I don’t think I’ve ever been to an employability conference before. The first I’ve been to took place on 3 April 2019 at the OU campus in Milton Keynes.
Employability is a theme that crops up pretty regularly in Computing and IT. Employers, I understand, want graduates who know about certain bits of technology, know their way around a sets of subjects, and have a mastery of some important and necessary skills (such as problem solving, writing and team working).
What follows is a quick blog summary of the event that has been taken from some notes and handouts I gathered from the event. I will add the usual blog disclaimers: these are entirely my own reflections, and I’ve probably missed a lot of really good stuff that was spoken about (especially since I had to leave the conference towards the end to attend another meeting). My apologies to any speaker if I have failed to adequately represent your work and research.
I managed to miss the welcome address and the first presentation called ‘external perspective on employability’, but managed to catch the ‘nations perspective’ talk by Darren Jones who was from the OU in Wales. I was interested to hear that 48% of students in Wales are from widening participation (WP) backgrounds.
Darren talked about the types of service the OU careers service in Wales offered. Apparently this included the provision of 12 internship placements with employee partners. Darren also referred to something called Go Wales, a student focussed employability skills programme.
Building career focussed online discussions
The next talk was by Leigh Fowkes. The full title of Leigh’s talk was: Building career focussed online discussions forums for OU students in a social media age. Leigh revealed that before joining the university he worked in career service in school. This was very much a research talk, where he was exploring how and why students use forums for careers development.
His talk began with a brief literature review, which featured terms such as: career learning theory, career construction, career identity, and community interaction theory. Some interesting point was that ‘career’ is a contested topic, and there were an ‘ecology of communities’ that related to career and career studies (or advice).
I felt that this talk really addressed what the conference was all about: studying the notion and concept of career, career studies and career advice as a subject that could be studied academically. To give good advice and to understand the needs of students, it’s important to know the domain, and understand the terms, and appreciate what terms might be contested.
Assessing a student conference: S350 evaluating contemporary science
Next up was a presentation by Simon Collinson and Rachel McMullan who talked about developing an embedding employability skills within a science module: S350 Evaluating Contemporary Science (OU website).
S350 uses a tool called OpenStudio which is used in U101 Design Thinking, and a number of other OU computing and engineering modules. OpenStudio is used to share poster presentations (which are sometimes an important part of academic conferences) which have been designed by students. Student activities in the module feed into Personal Develop Plans (PDP) and the identification of SMART goals.
Students are offered a choice of topics from which they can create their poster presentations. As a part of the assessment process, students are required to offer feedback on two posters: one poster that is from their own discipline, and another one that is from a different discipline.
One of the problems that were faced is that sometimes student don’t follow instructions as closely as they should do. One way the module team responded to this is to create a set of frequently asked questions (FAQs).
I really liked this approach; it reminded me of a presentation at a HEA conference that I attended which described a module where students had to make submissions to an institutional student journal which had the look and feel of a proper peer reviewed journal. I also liked that students were asked to offer feedback to each other.
Emotional and social aspects of career adaptability
This presentation was made by Matt Haigh from the Faculty of Business and Law. The full title of Matt’s presentation was: Career vulnerabilities in light of the UKs decision to leave the European Union.
Matt’s presentation was very topical, given the never ending political crisis that seems to be taking place at the time of the conference. Matt introduced a term: career adaptability. Career adaptability is the ability of adapt to career change, and handle that change. It is considered to be a subjective experience and a social experience.
Another term was adaptive capabilities: curiosity, confidence, concern and control. Armed with these people can cope with change, which is also a social process. I also noted down that career adaptability was a social skill.
Matt’s presentation was also about his research. He spoke about carrying out interviews with bankers, both insiders and outsiders to the industry, asking them the question: “how has Brexit affected your career plans?” I can’t summarise the whole of Matt’s presentation, but I did also note down the words ‘there is a mixture of hope and frustration’.
Workshop: reframing digital literacies in the language of employers
Just before the lunch break, I attended an interactive workshop, facilitated by Cheryl Coveney, which was about understanding the role of different frameworks. There is something called the employability framework (HEA website), the digital and information literacy (DIL) framework (Open University) that has been created by the OU library, and the JISC learner profile. Interestingly, the old MCT faculty tried to weave DIL skills into their module designs.
We were provided with a big poster that was, essentially, a person spec for a job, and 3 sets of cards from each of these different framework tools. We had to put the cards next to each of the points on the person spec to see how each card related to the role. Soon became clear that each framework described the skills slightly differently; some fitted more easily than others.
It was a fun activity and a fun way to be introduced to these different frameworks. I was surprised to learn about how much similarity between each of them.
Developing employability through open educational resources
The first afternoon session was presented by Terry O’Sullivan’s who spoke about OERs that could offer guidance about business networking.
A point was made that MOOCs can have a role to play in skills development. Two resources were compared: an effective networking MOOC from FutureLearn versus a short course that was run through Google Digital Garage (which was something I had never heard of before). The digital garage led to something that was called a certificate in the fundamentals of digital marketing. The FutureLearn course MOOC had the title: Business fundamentals - effective networking. Each OER used different pedagogic approaches.
A personal reflection is that I’ve directed students to different OpenLearn OERs, and I know that there are a lot of other resources that can be used in combination with other aspects of study. (I also need to study some of them too, if only to appreciate more of the contents that they contain).
Supporting DD102 students to articulate skills, behaviour and values
This presentation was by Leman Hassan, from the Faculty of the Arts and Social Science. During this talk I noted down the use of an employability framework. The focus was on research using mixed methods action research which aimed to understand employability skills.
PDP and employability: comfortable bedfellows in postgraduate study?
The final presentation of the conference that I attended was by Gill Clifton and Alison Fox. Both presenters spoke about a couple of modules that make up the MA in Education. PDP planning is assessed during the end of module assessment (EMA) and has a focus on academic learning, professional learning and professional skills. One of the modules, EE812 Educational Leadership - exploring strategy employs ‘peer PDP coaches’ who are former students.
Students are asked to carry out a skills audit, and these are mapped against learning outcomes. Students were also told about a reflection cycle, where they had to identify, plan, act, record and review.
One of the important question that was asked was: how do you encourage students to engage with PDP planning and reflection? Also, a question that module team members who are considering using this approach need to consider how students demonstrate their skills through module activities.
There are, of course, different view about the role of education; some view that it should be for the common good, others hold the view that it should be instrumental, in the sense that it should help the individual to get a job. The importance of employability skills as a subject (and within a subject) may well, of course, depend on your view of education.
One of the stand out things from this conference was that there were colleagues who were doing some serious academic research into the subject. All this makes sense, since there is a direct connection to the subject of careers, both in terms of research, and in terms of that there are roles where people provide careers advice.
Two other stand out points was that it was interesting to hear about different employability and skills frameworks, also the range of services that are actually offered by the university. I didn’t realise that the university worked with external organisations to provide internships.
A final comment was that I was surprised at how well attended the conference was. I estimate that there were in excess of around 60 delegates from across the university.
Links and resources
The university has an employability hub site which is open to OU students and staff. It is described as “a repository of information for OU staff to help support students to achieve their career and personal development goals”.
There is also an OU employability and scholarship Twitter feed, @OUemployscholar. The conference had an accompanying hashtag: #ouempconf19.