Scaling up soft skills and the role of online communities
Author: Simon Hawkesworth, Educational Developer, Centre for Collaborative Learning, UCLan
It is increasingly evident that alongside the core (‘hard’) skills associated with academic disciplines, what are termed ‘soft skills’ play an important part in giving people a fuller portfolio of abilities that they can use in employment. Soft skills are often understood to include areas such as: time management, the ability to communicate and present effectively, inter-personal relationships, problem solving, and digital capabilities. Alongside the core abilities required to undertake a particular profession, these soft skills are recognised as essential for effective working, not just with other co-workers, but with many of the common systems and processes, including digital technologies, that many workers will encounter, regardless of the organisation they work for. Given that during their working life, people will move to quite different career areas, or indeed, gain employment that isn’t directly related to their HE discipline, it’s the soft skills component that can often be the most transferable part of their ‘skills portfolio’.
Gaining those skills has in many respects, never been easier because of the availability of online material that provides instruction. YouTube, the wider internet, and dedicated sites such as LinkedIn Learning, provide a wealth of content, much of it of a very high standard, and that would allow users to equip themselves with many of the necessary skills. But alongside these opportunities, people face restrictions in their ability to realise them. One of the problems facing anyone looking to encourage users in HE to engage with online resources is the degree of ‘fatigue’ many people are facing given the recent experience of lockdown and the sudden switch to online learning. Alongside this are the growing pressures felt by many in the sector when it comes to work and personal life. Financial constraints mean that increasing numbers of students are balancing study, work and childcare and educators face increasing teaching, administration requirements, alongside the need to attain new ‘hard skills’, specifically around the area of learning technology, all of which has left little space, both practical and mental, for people to devote to yet more learning. And yet, employers appear increasingly to want these soft skills, and their absence would seem to be disadvantageous to anyone entering or re-entering the job market. So, how do we address this?
Simply providing more and more online resources of itself, seems unlikely to increase engagement. Students and staff have free access to an excellent platform for these kinds of resources in the form of LinkedIn Learning, and yet the take up of soft skills learning is relatively low. Some of the reason for this may be due to a lack of understanding of the value of soft skills, but it’s more reasonable to presume that users are making a quite logical choice about the use of their time, and to instead, focus on the assessed ‘hard skills’ that form part of their course. Voluntary uptake is always going to struggle against the pressures faced in the sector. One route to increasing engagement would appear to be to integrate these skills, and the online resources which support them, more fully within the curriculum. That alongside the core skills associated with a discipline, we recognise the importance of these associated skills, and give them the status and integration into existing learning, that they need.
Some of this is already happening, in that students will be required to present, or to show evidence of study skills – both of which can be measurable and may require them to spend time gaining specific knowledge or show evidence of learning. But not all courses will provide opportunities for students to develop a wide range of soft skills, or there may be a presumption that in setting a task, students are actively learning and understanding about areas such as time management, project management, interpersonal skills, or gaining confidence in using a range of technologies. Much of the content needed to gain these skills is already available, and platforms such as LinkedIn Learning provide a means for educators to curate and organise specific pieces of content, so that clear workflows of content are created. Yet these resources should be seen as an integral part of the learning process within an academic course, with students tasked to engage with the content and given a clear understanding of why a specific skill – that may, at first sight, seem unrelated to their discipline – is both worth undertaking and a requirement of the course. One of the lessons of lockdown has been the importance of developing ‘communities of practice’ – online spaces – where people can share experiences and provide mutual support. These have proved to be particularly important for developing confidence and understanding of many of the technologies that underpin soft skills, whether it’s content creation, communication, organising resources or data management. Using communities of practice not only widens access to knowledge, but also helps to share some of the burden of creating and delivering supporting material, responding to enquiries, and ensuring that we aren’t replicating resources or processes. Introducing students to participating in and developing these communities as part of a curriculum is not only a useful means to gain these skills, but a skill in-itself. We also need to recognise that some courses are already doing this, and doing it very effectively, and that we can learn from these experiences. Once again, established, and new communities of practice seem essential in sharing that knowledge to a wider part of the university community and ultimately improving both the existing delivery of soft skills and the degree to which users are engaging and benefitting from it.
Importantly, embedding soft skills more directly in courses will require a recognition by university institutions that its staff need the resources to make these changes. It is hard to ask educators to rethink curriculum, change assessments and learn new skills themselves, if there is no ‘room’ to do this. In the longer term, this investment and the greater status given to soft skills is likely to produce learners who are much more ready for the job market and have skills which have the longevity that a constantly changing economy will require.