Getting Started…

This is one of a series of guides collating evidence and learning from the 23 projects within the JISC Building Capacity programme (2010/11). Each is focused on a common institutional strategic aim, describing how projects built their capacity to meet that aim and how what worked in their context, could work in yours. The guides are written to be “just enough to get started” rather than all-encompassing.

This guide addresses one aspect of the broad area of employability, which can be addressed in a number of different ways, i.e. through routes which also improve the student experience. One of the key education challenges for the UK is to develop a more highly skilled workforce which can compete in an increasingly competitive global market (Leitch Review 2006).

The Building Capacity (Wales) projects sought to make best use of existing resources developed in both JISC and HEA projects to meet the needs and align with the host institution’s strategy with regards to technology enhanced learning (TEL). Most opted to exploit niche areas within TEL, including: assessment, employability, staff development and collaborative working and peer assessment. University of Wales Institute, Cardiff (UWIC), investigated methods to improve student employability; Swansea University made the observation that although collaborative working is being encouraged for pedagogical reasons, it can also enhance employability; Bangor University aimed to enhance student employability outcomes by embracing the QAA newly revised QAA Code of Practice for Career Education, Information, Advice and Guidance (February 2010), and using technology underpin learning activities; they also instigated a “Bangor Employability Award” building on best practice in other institutions;

What are the takeaway ideas you could use in your context?

The UWICFoodies site was set up for students in UWIC’s Food Industry Centre to enhance their employability and offer a means of communicating with fellow students whilst on placement. The site comprises a discussion forum, noticeboard, expert blog (where food industry experts provide updates and advice to students), work placement vacancies, graduate vacancies, study skills and employability resources (designed by TELSTAR for work placement and work-based learners), links to useful websites, show and tell pages and a calendar of events.

The development of an online community for the UWIC Mature Students’ Society was designed to meet the needs of this particular group of learners, who frequently report difficulties balancing work, studies and home lives. Due to a shortage of time and/or family commitments, mature students at UWIC are often unable to build and maintain a social network and therefore do not have access to peer support, which has been found to help new students integrate into university life, lower their stress and helps them feel more supported. Peer support has also been linked to improved retention rates and enhanced student experience. The main aim of the website is to facilitate social interaction between members of the Society and to provide a platform from which learners can access peer support.

Both UWIC websites were created using principles of good practice generated by the HELLO project. The site for the Mature Students’ Society allows members to communicate, share their learning experiences, use study skills/employability resources developed by the JISC-funded TELSTAR project and access links to useful websites (e.g. grants for mature students and mature student forums). Videos have been made available of mature students discussing their experiences of university life and offering advice to others on being a mature student.

At Swansea University the team were building on previous projects that had been improving collaborative working practice, one of the transferable skills that enhances student employability. They had observed persistent issues with group working, and assessment of collaborative group work, especially that students can be reluctant to work in groups due to inaccurate assessment outcomes. The use of WebPA had proved successful at Loughborough University in enhancing both group learning and teaching practices, so the team identified this as an opportunity to solve the problems at Swansea.

Bangor University’s strategy focuses in part of developing a range of measures to promote employability. Their Building Capacity funding was used to transform the careers service elements of the “Bangor Employability Award” through curriculum redesign and technology enhanced learning. Prior to the project, these elements were delivered on paper via small workshops and one-to-one meetings. Using the JISC guide “Effective Practice in a Digital Age”, the content was developed into an online resource which can be flexibly accessed by students whenever needed. Further, a system of self evaluation (based on another JISC guide on assessment) was developed within Blackboard to allow students to reflect on extra-curricular activities and how their experiences relate to their employability.

What benefits can be gained by using these ideas?

At UWIC the project provided benefits for a number of stakeholders, including:

  • Students: access to learning materials to support employability/skills development;
  • Staff: saved time through use of JISC funded and open educational resources;
  • Institution: improved retention, student satisfaction, and developing and strengthening links to employers, potentially leading to increased opportunities for collaboration.

Furthermore, the project has developed a series of case studies which offer models that can be easily adopted by other institutions.

The Swansea team have observed the following advantages in adopting WebPA for collaborative group work:

  • tangible improvement of teaching practice;
  • improvement in staff time use and management;
  • improved structure of group assessment and accuracy in marking;
  • improved participation by students.

All of these benefits have led to the enhancement of team working skills and social skills, and therefore potential employability, for the students. WebPA has been found to nurture confidence in student participation in group work by offering an easy to use system promoting the engagement of the student in their work and that of others.

Bangor reports that their students benefit from a flexible online resource and self-evaluation tool, which is scalable, with the student activities also being recorded online, rather than as a paper based portfolio. The re-design has allowed the University to open up their Employability Award to all students from September 2011. This has also contributed to the set up of a study-skills centre.

How can you implement the ideas to realise the benefits?

At UWIC, the online communities, modelled on the HELLO project, have been developed using Wetpaint (a free wiki tool) and made available to learners. A show and tell page, which was found by the HELLO project to engage students in the use of the site, was included in order that students could get to know one another by sharing photographs with comments about anything which was important to them.

In a further example from UWIC, the ePPSME model, developed by the University of Wolverhampton, was used to create a webfolio template for an ‘Experience Through Work’ module, a mandatory, credit-bearing work-based module in UWIC’s Cardiff School of Management. Using PebblePad, work-based/placement learners complete weekly activities within individual or group blogs, on which they receive feedback from tutors (they also develop individual action plans and assets) as part of the e-portfolio. The model used takes account of the particular conditions of SME employers and learners, namely: shortage of time, prior informal learning, need to match individual learning with needs of the enterprise, need for flexible delivery, quality assured, opportunities to record and build achievement, need for confidentiality and for ease of access to e-learning and feedback.

The Swansea team learnt that group work can offer students many benefits in terms of self and professional development. Well structured group teaching and assessment methods can improve student participation and collaboration that can result in enhanced confidence, social skills, and team working abilities. WebPA offers effective peer and self assessment which allows students to participate in formative learning and understand what they have learnt, how they have learnt it and appreciate how they contribute to their own learning. Engaging with both staff and students was essential, with feedback from staff confirming the advancement offered by WebPA to teaching practices. As a part of evaluating WebPA at Swansea, the team identified administrative issues with the implementation of WebPA as an accessible learning aid. The backend of WebPA is the tool’s weak point; adding student details to the system and associating them with modules and lecturers is time consuming.  However, a parallel project at Edinburgh University has been addressing these issues.

The Bangor team advise that successful adoption of a similar approach to theirs, whereby a course currently delivered through small workshops and one-to-one meetings is moved online, should be simple, so long as adequate time is allowed for staff training and curriculum redesign activities such as converting materials to interactive online formats.

Further information

JISC infoNet offers an e-portfolios infoKit resource which includes a section on Employability and also a number of further case studies.

Both the UWIC and Swansea projects, mentioned above have produced case studies, with real-use case scenarios from departments.  Swansea University has also produced a ‘top ten tips’ for Starting Peer Assessment, and blogged some useful resources regarding peer assessment and the use of WebPA.