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Enhancing the employability of computing students through an on-line professional presence

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Sunday, 1 Feb 2015, 13:03

A HEA workshop held on Friday 9 June at Birmingham City University set out to answer the following questions, 'how important is our on-line presence to prospective employers?' and, 'what can students do to increase their on-line visibility?'  Of course, there are many other related questions that connect to the broader subject of on-line identity, and a number of these were explored and debated during this workshop.

This blog post is a summary of the workshop.  It is, of course, a personal one, and there's a strong possibility that I might not have picked up on all the debates that occurred throughout the day.  If there are other themes and subjects that some of the delegates think I'm missed, then please do feel free to post comments below.

Pushing employability for computing graduates

Mark Ratcliffe from the HEA kicked off the day by talking about the employability challenges that computing graduates face, connecting with his experience as being head of subject at Aberystwyth  University and his work at eSkills.  An interesting point and observation was that demand for computing skills has increased over the last ten years but the number of computing graduates has been reducing.  There is also a gap between computer graduates and graduates from some other disciplines in terms of gaining full time employment six months after graduation.

Technical skills are fundamental and necessary skills, but so are interpersonal and business skills.  Placements were cited as an important way to enable students to develop and to gain first-hand experience.  Technical skills are important, and evidence of them can be gained through application forms and interviews, but also through approaches such as portfolios of evidence.   Evidence of our work and interests is increasingly available to be seen by others through on-line sources.

The second introductory presentation was by Mak Sharma, Head of School at Birmingham City University.  Mak spoke about some of the changes that were occurring to the institution, and also mentioned a number of familiar (and unfamiliar) technologies, all of which can play an important role in computing and technology education: Alice, Greenfoot, Scratch and Gadgeteer.  An interesting point was the connections between industry training providers and the university.  I sense that collaborations between the two sectors are going to become increasingly important.

ePortfolios in the big bad world

Andy Hollyhead, from Birmingham City Business School kicked off his presentation by sharing with a video entitled Stories of ePortfolio integration, produced by JISC and BCU (YouTube).  The video features a demonstration of an ePortfolio system called Mahara which has been linked to the university's Moodle virtual learning environment.

An ePortfolio is, in essence, a tool which can be used to store data, usually documents.  It is also a tool that can have different uses.  On one hand it can be used to help students to reflect on their own studies.  On the other it can be used to share information with a wider community of people, and this may potentially include potential employers.  An ePortfolio can also be used to demonstrate evidence of continuing professional development (CPD) within an organisation.

An important question is 'how long can I have access to my data for?'  This question is particularly relevant if a university implements an ePortfolio that can be used to create a professional presence and suggests that institutions need to consider policy as well as technical issues.  To circumvent this challenge, standards bodies have proposed standards to allow the sharing of ePorfolios between different systems.   Andy mentioned other systems such as VisualCV and PebblePad.  One of the greatest challenges is, of course, to understand the variety of different ways in which ePortfolio systems can be used.

Using code repositories in programming modules

Whilst ePortfolios can be used to share information and documents, John Moore from the University of West London spoke about the notion of source code repositories and considered how their use may enhance the employability profile of students.

Version control systems are an essential part of the software development process.  The facilitate collaboration and sharing.  They also enable developers to learn how software has changed over time. 

There are, of course, a wide range of different systems, such as CVS and Subversion (Wikipedia).  John focussed on GIT (Wikipedia), which is a distributed version control system that has been created for Linux kernel development.  John also shared with us a number of different public repositories that may be used, such as Bitbucket, Gitorious  and Github (none of which I had heard of before).

John said that 'logs define you as a programmer' (logs, of course, being commit or change logs, recordings of when a programmer has made an addition or change to a repository).  To boost a 'programmer profile', students are encouraged to participate in open source software development.  Not only may this present evidence of technical abilities and understanding, evidence of participation also represents evidence of team skills.

John's presentation gave way to a really interesting debate about how experience and understanding of version control systems represents an important employability skill.  I also remember hearing that students from different backgrounds (and perhaps different undergraduate degrees) have different levels of expertise.  What is without question is that industry makes extensive use of such tools, and it is the challenge of educators to encourage their use.

Student professional on-line branding

Thomas Lancaster from Birmingham City University introduced us to the notion of a 'personal brand', before describing what we might be able to do to create an on-line version.  One thing that students could do is create a LinkedIn profile.  Thomas then went onto mentioning tools such as Facebook and Twitter, which can yield potentially more immediate information about a potential candidate. Thomas argued that computing students should ideally have their own professional website which presents an identity whilst also practically demonstrating their technical skills to other employers.

Sharing information on-line is, of course, not without its risks, and everyone needs to be mindful of this.  One thought is that no-one can say who is going to be doing the next internet search against your name.  Since the web had now become the 'read-write' web, we now need to be careful about what we share, a balancing act between information availability and information privacy, a point that was returned to time and again throughout the day.

Building professional web presences

Building on some of the points that Thomas made, Shovan Sargunam gave us a practical demonstration of how to create an on-line professional presence, through the creating of a WordPress (Wikipedia) based website.  A couple of the steps included registering your own domain (if it's not too late), then choosing an internet provider, and then installing or configuring WordPress.

WordPress isn't the only way to go.  In some ways, it very much depends on the tools that you are familiar with.  Shovan also mentioned some other useful sites (in addition to LinkedIn) that enables users to create on-line profiles, such as About.Me and CreativePool.

Student's online profiles for employability and community

Information about ourselves that we share on-line can have a number of different uses.  One other use lies with the way in which information can be useful in the development of an on-line community.  Karen Kear and Frances Chetwynd from the Open University described a research project that is aiming to uncover more about how on-line profiles are used by students who make use of on-line discussion forums.  Research is carried out by through questionnaires and on-line synchronous focus groups.  There are, of course, a spectrum of different opinions (and practices).  Some students are happy to share information and photographs of themselves, whereas others have concerns about privacy.

Exploring the employer use of professional presences

Vanessa Gough, from IBM, presented a rather different perspective and one that was very welcome.  Vanessa is responsible for industrial trainees and she makes the point that given the number of applicants that are made to IBM, she (and perhaps some of her colleagues) just don't have the time to go rummaging around on the internet for information about candidates.  This said (and these are my own words here, rather than Vanessa's), it doesn't mean that this doesn't happen.

Vanessa described how new recruits can make use of social media to communicate with each other to become increasingly familiar with the organisation in which they work.  Twitter and Facebook can be used to share information about what it is to work and live in certain locations.

A really good point was the social media offers candidates a way to 'get to know' an organisation and begin to understand a bit about its culture.  Engaging with an organisation's social media streams and learning from them has the potential to enable candidates to stand out from the crowd.

How social media can enhance your employability

The final presentation of the day was by Vanessa Jackson, from Birmingham City University.  Her presentation had the interesting subtitle of, 'can you tweet your way into a job?' (which follows on nicely from the earlier presentation).  Vanessa introduced us to a site called SocialMediaTutorials.  This is a set of Open Educational Resources which are available through Creative commons.  One of the videos describes a case where a student was able to gain a work placement or internship by directly contacting people who worked within a local radio station.

Reflections

One term that I had not heard of before, was DPQ, or drunken post quotient (as introduced by Andy Hollyhead).  The higher the metric, the more trouble we might (potentially) cause ourselves.  It was a concept that was immediately understandable, for a number of reasons that I'm not going to go into.

My own personal opinion is that having an on-line professional presence is a 'good thing', especially if we work within a technical discipline such as information technology or computing.  This said, there are certainly differences of opinion.  Some of us simply don't want to share aspects of ourselves on-line, and there are good reasons for this, which we should respect.

These thoughts made me consider on-line presence in terms of a number of different dimensions.  Firstly, there is the dimension of security and privacy, and the tension that exists between the two.  Then there is dimension of the personal and public (or personal and professional).  Coming back to ePortfolios, there's also the dimension of demonstration (of achieve) and reflection (to achieve).  Finally, there is the dimension of the audience - a difference between the general and specific.

Towards the end of the day there were a number of interesting debates.  Two questions that I've noted are, 'how might we embed the notion of professional presence into the computing (and wider) curriculum?' and 'what is the perception of others if one doesn't have an on-line professional presence?'

An interesting thought is that it's not always what you share on the internet that is a concern - the people who you know may potentially cause some difficulties.  The canonical example of this where a friend or colleague shares pictures of a 'night out' somewhere, the details of which should have remained personal.  A point here is that we all need to be vigilant.  Performing internet searches against our own names (or 'ego-googling') is no longer an activity that can be mildly interesting or titillating.  Instead it could now be a necessity to ensure that correct and appropriate information is available to be shared with others.

For me, one of the outcomes of the day is a reminder that different tools can be connected together.  For a while I used to be an avid Twitter user until I discovered that it was gradually taking over my life and felt that I had to 'reclaim back' some of my privacy.  I've now reassessed my own on-line professional presence, and what I want to do is use Twitter more as a feed for other social platforms, such as LinkedIn and Facebook.  So, in time, I hope to increase my on-line visibility - but I am also very aware that I'm unlikely to have a complete understanding of the implications of doing this.  I guess what I'm going to do is to always be careful about what I share and when.

The workshop slides are available (BCU website). Many thanks to Birmingham City University for organising an interesting and thought provoking event!

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