March 15, 2021 by Remie Verougstraete
In higher ed, surveys continue to demonstrate a strong correlation between the career relevance of education and student satisfaction. Yet, only 7% of learners say their schools are “excellent” at connecting education to meaningful careers. A more encouraging 28% rate their institution as “Very Good.” But a 65% majority of students say their institution is “Fair” or worse in this critical area.
For colleges and universities looking to close this gap between learning and work, skillification provides a way forward. By translating academic offerings into the shared language of work-relevant skills (aka – skillifying curriculum), institutions can make a direct comparison of the skills they teach and the skills employers are asking for. This includes both surfacing the in-demand skills they already teach, as well as uncovering related skills to consider adding to the curriculum.
While this process may sound like the purview of institutional researchers or career services teams (and it is), it is not exclusively so. Instead, effective skillification requires buy-in from those whose teaching and mentorship is at the very heart of higher education: the faculty.
After all, while a syllabus provides the blueprint for achieving a course’s learning objectives, faculty are the master builders who work directly with students to make that plan a reality. By engaging faculty as active partners in the skillifcation process, institutions improve the quality of their programs while simultaneously equipping faculty for greater effectiveness and impact in the classroom. In short, faculty have much to give and much to gain, by embracing skillification.
Just because faculty buy-in is important, doesn’t mean it’ll be automatic.
It’s true that some faculty already embrace the idea of emphasizing work-relevant skills in the classroom. For example, the American Psychological Association website features resources from The Skillful Psychology Student Working Group – a team of nine current and former professors committed to helping psychology students apply their skills outside the academy. And this past year, faculty at the University of British Columbia led efforts to create “rich transcripts” that articulate specific skills in addition to course titles and summary statistics on completed assignments.
At the same time, some faculty members may have a number of (understandable) concerns about what work-integrated learning means for them and whether it will add more to their already-full plate of responsibilities. At best it may look like “scope creep” and a distraction from their primary calling as educators or researchers. At worst, it may seem to undermine the true nature and purpose of higher education.
To build consensus and secure faculty buy-in, administration and academic leaders should address concerns (both philosophical and practical) and highlight the benefits of career-relevant instruction for faculty by emphasizing at least three points:
It’s important to clarify, both in how you communicate about skillification and in how you implement it, that skillfication is not about reducing education to mere skills transmission or job training. Rather, it is about enriching the educational experience by helping students make even more connections between course content and the world of work that most of them will enter post-college.
In a white paper released last year from the American Council on Education (ACE), authors Steven C. Taylor and Catherine Haras touched on this point. Their paper, (Beyond Classroom Borders: Linking Learning and Work Through Career-Relevant Instruction) is worth quoting at length:
“This continuing call for greater alignment with career relevancy has been interpreted by many in the academy as a shift away from the liberal arts to vocational and technical education, and thus a reductive view of the rich possibilities of college. The assumption here is that market forces undermine the university’s knowledge function. However, market forces are not denying that higher education prepares individuals for success outside of the classroom, rather, they are pushing for greater contextualization of classroom learning to nonacademic settings that build one’s repertoire of knowledge, skills, and attitudes to be successful and engaged workers and learners.”
Dr. Steven Mintz of UT-Austin put it more succinctly in a recent opinion piece for Inside Higher Ed:
“I see no reason not to give students what they want: a leg up economically but also a truly transformative educational experience.”
Understood rightly, skillification is about enabling this both/and approach (what UMBC president Dr. Freeman Hrabowski call the genius of the “and”). It’s a tool that empowers institutions, and faculty in particular, to educate students liberally while also equipping learners with the technical skills they need to secure gainful employment and contribute to their community’s economic prosperity.
It’s also important to clarify that you are not asking faculty to become part-time institutional researchers or career advising specialists. Skillification should be a collaborative effort. Ideally this would mean central departments (like IR, Center for Teaching and Learning, etc.) support faculty with tools and data that provide meaningful information to empower decision making.
Even for the teams tasked with providing these insights to faculty, the administrative lift need not be prohibitive. Instead, technology now exists to automate both the initial skill-surfacing work required for skillification, and the more advanced task of understanding how skills taught in a course relate to labor market demand.
For example, using Skillabi, institutions are skillifying entire programs in a matter of weeks without placing an additional burden on faculty and staff who are already at (or over) capacity. Once the skill insights are generated, some or all of the data can be presented to faculty in a way that enables them to assess how it might inform changes to curriculum, what skills they emphasize and cultivate through high-impact practices, or simply how to more explicitly call out career relevant content in lectures and assigned readings.
Ultimately, faculty shouldn’t perceive (or experience) skillification as a distraction from their central task. With the right tools and support, it should instead enhance and integrate with the critical work they already do.
Besides responding to concerns, administration should also make the positive case for skillification by highlighting the significant benefits it entails for professors and their students.
Like we mentioned in the introduction, survey data demonstrates a close link between the work-relevance of an educational experience and students’ satisfaction with that education. For institutions focused on equity, it’s important to note that studies have also shown this connection to be especially significant for low-income learners. To quote the ACE white paper from Taylor and Haras:
“The literature on students in secondary education settings confirms, if not anticipates, the importance of career relevance in teaching practice, particularly for low-income students—and suggests that career planning has a substantial effect on the ultimate value students place on school (Rose and Akos 2014). Studies conducted by Destin and Oyersman (2010) as cited in Rose and Akos (2014) confirm that when students make real connections between their current education and realistic but hopeful futures, their level of academic effort increases.”
Even better, faculty can expect this increased engagement to have a domino effect. Students do talk to each other, after all. As word spreads around campus (and to high school networks back home) about the value learners get from a particular program or course, enrollment is likely to rise. Students end up getting value from their education, and institutions get strong enrollment and retention; everybody wins.
Faculty play a prominent role in students’ lives — one that often transcends the mere transmission of discipline-specific knowledge. Whether faculty embrace the role or not, students look to them not just for knowledge, but how to apply that knowledge beyond campus. When faculty embrace this role and avail themselves of the data available to help students make these connections, it can have a dramatic positive effect on the current learning experience and future trajectory of those learners.
To quote one last time from Taylor and Haras:
“Because of the outsized influence that faculty have as role models, they are still in the best position to help students explore values, interests, skills, and future goals through relevant instructional experiences. These experiences are powerful; they can help inform future decisions students make about next-level learning and careers.”
Skillifying curriculum is an efficient, effective way to equip faculty with the insight they need to steward their influence well. As faculty and learners alike learn to understand how curricular content aligns with the needs of employers, and how to articulate that connection in terms that employers value, higher education as a whole will benefit.
Learn more about the “why?” and “how?” of skillifying curriculum in our ebook, Skills Required. If you want to see Skillabi in action, get in touch and we’ll walk you through an example with one of your programs.