Learning For Life: Encouraging Agentic Engagement

Published:

In a rapidly changing world where work patterns impact on our health, relationships and social fabric, it is critical that we reconsider the role universities could or should play in helping students prepare for the complexities of the 21st century. Efforts to respond to economic imperatives such as the skills shortage have seen a rush to embed work integrated and career development learning in the curriculum and a strengthening of the discourse that the university's role is primarily to produce industry ready or 'oven ready and self basting' graduates (Atkins, 1999). This narrow focus on 'giving industry what industry wants' (Patrick, Peach & Pocknee, 2009) ignores the importance of helping students develop the types of skills and dispositions they will need. Thus enabling students to thrive not just survive economically as well as socially in a radically unknowable world, where knowledge becomes obsolete and we need to be ready to develop new futures (Barnett, 2004).

Lady using a tablet
Lady using a tablet

Professional

Essay Writers

Lady Using Tablet

Get your grade
or your money back

using our Essay Writing Service!

Essay Writing Service

This paper

considers the concept of 'work',

the role it plays in our lives,

and our aspirations to build sustainable,

socially connected communities.

We revisit

the assumptions underlying the employability argument (Atkins, 1999) in the light of changing notions of work (Hagel, Seely Brown & Davison, 2010),

and the need for higher education to contribute to a better and more sustainable society (Pocock, 2003).

Specifically we present initiatives developed from work integrated learning (WIL) programs in the United Kingdom and Australia, where WIL programs are framed within the broader context of real world and life-wide curriculum (Jackson, 2010), and where transferable skills and elements of work-related learning programs prepare students for less certain job futures.

Such approaches encourage students to take an agentic role (Billett & Pavlova, 2005) in selecting their work possibilities and in helping them build resilience and capabilities to deal with new and challenging situations so they can become who they want to be not just what they want to be.

The theoretical and operational implications and challenges of shaping real world and life-wide curriculum will be investigated in more depth in the next phase of this research.

Background

The pressure to reform university curriculum in order to better prepare students for the workforce, improve graduate employability and meet economic imperatives is global. It is also not new. The relationship between higher education and the economy is long standing with employability a continuing feature of the higher education landscape (Yorke & Knight, 2004). In Australian higher education work integrated learning (WIL) programs that enhance employability were first documented in the 1940s. Since then the massification of higher education and increased public scrutiny of university curriculum have raised questions about the relevance of curriculum and the role WIL programs play in enhancing employability (Peach & Gamble, in press). Yorke and Knight (2004) argue that the challenge is to identify ways to enhance employability without prejudicing discipline specific aspects of learning. Barnett and Coates (2005) add that learning that takes place outside the curriculum must also be acknowledged and encouraged through a 'curriculum for life'. However learning is very much a personal process, which occurs in all aspects of our lives as we engage in activities and interactions with our environments. We are all lifelong learners and this is not to be confused with programs which provide lifelong education (Billett, 2010).

The research issue

This paper considers the concept of 'work', the role it plays in our lives, and our aspirations to build sustainable, socially connected communities. We revisit the assumptions underlying the employability argument (Atkins, 1999) in the light of changing notions of work (Hagel, Seely Brown & Davison, 2010), and the need for higher education to contribute to a better and more sustainable society (Pocock, 2003).

Specifically we present initiatives developed in the United Kingdom and Australia, where WIL is framed within the broader context of real world and life-wide curriculum (Jackson, 2010), and where transferable skills and elements of work-related learning programs prepare students for less certain job futures and acknowledge the importance of social connectedness and personal agency. That is, initiatives and approaches that encourage students to take an agentic role (Billett & Pavlova, 2005) in selecting their work possibilities and help build resilience and capabilities to deal with new and challenging situations so that graduates can become who they want to be not just what they want to be.

Responding to the challenges of higher education on the edge

Lady using a tablet
Lady using a tablet

Comprehensive

Writing Services

Lady Using Tablet

Plagiarism-free
Always on Time

Marked to Standard

Order Now

This critical inquiry relates to concepts of work and the role of the university in providing a curriculum for life. Related questions and concerns emerged from research undertaken as part of an international collaboration between QUT and the University of Surrey, Guilford.

Method

In 2007 informal discussions took place via a UK list serve between QUT and the University of Surrey (Peach & Jackson, 2007). The discussions facilitated by technology led to the idea of a collaborative professional inquiry into immersive learning experiences in higher education facilitated by video conferencing and other technology. The collaboration was particularly exciting because to our knowledge it had not been tried before. The research collaboration between August 2007 and December 2010 involved a transnational community of practice established to facilitate the sharing of knowledge, expertise and resources related to WIL, real world curriculum, professional training and life wide learning. From 2009 to 2010 the research collaboration was generously supported by a University of Surrey Fellowship (Peach, Franz & Sahama, 2009). This paper draws on case study data and related literature gathered throughout rich discussion in the community of practice. Over the 18 months of collaboration eight major research seminars were held via Access Grid Network (AGN) video conferencing facilities.

The seminar topics investigated included

learning to be professional;

career development learning;

whole of institution approaches to curriculum development;

student mobility and overseas work placements;

curriculum design, policy and practice;

assessment;

supporting and preparing students for work placement;

and industry accreditation.

The seminar discussions were supplemented by additional Skype and e-mail communications as well as campus visits to Brisbane and Guilford. The relationship also led to the establishment of links between QUT and Liverpool John Moores University, Learning Development Unit and Centre for Excellence in Leadership and Professional Learning which involved a reciprocal visitor exchange.

Case studies

The University of Surrey Centre of Excellence in Professional Training and Research (SCEPTrE) is a Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL) established in 2005 by the UK Higher Education Academy. The main aims of the 74 CETLs established by the Academy were to 1) reward excellent teaching practice and 2) deliver substantial benefits to students, teachers and institutions through partnerships and forums for the sharing of information and learning outcomes (Higher Education Academy, 2011).

The aim of SCEPTrE has been

to enhance the learning experience of students,

especially those on professional placement,

using an inquiry-based approach to education.

Some of the curriculum questions pursued by SCEPTrE include

reframing perceptions of what counts as learning;

developing the means of recognising and valuing learning that is not formally assessed within an academic program;

and how to help learners develop a deeper understanding of how and what they are learning in different parts of their lives (University of Surrey, 2011).

In his recent article in the HERDSA Special Edition on WIL (2010) SCEPTrE's Director, Professor Jackson describes the introduction of the

Surrey Lifewide Learning Award. An award given to students who demonstrate learning and personal development through co-curricular experiences. The award requires a minimum of 150 hours of experience-based and reflective learning. Students decide which experiences to include in their portfolio and have to demonstrate new learning and personal development against the Award's capability and values statement (Jackson, 2010).

From a curriculum reform perspective there were several challenges including influencing decision makers and practitioners to try new ideas, adapt practice, invent new practices and influence others.

Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU), formerly Liverpool Polytechnic, has a long history of applied and work related programs. In 2005 it embarked on a curriculum reform process to help students develop skills to enable them to 'stand out from the crowd' (Liverpool John Moores University, 2011).

The curriculum review process involved embedding key transferrable skills and elements of work-related learning in every undergraduate degree program and the introduction of a World of Work (WOW) certificate.

This certificate, underpinned by strong commitment from industry partners, is awarded based on evidence of student engagement in work related learning. The WOW approach acknowledges that students learn in many ways; the need to scaffold learning so students can respond positively to real world tensions and opportunities; and the challenges of preparing students for jobs we don't have names for yet.

Lady using a tablet
Lady using a tablet

This Essay is

a Student's Work

Lady Using Tablet

This essay has been submitted by a student. This is not an example of the work written by our professional essay writers.

Examples of our work

Queensland University of Technology (QUT), recently acknowledged in the top ten Australian research universities, markets itself very successfully as the university 'for the real world'. A challenge is to ensure that the purpose and promise behind this marketing lives up to expectations (Peach, 2010).

In 2006 changes were made to the way internally-funded large teaching and learning grants were administered and a more collaborative institution-wide approach was adopted to progress the three priority areas of first year, WIL and capstone experience. From 2007 to 2009 project work referred to as Supporting Real World Learning was conceptualised around the student learning journey with a focus on the development of personal and professional identity.

University-wide projects focussed on promoting and supporting strategic change and building faculty capacity in relation to students, curriculum, staff, and enabling systems.

Since 2010 University-wide project work has focussed on institutional approaches to curriculum and assessment and a shift away from unit centric approaches to planning and teaching. This work is based on principles of curriculum design including providing course transparency for students; providing structures for planning units within a coherent whole-of-course design; providing course assessment maps; making visible the desired profile of the graduating student; developing back-mapping course design processes; ensuring alignment of course outcomes, unit outcomes, assessment and criteria and explicitly planning for new national demands (Healy, 2010a & 2010b). Successful implementation of these initiatives will depend on the extent of engagement by key stakeholders across the faculties and divisions.

Discussion

These diverse case studies provide examples of efforts to look more closely at curriculum, policies and practices to ensure that they shape and guide graduate experiences and student preparedness for the complexities of the 21st century. They also highlight several important aspects that are particularly relevant to the way employability and WIL are constructed and understood in higher education. That is, the importance of valuing learning that is not necessarily assessed; that students learn in many different ways; that understanding the student learning journey is critical to effective curriculum design; and the value of coherent whole of course approaches (see Figure 1). The challenge is to open up debate about the role of the university and to initiate curriculum reform to adequately respond to these issues. The case studies, showcasing three different institutions 'on the edge', provide a basis for this debate.

Importance of valuing learning not formally assessed

Students learn in many different ways

Student learning journey

Value of coherent whole of institution/whole of course approaches

Personal and professional identity development

Figure1: Higher education on the edge: findings from a transnational community of practice 2007-2010

We argue that a starting point is to challenge the narrowness of the employability agenda particularly in relation to WIL and the need to take into account shift in work patterns and unknowable futures. That is, employability is something that can be developed throughout life and universities would do well to start recognising that co and extra-curricular achievements contribute to a graduate's employability and social connectedness (e.g. University of Surrey Lifewide Learning Award). The 'capability envelope' (Yorke & Knight, 2004) is a way to think about a course-level focus on developing graduate attributes, building resilience and improving graduate employability might be achieved (e.g. QUT Supporting Real World Learning Project) Such approaches encourage students to take an agentic role (Billett & Pavlova, 2005) in selecting their work possibilities and in helping them build resilience and capabilities to deal with new and challenging situations. Barnett and Coates (2005, p.119) argue that what is needed is a curriculum for life that helps students develop resilience and the ability to engage with the wider world. We support WIL initiatives which take into account agentic perspectives (e.g. Liverpool John Moores WOW certificate): where 'people play an active part in their self-development, adaptation and self-renewal in changing times' (Bandura 2001, p.1); where 'individual intentionality and agentic action stands as being central to an individual's learning and development' (Billet & Pavlova, 2005, p.197) and where the motivating factors of autonomy, mastery, and purpose can be applied and are used in successful workplaces (Pink, 2009).

More than a decade has passed since Atkins (1999) published an article entitled Oven-ready and self-basting: taking stock of employability skills. This article raised important questions about the preoccupation of universities with enhancing the employability of graduates through embedding generic skills in the curriculum; the taken for granted context of higher education's contribution to the economy; tensions in perceptions of the social/economic rate of return on graduates; and a shift to extend work experience opportunities to a greater proportion of students (Atkins, 1999). A decade later these questions still trouble university decision makers and curriculum planners and with higher education on the edge and a rush to embed work integrated and career development learning in the curriculum it is timely to revisit these assumptions. That is,

Graduates make a significant contribution to national (and regional) economic competitiveness

There is a skills gap between what employers need and what universities are producing

Graduates who have followed a course with (embedded) employability skills have a better chance of gaining appropriate employment than those who have not

There is a common threshold of employability skills which all students should reach by the end of their undergraduate programme

Employability skills can most cost effectively be developed in HE

Employability skills gained as part of an HE course are transferable and are transferred into employment

We know how these skills and attributes develop and therefore designing them into the learning experience of students is unproblematic

It is important to note that Atkins found no or limited evidence to support these assumptions - adding to the myth making about employability (Atkins, 1999, p. 27). We contest that there is still limited evidence to support claims that WIL experiences improve graduate employability and that generalisations are dangerous given the diversity of WIL approaches and practices. We must find robust ways to measure impact if we are to challenge the narrowness of the employability agenda. It is not possible, within the scope of this paper, to examine these assumptions in depth but they are still relevant and shifts in work and the higher education sector in the intervening years mean that there are additional propositions to be considered. Whilst Yorke & Knight (2004) argue that there is considerable degree of alignment between 'education for employability' and good student learning 'employability' is not something static. To illustrate, it is estimated that today's learner will have 10 to 14 jobs by the age of 38. According to the Former US Secretary of Education Richard Riley, the top 10 in demand jobs in 2010 did not exist in 2004. We are currently preparing students for jobs that don't yet exist, using technologies that haven't been invented in order to solve problems we don't even know are problems yet (Shift Happens, 2007).

Similarly, the concept of transfer of knowledge, skills and dispositions from higher education to the work place is still the subject of scholarly debate; as is the issue of supply and demand - and how best to address the lack of suitable WIL opportunities in some disciplines. Atkins (1999) also pointed out that many gains in student confidence and maturity can be attributed to student lives outside formal curriculum. The challenge as illustrated by the case studies and highlighted by Atkins is to find ways to acknowledge and support informal learning in a rapidly challenging world where the amount of technical information is doubling every 2 years and by 2010 is expected to double every 72 hours. According to the BBC News, a new blog is created every second, 100 Australian sign up for Facebook every hour; 1.4 million UK pupils have their own web page. For students starting a three year degree, this means that half of what they learn in their first year of study will be outdated by the end of their studies" (Shift Happens, 2007).

The changing nature of work environments, requirements and influences are a field of much discussion and debate. The OECD Report (2010) on the changing world of work contends that the increasing knowledge intensity of the workplace creates the need for advanced skills and qualifications. Furthermore they suggest that the demand for highly skilled knowledge workers is one important factor behind the expansion of higher education (OECD, 2010, p.55). Another characteristic of knowledge-intensive societies is a well-educated population. In many OECD countries, the attainment of secondary education has become universalised, where "Many more of the young people entering the labour market today need higher-level qualifications simply to be eligible and competitive" (OECD 2010, p. 56).

This OECD report also poses questions for educators: "Should more emphasis be placed on skills such as creativity, decision-making, cooperation, and the ability to find pertinent, reliable information? Are these skills adequately developed through education and training?" (OECD, 2010, p.55). Such sentiments are echoed in the recent work of Daniel Pink, in A Whole New Mind (2005) which argues for skills such as problem solving, visual perception and symphonic thinking. Pink also contends that the three elements of true motivation - autonomy, mastery, and purpose are used in successful workplaces (Pink, 2009). Such sentiments are close to Billet's (2010) work on lifelong learning and agentic action (Billet & Pavlova, 2005).

Influences external to organisations that are changing the nature of work include the globalization of markets, advances in technology, particularly continuous change in technology in information and communications technology, growth in the services sector, and an increasing reliance on knowledge to generate new products and services (Wood, et al., 2010). Other factors influencing the nature of work are changing workforce demographics, and a global workforce that places a higher premium on cross-cultural sensitivities and skills (Burke & Ng, 2006). Such changes will require workers with different skills and the ability to continuously learn new skills and adapt to changing needs. Shifts in work patterns and changes in social connectedness prompt broader questions about the sort of society we aspire to build and strategies we might use to make us more socially connected. What role we believe higher education plays in facilitating this connectedness and more specifically the contribution that our efforts in the area of WIL make. That is, not just in linking study and work but study and life post graduation and the implications this has for not just higher education but society 'on the edge' where retention post graduation is an increasingly difficult problem for some professions (Langfield, 2011; Darling-Hammond, 2010; Lavoie-Tremblay, 2010; McNamara, Cockburn & Shirley, 2009).

The case studies confirm that universities have a critical role in shaping and guiding graduate experiences and students' preparedness for the complexities of the 21st century. However effective decision making about the best way to facilitate this role must take into account the assumptions about employability and WIL outlined in this paper. Hagel et al (2010) argue that we are striving for an arc of life learning that shows us a way to follow our passions and make sense of a world that is constantly growing, evolving and changing (Kupferberg, 2003). Major changes are taking place in Australian work patterns and these patterns effect the health, relationships and social fabric of all of us including the young, able, healthy, highly paid and skilled which includes the majority of university graduates (Pocock, 2003).

Conclusion and Recommendations

Higher education is on the edge - a situation which is likely to continue. What is needed is the development of platforms along the way that provide opportunities for reflection that will help us build a way forward. The transnational community of practice described in this paper provided a platform for sharing of knowledge, expertise and resources related to WIL, real world curriculum, professional training and life wide learning. The community of practice facilitated scholarly conversations in international, multidisciplinary teaching and learning contexts. It also provided a public forum to critique practice and challenge assumptions. The case studies provide tangible examples of efforts to take risks and try new things in different contexts. Barnett (2004) suggests that this willingness to try new things requires an emotional investment in developing the skills and capacities to venture into strange places and learn from experience. Agentic engagement requires resilience and the capabilities to deal with new and challenging situations on the part of staff as well as students. The contribution we make through WIL is a critical part of the endeavour to build a highly skilled and more socially connected Australia. Ongoing monitoring of research and activity in this area, particularly experimental programs from diverse university settings as production and employment change with shifting work environments may provide new ways of going forward.

Acknowledgements

The authors wish to acknowledge the generous support of the University of Surrey (SCEPTrE) Fellowship and the generous collaboration of the Liverpool John Moores University, Learning Development Unit and Centre for Excellence in Leadership and Professional Learning.