what they don’t teach at university, but should

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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).
  3. Co-design a framework to support students in engaging with communities and networks outside the university. This starts in the first year of studies.
  4. Allow for experimentation and reinforce success.
  5. 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.


9 Responses to “what they don’t teach at university, but should”

  1. William Ryan

    One idea might be to expand how curriculum is designed by including a CBE (competency-based education) model. At the core of the design is a robust assessment strategy that is based on an active and authentic interaction with industry partners to define workplace success and the criteria of success being used in the workplace. Getting the industry partners into the teaching space (f2f,online, other group settings) could be the beginning of the professional network and communities you highlight. One small step but a beginning perhaps!

  2. François Lavallée

    For some reasons the concept of building a network does not sink until it is almost too late.
    Professional networking, social media networking and PKM go hand in hand but even when I meet professionals with years of experience, most do not get it.
    I receive phone calls several times a year from people who are
    1-looking for a more satisfying job
    2- desperate because they have been downsized..er.. rightsized
    and they want me to help them build a network.

    Those same people I have been calling for years to invite them in my communities of practice where we share information, hyperlinks and contacts.
    Those same people who attended my learning events where I have been advocating for PKM for years and did not feel the pressure.
    Until it is too late…

    Thanks Harold for your PKM, your wisdom and your friendship.

  3. Lucy Vaughan

    Hello Harold – I was very interested to read your article as it has a resonance with work I have been developing in Scotland. The Scottish Training Network was established 9 years ago as a ‘bridge’ between the FE colleges & HEIs in Scotland and the cultural sector. To give just one example of how I think we are addressing the challenges you outline – Our Network Ensemble provides real workplace learning for acting, technical & design students drawn from the Network colleges, working collaboratively with professionals and meeting real deadlines, in the unique learning environment of the Edinburgh Fringe.
    It also introduces these students to their (cultural) sector’s global network at exactly the time they need it – the year they graduate.
    We evaluated this work last year & the impact on the participants confidence, sector knowledge & network building was significant.

  4. Katy Caselli

    My license plate says “LRN4LIFE. I am a lifelong learner and have tried to instill this in my children. But as teens they are quite resistant! Though they have identified a major, they have no goals yet to aim for at the end of their four years. It is rather frustrating for someone who is passionate about the Learning and Development field. I think internships are so valuable to giving some real experience/exposure.

  5. Kevin Cojanu

    I support your Position Harold!

    We provide virtual internships that have an academic and 1-1 coaching engagement that increases the interns knowledge of the required behaviors for each of what we support as the 35 Core Career Competencies. During our 12 week program we engage every intern in understanding the importance of tech and personal engagement to enhance their opportunities – our unique methods in conjunction with industry employers creates effective learning conditions. We have a unique assessment process to determine the success level of learning and applying the Competencies required and if this level is reached Pole Star Experiential Learning will provide a Certification to the individual that can be renewed every 2 years.

    Our process builds the individual to be a complete candidate for employers. The tool belt of the individual is an internship on the resume (experience), certifications for the Competencies, and the confidence of communication to connect with the employer during the interview process.

    This challenge is even more prevalent in the corporate world as industries are hiring individuals with a serious lack of core competencies and attempting to try and teach them – it’s not working. We work within the organization to turn professional development into real Experiential Learning that can change the organization.

    Thank you Harold for bring these opportunities and learning to the forefront!

    My Best!

    Kevin Cojanu, PhD
    Founder and CEO

  6. Kei Watanabe

    Hi Harold, thank you for sharing your insights. I agree with that university and college should teach these network learning skills. In university and colledge, there should be some support to build network, but after they graduate from the university, people should keep and develop their network for lifelong learning.

    In my opinion, what we’re missing is that a place and system to connect like-minded people through their interest. There are many resources we learn from, but a lot of people read web articles and learn from them. But most of readers don’t take note, organize them, and share it on a community. When people learn something, they should organize and share it on the community. And through that, people could find like-minded people and build a step to network learning skills. We’re making a place for online artilce shelf and connecting them. It’d be nice if you like it.


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