Even after four years of study, many students leave their institutions of higher learning only to find themselves inadequately prepared for what is next. University graduates often go on to get a certificate in an applied area in hopes of getting a job. Frequently graduate students who do not go into academia will find themselves adrift.
So what the heck have these institutions been doing with the valuable time of their students? Four years is a good chunk of time to accomplish something. We are told they are mastering a field. A field that often does not exist outside the institutional walls. But there are portable skills that can be learned WHILE at school. These are skills, like critical thinking, that universities purport to teach but usually do not.
No graduate should leave their institution without a good knowledge of the professional field in which they want to continue. There is no excuse today for students not to be connected to professionals outside their school. Keeping students focused only on their academic studies is akin to a prison sentence, expecting that the same world awaits as the one they left several years earlier.
We live in a network society. It is now possible to find mentors, fellow seekers, or knowledge catalysts in almost any field. The only constraints are time and some guidance. Faculty should be able to model the behaviours of engaged network learners. If they cannot, they should not teach. Students can learn through cognitive apprenticeship, connecting to external communities and professional networks over the course of their studies.
Why are universities and colleges not doing this? Because they feel they do not have to. They may throw in a course or two on professional development but this is often at the end of studies, when it’s a bit late to start building a network and a body of professional knowledge.
I have worked with universities and their networks in developing network learning skills and it takes some time and effort but is not impossible. However this is definitely not yet a ‘best practice’ in higher education. So many organizations, especially academic institutions declare themselves leaders in their field, yet they will not try anything new unless you can show that someone else has already done it.
It’s time to show true leadership and help students find professional networks so that they can make better decisions, even before they leave school. How can this be done? Well, here is one way we did it.
- Get a small group of committed educators together who want to change the system so that students have the requisite skills to engage in their professional communities.
- Provide a collaborative learning experience so these educators can develop a common vocabulary and shared mental models (We used my PKM online workshop to do this).
- Co-design a framework to support students in engaging with communities and networks outside the university. This starts in the first year of studies.
- Allow for experimentation and reinforce success.
- Keep experimenting, learning, and sharing (Seek > Sense > Share)
The result could be that students, blogging externally, engage with their potential employers and have a job in their field before graduating. They are prepared for lifelong learning. The investment on the part of the institution is relatively low, but the cognitive leap required for many academics may be rather significant. They have to leave the ivory tower.