Improving Student Motivation Using Technology Within The STEM Disciplines

One of the most interesting MSc Projects I’ve supervised recently involved me working with Richard Wilkinson, looking at the ways in which technology can be used to motivate learners.

We took some of the highlights from his research study at Coventry University College and made this into a paper for the HEA STEM Conference.

Here’s the slides I used for the talk (they are also available on my SlideShare account).

The session was well-received and led to plenty of discussion about the role that technology plays in education and why students did not seem particularly keen to engage with student media as part of this process. Definitely an area worthy of further exploration.

Five Key Findings From The Higher Education Academy Workshop on Using Vendor Resources To Enhance Student Employability

On 6 March, 2014, Birmingham City University was very proud to host a Higher Education Academy workshop on how vendor resources can be integrated into teaching to improve the employability prospects of students. The workshop particularly related to the Computing discipline and the work of the School of Computing, Telecommunications and Networks, but the general findings are relevant to a whole field of subjects and courses looking at helping their students to benefit from gainful employment.

For the uninitiated, vendor resources can be defined as the materials provided by major companies within the computing fields. Within computing at Birmingham City University, the school work closely with vendors like Cisco, Microsoft, SAS, Apple and Oracle. Many of these vendors provide training on their latest software, meaning that students who become proficient are immediately work ready to go and become employed with companies who are using these pieces of software.

Many vendors also offer certification opportunities. Birmingham City University students are able to take those certifications alongside their main degree. This means that these Birmingham City University students graduate with additional qualifications and skills on their CV and so they are immediately ready for work. Studies by the Head of School, Mak Sharma, have already shown that the use of such vendor resources and the subsequent qualifications position students directly towards the workplace and so enhance their prospects for employability.

This blog post presents five key findings from the workshop.

 

1. Using Vendor Resources Requires Trust

Presenters, including the keynote speaker Mak Sharma, spoke about the amount of time needed to convince computing vendors that they needed to be involved with education. Where universities had already been shown to be successful, this had been the result of many years of effort and building up connections. Universities looking to work with vendors need to do this slowly over a long-period of time. Birmingham City University has already carried out their hard work with many vendors, meaning that vendor resources are immediately available to be used with students. The university is also ready to quickly expand to work with other universities since it can carry forward the highly positive recommendation that it has gained from the vendors that it already works with.

2. Vendor Resources Help Students To Obtain A Better Job

In his keynote, Mak Sharma shared the early findings from his work towards his Master’s Degree In Education. Mak has surveyed current and former students about the benefits that they had found from using vendor resource. More than 80% of current students thought that their experience of vendor resources would help them to obtain a better job. This tied in closely with the results found from students who had graduated from the high quality Computing courses at Birmingham City University. More than 60% of students who responded confirmed that the use of vendor resources at Birmingham City University had helped them to obtain a better job than would otherwise have been made available for them.

3. Universities Need To Adapt Quickly To Skills Shortages Identified By Vendors

Bill Quinn of the Linux Professional Institute (LPI) attended the event. The LPI is quite unusual amongst vendors in that they provide subject certification that is not tied to a particular software solution. Bill cited comments from the Irish Government that current skills are needed in Big Data. This ties in closely with the MSc Business Intelligence course offered at Birmingham City University providing students with skills in data analytics. This course works closely with SAS and other vendors to ensure that students are immediately prepared to enter a highly paid profession which uses their statistical and mathematical skills.

4. Universities Have A Role To Play In Supporting Vendors To Develop Certification Opportunities That Are Suitable For Current Students

An opportunity was identified by academia to work more closely with vendors to make sure that the courses that they offer are suitably academic in nature. These is a big gap between current vendor certifications and academic qualifications in terms of how students and taught and assessed. Vendors were shown to not always understand that the academic requirements of a course need to be fulfilled first for students to obtain a degree. There were also issues identified with the way that questions set by vendors are phrased, since industrial questions are very different to academic questions. Stephen Murphy’s work with the Linux Professional Institute is leading the way in the higher education sector here. After negotiations with Steve, the LPI provides separate certification for students to that which is offered for professionals (although students can take the more advanced qualifications with a small amount of provided training). More vendors need to operate in this way, rather than having unrealistic expectations of whet universities can deliver.

5. Universities Should Improve Their Assessment Mechanisms Based On The Robust Processes Developed by Vendors

Many institutions are said to be behind the time with the way that they undertake student assessment. Vendor certification exams need to be particularly robust, since these are designed to be delivered over an extended time period at multiple training centres around the world. There are a lot of lessons that could be learned from the way that exams are set to assess how well students understand the use of vendor resources, as opposed to the way that these standard tests, assessments and examinations are currently being used within higher education institutions. Stephen Murphy’s work with the LPI, in terms of developing questions that can be repeatedly used worldwide, and which are particularly good at differentiating between students who can memorise a set of answers, and students who have practiced and have reached an advanced level of knowledge with a particular technical skill, are potential of much use here. It is hoped the Higher Education Academy and internal mechanisms at Birmingham City University can fund future research in this area.

More information about the HEA Vendor Resources Workshop in Computing, along with findings and presentations from the workshop, is available at http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/events/detail/2013/13_Feb_Computing_Vendor_Birmingham.

How Can We Improve Industrial Sandwich Year Placements For Computing Students?

The Higher Education Academy project, Improving Industrial Sandwich Year Placements For Computing Students, is one of the most rewarding ones that I’ve worked on.

The final report, joint authored by Kawal Banga (my Research Associate) and me has been published, adds to the volume of research on student placements and employments, and ties in well with the material we’ve already presented at workshops, conferences and through seminars.

Lancaster, T. and Banga, K. (2014), Improving Industrial Sandwich Year Placements For Computing Students Final Report, Higher Education Academy.

The report finds that the sector needs to do more to encourage students to take a placement.

There are many barriers to placements, including students not wanting to pay fees for a placement year, a lack of student mobility from their local area, students lacking confidence to apply for placements (especially when facing rejection) and a perceived limit to the number of placements available. Despite that, 33% of eligible students were found to take a placement across the sector as a whole.

Examples of good practice were identified as well, including universities developing alternatives to placements to improve student employability skills and developing their own case studies and quantitative data to show their students the benefits of completing a placement.

Recommendations

Based on the project findings, the report makes 10 recommendations for the sector:

  • Motivate and persuade students of the benefits of placements
  • Better prepare students to apply for placements and to use the time out on placement to the advantage of their future career
  • Work closely with employers, local SMEs and external agencies to create placement opportunities
  • Partner with other local HEIs to offer placements
  • Allow students to work together to establish their own companies as a placement opportunity
  • Develop peer methods of placement support amongst students
  • Follow Codes of Practice for placements
  • Widely share useful placement resources and findings
  • Use virtual visits to increase the support available to students
  • Develop robust training methods and processes for placement staff

The opportunities to innovate are there for the universities willing to take them!

I continue to teach student employability and to show students how they can best prepare themselves to get a placement. I’m already using the research to help to motivate students.

The final report is available directly through the HEA and online.

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.

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