the skills we are trying to develop in this program? Are they explicitly stated and communicated to students?
- how well do they match the skills required by knowledge-based workers? Do we need to add or adapt existing skills to make them more relevant? If so, would this have a negative or a positive effect on the academic integrity of the program and particularly on the choice of content?
- what teaching methods are most likely to lead the development of such skills?
- what opportunities should we provide for practice and feedback on the development of the skills we have chosen?
- how do we assess such skills?
Your feedback requested
1. Have I covered the main skills needed in a knowledge-based society? What have I missed?
2. Do you agree that these are important skills? If so, should universities explicitly try to develop them?
3. What are you or your university doing (if anything) to ensure such skills are taught, and taught well?
4. What roles if any do you think technology, and in particular online learning, can play in helping to develop such skills?
5. Any other comments on this topic