Fiona Deller – Hard lesson on soft skills and other learnings from HEQCO’s conference

Academics, policy-makers and pundits have long been using the term “soft skills” – a lot longer than they’ve been using that other labour market favourite: skills gap. But if various panels at HEQCO’s recent conference: Rethinking higher ed: Beyond {the buzzwords}, couldn’t agree on whether there is a skills gap, there was wide and vocal consensus that the term “soft skills” has got to go because there’s nothing soft about them. Communication, team work, leadership, integrity, analytical ability among them, these former soft skills are actually core skill, essential skills, foundational skills for an ever-changing labour market (and life in general).

Just weeks after the  conference, this and other lessons continue to reverberate, which is exactly what should happen when HEQCO brings together a lot of people who are thinking about heady things like the future of higher education.  The gathering included young entrepreneurs who are boldly following their visions, educators who are testing the place of technology online and in the physical classroom, administrators and policy-makers who are reimagining the structure of the traditional institution and the system overall, data mavens who are making data relevant to the lives of students… and the rest of us who are just trying to make sense of it all.

We asked some hard questions about the wicked problems and implicit tensions when talking about change and innovation (beyond the buzzwords). Among highlights of what we heard:

  • Entrepreneurship is often about failure, and learning from failure.  And it’s good to know that many entrepreneurial students are driven by social innovation, rather than just making money.
  • There is a strong appetite for experimentation, evident in innovations like the Mozilla Badges, which aim to capture skills on a much more granular level, both inside and outside of the classroom.
  • Many of the innovators are focusing their efforts on creating more access for students.  We were particularly taken by Mohawk College’s loyalty card that students can use to pay down tuition by attending events on campus; the Work Colleges Consortium in the US, with student-run campuses (students work in exchange for tuition); and Finish Up Florida, which used institutional data to target stop-out/drop-out students and encouraged them to complete their credentials.
  • We were stimulated by the energy and confidence of the young entrepreneurs, people like Christopher Olah, the Aladdin brothers, Brennan McEachran and Kane Sarhan, and the fact that while they acknowledged the limitations of higher education, none discounted it overall.
  • We were inspired by the promise of a whole new generation of professors/instructors coming up through the ranks who are completely at home with technology and change.
  • David Helfand, president and vice chancellor of Quest University Canada inspired us to radically rethink the purpose and very structure of universities, while Da Hsuan Feng, senior vice president of Taiwan’s National Tsing Hua University, encouraged us to have more confidence in our research-based universities and support their intellectual curiosity.  John Baker, founder, president and CEO of Desire2Learn, said we are moving towards an outcomes-based model of education that focuses on the needs of the student. And of the shift to more personalized learning, he memorably added: “It used to be one size fits all. Now it’s one size fits me.”

A few more nuggets from among many:

  • Eileen Herteis, director of Mt. Allison University’s’s teaching centre: “Just because it uses technology doesn’t mean it’s innovative.”
  • University of Alberta provost Carl Amrhein: “We need to get rid of the firewall between Ontario colleges and universities. It isn’t justifiable anymore.”
  • McMaster University assistant psychology professor Joe Kim: “[In teaching] if you can be replaced by a video, you probably should be.”

Most of all, we were gratified by all the hallway conversations (and the partnerships, alliances and new projects that were surely forged), the twitter chat, the animation and sophistication of the audience engagement in the discussions, and the comments we received after the conference.  Among the more memorable: fix the sound system (we heard you), provide more session information pre-conference and consider serving hot chocolate…

Thank you for being part of it. See you next year. And please visit our conference page, where we now have summaries of all the presentations and will soon post videos from the plenary sessions as well as many of the presentations from the concurrent panels.

-Fiona Deller, Executive Director, Policy & Partnerships

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