Students are more focused than ever on personal and professional development, given the recent dramatic reduction in traditional opportunities such as work experience or volunteering.
So, at the start of the pandemic, our team within the careers service speedily reworked an in-person student development programme, Students as Change Agents (Sacha), to make it accessible online.
Sacha is designed to fast-track students’ development, allowing them to work in small interdisciplinary groups to tackle “wicked problems”, each of which relates to at least three of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.
Participants are trained in human-centred design thinking, using data to tackle problems and teamwork, and are supported to apply these skills to real-world challenges, where their outputs can impact society, the environment or the economy. Topics include youth homelessness, sustainability in the fashion industry, rebuilding tourism or the music industry post pandemic, and ending violence against children.
Past participants have described increased proficiency and confidence in skills such as teamwork, communication, overcoming challenges, problem-solving and collaborating online, as well as creativity, design thinking, critical thinking, leadership, time and project management, report-writing, multimedia creation and research.
Advantages of online training
Moving the programme online demonstrated that students can not only continue to develop their employability remotely but also gain additional benefits.
The digital version achieves the same goals (arguably to a higher level, because determination and resilience are needed to make this work at a distance). It also fosters community among students from different disciplines, widens students’ networks beyond the university and develops their skills in digital collaboration and intercultural communication. Moreover, it can acclimatise students to an environment that may be similar to the future workplace.
How to develop student employability online
- Start with a purpose. Tap into students’ desire to have a real impact in the world and to work with like-minded people, and badge personal and professional development opportunities as a by-product. The publicity for the Sacha programme focuses on the challenge questions and why they matter, using the striking visuals that illustrate the UN’s SDGs. The personal development benefits are highlighted in testimonials from previous participants, who talk about the impact that participating had on others as well as on themselves.
- Be explicit with students about the skills and attributes they will develop, but beware of overwhelming them. Allow them instead to discover some serendipitous outcomes themselves. Many Sacha participants are pleasantly surprised to increase their resilience, empathy and friendship circle as a result of participating.
- Involve external organisations. There is nothing more motivating for students than realising that practitioners in the field genuinely value their views. Use the university’s networks to recruit partners; this is the most cost-effective way and is likely to lead to longer-term impact. Involving multiple organisations from diverse locations can be more achievable online than in person. No matter the size or sector of the organisation, it is vital that they buy in to the ethos of the programme, recognising the value of collaborating with students to create new knowledge. Investing in future talent is part of the process and, in an ideal world, these organisations become future employers.
- Create a student-friendly online space. This space should offer genuine equality and openness to collaboration among students, staff and external partners. It can be any sort of communication channel, such as Microsoft Teams or Slack, where short conversations or simple information exchanges can take place as often as needed to keep students motivated and involved and to reassure staff and partners that the students are asking the right questions. If no one has all the answers and there is no hierarchy of experts, then everyone becomes open to learning together. In this space magic can happen.
- Design training with a safety net in place. When students learn by doing and push themselves out of their comfort zones, their need for support cannot be overstated. Avoid “hand-holding”, but make support consistently available, whether from staff, external partners or peers. This helps build confidence and encourages students to take risks and fail safely. The communication channel can provide a bird’s-eye view of what is going on with students and allow staff to see where they may be struggling. Regular, short check-ins, where students are given the opportunity to report on progress and ask questions, with their cameras on, can also give clues to where extra support may be needed.
- Encourage students to reflect, reflect, reflect. They should set goals for their development during the programme, review these regularly and report on what they have gained from the experience, ideally to a wider audience. This self-awareness and ability to articulate their development is key to enhancing employability.
Co-curricular programmes can create a neutral, interdisciplinary space where the mix of thinking styles, backgrounds and knowledge stimulates innovation and personal growth. However, it is possible to take elements of this approach into the curricular space, using supported challenge-based learning with external partners as a starting point.
Ruth Donnelly is assistant director at the University of Edinburgh Careers Service.