SHED, a JISC-funded project located in the Learning and Teaching Innovation programme. SHED is delivering a ‘student/employer matching service’ which will demonstrate how professionalism can be embedded into learning pathways through enabling students to relate their learning to employer demand and expectation. Students will give employers secure and controlled access to data by, and about them, using innovative technology. Employers will contribute to students’ progress, influencing choices of pathway and specialism, and students, employers and institutions will benefit from best match for work-based learning activities, more employer engagement and sector intelligence.
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The SHED project is now at an end. It has however, raised more questions! For a full account of what we found and did see the project report.
This post follows a meeting with students and staff at Derby College involved in the Foundation Degree (FD) in Construction. The FD cohort is a mixture of employees undertaking CPD and students hoping to work in the sector.
The students are Derby College’s first Mahara-users and they are currently populating their personal pages with CV-type information about their skills and qualifications. The aim is to use the system to either help them to find work or to provide evidence for career progression, depending on their situation.
Understanding what to include, how to record and present themselves is part of a professional mindset which is being developed through participation in the pilot.
The company has responded positively to the concepts of being able to view shared student data with interest primarily from one or two of the employer mentors. They see benefits in being able to keep an overview of their employee activity whilst they undertake rotational placement within the company (technical training occurs in at least 3 areas of the company) and to be able to view their evidence.
The company are also keen to ensure that promising employees are not ‘lost’ through ensuring their evidence is retained over time. This helps the company, employee and college to match up their experiences at work with course requirements from the college and to see the progression of their employees and evidence to support their investment in training.
Further business benefits have been discussed within the company around offsetting the cost of checking qualifications for recruitment.
Support for job-seeking
Would employers be interested in viewing a student’s showcase page? The system provides another channel for students to use to promote and market themselves to potential employers. Having the supporting ePortfolio CV, incorporating personal achievements, differentiates the candidate to employers. Participants recognise the value in being able to quickly pull together bespoke ‘views’ for different applications based on existing personal ePortfolio content.
The ePortfolio can be used to supplement/enhance the paper application where existing processes restrict the application format. Once a link is provided within an email, it is also easier to be passed on within the company or through personal networks.
A valid point which needs investigating is whether it is possible to track who has accessed the ePortfolio showcase, or how many time it has been accessed. This is an important part of assessing how effective the channel is. This could potentially be as simple as a read receipt or hit counter, or providing stats back to the user via Google Analytics.
Whilst on the course, students are made aware of what it is appropriate to upload and to share. The issue of confidentiality and IPR has previously arisen within Derby College’s Tea-Project in relation to concerns about company-owned material being stored on college systems for assessment. Also, where the employer is paying for the course there may be an assumption that they should be able to access the employee’s ePortfolio by default.
Introducing an agreed code of conduct before using the system is one way to alleviate these issues.
College staff see the benefit of the level 4 students sharing elements of their ePortfolio with level 3 students, demonstrating to them early on in their learning techniques and exemplars for employability.
Overall, the value is seen in being able to understand what employers want to see and what they are interested in. Students understanding how to ‘sell themselves’ in the employment market and to present another channel for them to differentiate themselves from other candidates.
Some practical points
Students thought a Facebook link would be desirable. Mahara currently includes a plugin for Facebook (consuming), but students saw more value in being able to click through from Facebook to Mahara and viewing the activity stream, as they would be more likely to incorporate its use into their day.
Where the employer mentor defines what they want to see, this may determine how students not currently in employment structure and present themselves via the ePortfolio, giving a greater understanding of what employers want to see more generally. Employer interaction with the employee’s ePortfolio will enable all students to fine tune their ‘views’ thus providing a valuable insight into employer requirements, helping inform the whole cohort, not just those in work.
Students are being encouraged to keep a regular record of their progress to promote professionalism in reflective and self-directed learning, a valuable skill which the CIOB Professional Body is keen to promote.
SHED and other projects
Using ePortfolio to record skills and achievements to present to employers is not new. Our SAMSON and ESCAPES projects have been promoting new practice within the University of Nottingham for students evidencing and reflecting on their placements.
However, SHED is looking more closely at the employer perspective and how to design systems to promote the mutual benefits of sharing data. Employers are keen to access the talent within education instittions but are also interested in other services and opportunities available. Investigations within SHED have also informed another CIePD project, the Ingenuity KnowledgeHub, which aims to provide an engaging and interactive online community (using the In A Fishbowl model) of benefit to SMEs and social enterprises.
This community will also present relevant University information (such as research, events or news) based on new semantic technologies developed at the University of Derby. Longer term, there is the potential for students to open up their own information into this channel to promote their skills and access a wider range of local employers - and professional and career learning is part of this whole picture.
On the 3rd February, the SHED project team held a workshop with a group of around 10 engineering students to find out how they view employability, their current engagement with employers and what would improve this.
They were treated to a University buffet lunch, and a short presentation introducing the project and concepts. We initiated discussion with an activity sheet (see attached document at the end of this post) which they completed firstly on their own, then we had an open discussion based around the activity.
The session was very useful and informative and the students involved were engaged fully in the discussions, being also very focussed on employment beyond their studies. They were aware of what constitutes employability, and described these skills as interpersonal, resourceful, knowing who to ask, managing projects and were also very conscious that work experience and placements were very important in helping them to realise their career goals.
Another JISC-funded CIePD project, ESCAPES, is examining placement processes from a student point of view. Clearly this workshop overlaps with the work done here, and in listening to students and understanding how the University offer appears to them as users, we are able to develop recommendations across both projects.
Some interesting points raised by the students were:
Course, Skills and Interests
- coursework and team projects were viewed as more useful forms of assessment than exams in developing transferable skills
- module choice is influenced by the reputation of the lecturer, general interest and is generally not seen as of interest to the employer
- for some, there is a worry about module choice being too specific and closing down options. For others, specialising early represents a clear idea of future career choice
- currently, information about employer demand can be found through the careers centres, employer talks and websites
- they recognise the importance of extra-curriculur activities to gain new skills (student societies etc.) but as engineering students with full timetables, time is an issue
- the smaller the company, the more specific the skills required
- summer placements are sought after - these are student-sourced and not a part of the course
- there is less awareness of engineering SMEs when applying for placements
- it is easy to find the household names, but opportunities are competitive. Access to smaller companies is key.
- the first job on graduating is seen as a kickstart to a career
- the engineering job website Gradcracker was cited as a good place to find employers, as is engineering magazines, careers fairs and google
- personal networking with employers is a good way to find opportunities as is word of mouth from other students or family
- there is an interest in current employer demand, research and growth areas
- clearly presented information via the web (see Gradcracker)
- a university provided, comprehensive and easily accessible list of companies, tagged and searchable by sector, wage bracket, job description and company information (including social responsibiltiy, employee benefits, information about former placements). Ability to store 'favourite' companies
- somewhere to browse the available placements which the University has secured
- up to date links to the company application procedures available
- information about company project areas
- company presentations wouldn't clash with lectures - breakfast meetings for networking opportunities
- careers fairs with smaller companies
- opportunities advertised with a salary specified - not just labelled 'competitive'
- feedback from employers, and support with interpretation, if unsuccessful
Before Christmas, the project team met with several small businesses to discuss the project and their particular requirements and priorities. We were very grateful for their time, and pleasingly, all were keen to remain involved in discussions around the project.
We used a questionnaire and a wireframe (developed using Balsamiq Mockups) as a basis for discussions (see attached document at the end of this post), it proved a useful prop and was not limiting in any way.
It won't come as a surprise that knowledge transfer in a broad sense appeared at the top of the list. However, we also discussed ways of accessing different types of knowledge, expertise, events and research purely from an outsider's point of view.
SME engagement with Universities is more ad hoc than that of large blue chip companies. At Nottingham, we are fortunate to have a strong and growing community of SMEs through the Ingenuity Gateway and its regular programme of events. This provides an accessible way for SMEs to engage, network and find contacts. Once the Gateway is open, SMEs are put in touch with areas they express interest in, but this is a huge job to perform manually - so a system which could surface relevant information from different departments would be very much desired, particularly as University information is notoriously hard to find due to its distribution across different adademic schools and departments.
Students and knowledge transfer
As well as an interest in University research (I won't touch on IPR, this isn't the place!), the employers were interested in student placements, internships, projects and employment. Small businesses are often on the cusp of growth and innovation, and a good student placement or project can be invaluable at this time. However, in taking on a placement, the business has to be sure that the benefits for them (as well as the student) are clear.
So, in an ideal world, what would the SMEs like to see?
- a single 'touchpoint' with the University - and a 'hook' for engagement
- bite size pieces of information, easily accessible via the web, mobile app or email digest
- university events available in one place and filterable
- ability to find students for discrete pieces of work (paid or otherwise)
- access to research and innovation headline information (filtered by interest)
- more university engagement with social media for easier personal networking and identifying key contacts
- an online community where students, academics and employers can share ideas and make connections
- centralisation of approach (particularly when supplying services)
- unified approach to data and information - use of RSS, data standards and web services plus common tagging to enable aggregating and search across different data sets
- provide students with a way of pooling their talent to represent to businesses to provide consultancy and 'portfolio skills' development
- a University specific 'linked in service'
- identify 'pain points' for small businesses - for instance, recruitment, and give a way to access students and graduates who possess the relevant skills
Over the last few months, the SHED project has been quitely progressing. We have talked to SMEs and students to align their requirements and find common ground (the detail of which will be covered in later posts). The infrastructure is being designed following these discussions, and the aim is to ensure that it can be flexible and adaptable for development beyond the project.
The challenge is to find the pathways in to the masses of instutitonal data and actually to determine what could be useful and how it could be presented. There is slow and ongoing work to be done in the sector more widely to develop information streams available via web services.
As an innovation project, we are focussing SHED specifically on Engineering within the University of Nottingham, and a Foundation Degree in Construction for Derby College, and building the demonstrator to show how students and employers can connect on areas of mutual interest. Another purpose of the demonstrator is Â to produce both a catalyst and talking point for the departments involved and to introduce new ideas and ways of working.
So far, the project has brought together people from learning technology, business engagement, academic schools, students and careers, as well as Nottingham colleagues from the Malaysia campus in IT and Engineering.