Developing new digital employability skills through online collaboration
Training and supporting university students, and in particular, business school students to become global ready graduates has long been regarded an integral part of the curriculum. Traditionally, business schools in the UK provide students with opportunities such as year-long placements, field trips, voluntary experiences, graduate recruitment fairs and dedicated employability modules to help improve students’ employability. Even though these activities appear to be beneficial to students, they are predominantly designed and led by the tutor. In addition, they tend to focus on more traditional employability skills, rather than the newly emerging skills such as digital literacy, online professionalism, digital problem solving, creative uses of digital tools, and online collaboration. These new skills, in the post Covid-19 era, are increasingly valued as key global competencies by future employers, since remote working is increasingly becoming the new norm, and businesses gradually become more global.
In order to overcome the aforementioned challenges, and to adjust to the changing demand in industry, we carried out a student-led online symposium project. The project was funded by the Association for Learning Development in Higher Education (ALDinHE), and was a collaborative effort between students from York Business School and the School of Business and Management at Queen Mary University. The main intention of using this student-centric learning approach was to actively involve students in constructing knowledge and to engage them more effectively in meaningful understanding through peer collaboration.
A total of six students from across both universities formed an organisation panel, with some of their key responsibilities including planning and organising the symposium; recruiting student helpers; designing and developing the programme; inviting keynote speakers; and promoting and hosting the symposium. We, the project investigators, acted mainly as facilitators, and offered a work based authentic learning environment for these students through overviewing the progress and providing support and guidance when needed.
Key employability skills developed
The symposium went well and received positive feedback from the delegates. The panel members said that they particularly enjoyed the event organisation and delivery experience and felt proud of what they had achieved. Through participating in the project, the panel members felt that they developed the following key digital employability skills: virtual collaboration, project management, virtual presentation skills and a deeper understanding of online professionalism.
Further to this, the panel said that they felt they had learnt how to plan and schedule tasks, and how to divide team responsibilities; they commented that it had been particularly useful for them to get to know each other’s personality and working styles as they were from different universities and had never met each other before. This type of online collaboration thus offered them a chance to learn from one another.
In addition to the planning and hosting of the symposium, the panel members participated in a round table discussion. All of them believed that this experience helped boost their confidence and develop their presentation and public speech skills. This is because they had the opportunity to speak to, and interact with, a wider audience than their own peer group and/or their tutors, which helped to push them out of their comfort zone.
One of the main challenges reported by the panel members was online communication. Since the symposium was an online event, and the panel members were located in different regions, the planning and communications took place entirely online. Although these students were used to attending online meetings as a result of the experiences they had throughout the pandemic, organising the symposium and communicating with each other entirely online proved to be more challenging than what they had expected. The main difficulties seemed to be in two areas: building trust and connection due to a lack of close proximity, and better and more effective team participation.
In addition, most panel members said that they had experienced time management and workload challenges. This was largely due to the fact that they had to deal with the symposium related tasks in their own time and found it hard to balance it with their university studies. In addition, they reported that they had encountered some unexpected delays and issues (e.g. the presenters then pulled out at the last minute) which required them to spend more time on certain activities than originally planned.
The symposium has proved to be successful and effective in supporting university students to develop digital employability skills. Nevertheless, we went through a steep learning curve. Based on our experiences, we provide the following recommendations to colleagues who may consider conducting a similar type of event. Firstly, we feel that a student-led symposium is more appropriate for second year students. This is because year one students are new to university. It often takes time for them to get familiar with the new environment. Final year students however tend to deal with heavier workload and more challenging course content and assessments. And secondly, we would suggest integrating the symposium into the curriculum as an assessment activity. Students are therefore able to demonstrate their learning against the learning outcomes more effectively.
Dr Xianghan (Christine) O’Dea CMBE is Subject Group Leader at Huddersfield Business School.
Dr Xue Zhou CMBE is senior lecturer (associate professor) in the school of Business and Management, Queen Mary University of London.