Is Employability A Local Issue?

Much of the focus of my recent teaching, research and presentations have been based around student employability.

To me, it’s very important that students are given every opportunity to achieve a career in the academic discipline that they’ve been studying. As a Computing academic, much of my approach is to look at the skills needed for a Computing career, encompassing both technical and inter-personal aspects, as well as helping students to document and present what they’ve done in a manner that is easily accessible for employers.

However, several incidents recently have led me to believe the employability focused approach is one that is most common in the UK, and does not easily extend internationally.

At a general conference I attended on Computing Education, the focus was almost entirely on standard technical skills, with very little interest shown in employability, or thinking about what is needed for students after they complete a course.

I attended a workshop, and one of the discussions was about employability not being a core concept. The closest equivalent was looking at life skills (of which setting students up for a career could be argued to be a part), but there seemed little consensus that universities should be working around that role.

I also wrote a draft of a paper recently, which was generally well-received, but one of the most striking reviewer comments related to something I wrote about employability, that this was the end aim of university study. The reviewer made it clear that this different greatly from their interpretation, and presented the view that any piece written to involve employment should be repositioned from a sociological aspect.

Despite these different views, I still believe strongly in making sure that students are prepared for employment. Much of my continued research relates to the ways in which the selection processes that get students into jobs are changing. Employability certainly isn’t a static area, and it is one which needs continual updates to match the changes in the wider world.

Developing Student Employability Through The Creation Of Online Professional Identitites

I attended and presented at a really useful Higher Education Academy workshop, looking at the ways in which technology is becoming embedded within teaching and learning of employability. My own presentation focused on the need for students of all academic disciplines to establish an online professional identity.

The presentation took place at the Using Learning Technologies To Develop Employability Skills Workshop, held at the University of Salford on 11 July 2013. The slides, hosted on SlideShare account for Thomas Lancaster, are included here.

I was also interested to hear of work taking place at the University of Southampton where students (largely PhD students) were taking the role of helping students to establish, build and develop their professional identities. This certainly seems like an excellent way to extend this topic beyond the bounds of the Computing academic discipline.

Sandwich Year Placements Within The Computing Industry: Issues And Solutions

One of the key employability aims I have for the courses and modules that I’m responsible for is to allow students the greatest possible chance to obtain a high quality career within the Computing discipline. I particularly favour encouraging students to take an industrial sandwich year placement, to build up work experience and to capture valuable contacts within employment.

Finding out how well universities and higher education institutions across the UK are doing to help students with their placement experience has been a key part of the “Improving Industrial Sandwich Year Placements” research that I’ve been involved with. This talk summarises some of the main findings.

The presentation took place at the Embracing Employability Through Placements In Higher Education Conference, held at the University of Huddersfield. The slides, hosted on SlideShare account for Thomas Lancaster, are included here.

Whilst many of the findings should not come as a great surprise, it is the good practice going on across the sector that most stands out to me. Some of the innovations, such as peer support of placement students, and providing internal opportunities for employment and to develop entrepreneurial skills, are ones that we should be focusing on across the sector.

Commercial Aspects Of Contract Cheating

Our research into contract cheating now includes more than 18,000 examples of attempts by students to cheat. One aspect we wanted to explore is to answer the often asked questions about the monetary sides to contract cheating. Who really profits?

This talk explores the commercial aspects associated with contract cheating, including examples from the diverse range of practices that we’ve uncovered.

The presentation took place at ITiCSE 2013, held at the University of Kent in Canterbury. The slides, hosted on SlideShare account for Thomas Lancaster, are included here.

The research is focused particularly on contract cheating using auction sites, so there are still other areas to explore. The data for those other contract cheating methods, however, can be very difficult to come by.

Reviewing The Way That Computing Is Taught At School

I’m currently attending ITiCSE 2013 which is one of the world’s major conferences looking at Computer Science Education.

One of the major changes being discussed related to the planned changes in the way that Computing is taught in schools within the UK. Simon Peyton Jones (of Haskell fame) delivered a keynote address about his work with the Computing At School project, and this subject has also been picked up in discussions in person, in Twitter and during panel sessions.

The main problem expressed with Computing at school has been the focus on ICT skills. That is, trying to ensure that children are able to use computer packages (particularly Microsoft Office) and consume information, but not understanding the mechanics and science behind computers.

That approach has been said to be damaging to pupils, with GCSE coursework based around taking hundreds of screenshots. There have also been expressions that this is demoralising to staff, with the low level of teaching not allowing them to engage pupils (one delegate reported having to teach fashion students how to use a mouse).

The alternative, which is being pushed, is to offer several different choices of Computing qualifications, analogous to how Science may turn out Physics specialists as well as people with a more general Combined Science qualification. The push needs to be to treat Computing on a level with other core subjects.

The recommendations from the Computing At School Working Group include students being exposed to Computer Science from an early age, gaining a practical understanding of topics such as algorithms and logic. All of the GCSE accreditation bodies are now offering qualifications in Computer Science as well as in ICT. And, funding for training school teachers has now moved away from training ICT teachers to instead training Computer Science teachers.

One of the outstanding questions is how these changes will impact upon study at university level. Will students be arriving at university with higher level skills, thus requiring university courses to start and end at a more advanced level? Will at interest in Computer Science at school increase the uptake of Computer Science at university? As Computer Science is repositioned, universities will have to adapt to the changes.

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