Skilling me softly


Feather 1 by Jim Champion. From Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

Recently industry, community groups and informal learning providers have come together to research and advocate for more investment in soft skills development. The group has produced the Backing Soft Skills report, which highlights the importance of soft skills to the (UK) economy:

“soft skills contribute £88 billion to the UK economy today – with this contribution predicted to increase to £109 billion during the next five years.”

via McDonald’s Backing Soft Skills.

Inviting educational institutions to work with them, the group are aiming to embed soft skills development in educational practices. In discussions I’ve had with higher education institutions globally over the past year, there seems to be an increasing interest in recognising soft skills. Clearly, given my interest in Open Badges, discussions have often revolved around this, sometimes because I’ve been specifically invited to discuss them in this context and sometimes because discussions have just ended up on this topic as a highly relevant way to evidence soft skills.

Implementing Open Badges can help to begin a discussion around soft skills, which may be couched in terms of employability skills, additional skills, character attributes etc. After a presentation I gave this week on Open Badges at the University of Stirling, various areas of application were discussed, such as using Open Badges to recognise:

  • The voluntary work of Class Reps, who develop a range of skills around communication, negotiation, leadership
  • The skills developed by 4th year students who teach and mentor students in 1st year
  • Graduate attributes – attributes the University thinks graduates will need for work
  • Additional skills highlighted via the Higher Education Achievement Report (HEAR), which might include volunteering, awards etc.

One of the Backing Soft Skills report’s findings, is that employees can often struggle to articulate their soft skills. This chimes with research that underpinned the Mozilla Discovery project, which investigated badge-based pathways to employment. For me, one of the most interesting aspects of working on that project was how the process of engaging with the badge ecosystem could be used to help people identify their strengths, including hard and soft skills, in order to discover their intrinsic motivators. This knowledge can be useful as it can help people to make better choices about possible career or learning pathways, based on things they would enjoy as well as be good at. This in turn can have a positive impact on employers or educators because they would be engaging with people who were intrinsically motivated by their job or studies and so more likely to demonstrate resilience in overcoming challenges and stay the course to a given destination point. Clearly a more engaged, motivated and productive workforce will have a positive impact on the economy.

A recent example of the link between Open Badges and the ability to articulate skills was highlighted to me by the team developing Open Badges at Abertay University. They commented that the process of gaining Open Badges for soft skills or personal attributes has had the effect of helping their students to better understand their competencies and how they have demonstrated them. This has provided the students with the confidence to talk about their strengths, backed up by tangible and ready-to-hand examples, which they can use in competency based job interviews.

The Backing Soft Skills research and report adds further weight to existing efforts to implement processes and practices for developing and capturing soft skills. One of the key reasons for the development of the Open Badges specification was to capture and evidence soft skills and personal attributes that are not explicitly recognised through formal qualifications, and this alongside other ways they can aid in soft skills articulation, suggests to me that Open Badges will have an increasingly important role to play in the employment and education spheres.

The Year is Wide Open

Mozilla Monument San FranciscoHappy New Year!

A new year is always a good time for evaluation and a fresh start. It’s also exciting to see existing developments continue to grow.

One of the areas of development I am still very much involved in and believe will continue to grow in 2015 is digital credentialling, and in particular, the open standard for this, Open Badges. With apparently 12,000 sign-ups each day for the student profile platform MyEdu, which supports Open Badges, the use of digital credentials to showcase achievements and engage with employers seems likely to rise throughout 2015.

Organisations like DigitalMe in the UK are continuing to use badges in active learning programmes, to help students demonstrate skills as well as to gain a sense of their learning journey and other achievements they can build towards

I’m hopeful that Open Badge developments in the public, private and voluntary sectors in Scotland will also continue to grow this year.

I had the good fortune at the end of last year to finally visit the Mozilla Monument in San Francisco and hunt for my name amongst the other Mozillians working to keep the web open. I do hope Open Education and an open web will continue to be priorities in 2015.

Connecting, Sharing and Caring with Open Badges

And reminding myself why I thought they were a great idea in the first place

Over the last couple of weeks I have delivered a few presentations about Open Badges. Each conference I’ve presented at has had slighly different aims:

  • D14 in Glasgow, focused on sharing educational thinking to inspire digital business
  • Crossover Edinburgh, focused on connecting educators with Human Resources professionals to share practice
  • The OU Symposium in Glasgow, focused on ‘Caring Roles:Learning Lives’ and considered how carers can be supported to manage full time caring roles whilst they are also participating in full time education

I spoke about how Open Badges could be used in each of those contexts and enjoyed each conference, coming away with new ideas and having made some great new connections. I think the most inspiring thing I took away though came from the OU Symposium. I attended a session by Sandy MacLean from the College Development Network, who showed videos of young carers who are juggling being full time carers, whilst attending college. The videos form part of a resource, called Enabling Student Carers, intended to help colleges consider the raft of challenges carers can face while trying to engage with education. The carers in these short videos eloquently expressed some of what they have to manage, which frankly, is quite mind-blowing. You can hear them here:

When asked to sum up at the end of the symposium, what I would take away from the event, I commented that it was the number of badges these carers should receive. Badges that could act as currency for them in a number of ways but also give them some well deserved recognition. Attributes or skills highlighted just from these short videos include:

  • Resilience
  • Attitude
  • Communication
  • Reliability
  • Problem solving / dynamic thinking
  • People skills
  • Responsibility
  • Time management
  • Stress management
  • Ability to juggle multiple commitments
  • Self-discipline
  • Self-direction
  • Empathy
  • Initiative
  • Grit

… amongst others. The first 7 attributes listed above mirror 7 out of the 8 most important attributes employers on the Industry Advisory Board for Computing at the University of the West of Scotland said they were looking for at a recent event I ran for the Jisc RSC Scotland with Tom Caira and Frances Rowan from UWS. Research around grit and resilience (eg by people like Carol Duckworth and Bonnie Bernard) show these are vital attributes for lifelong learning, growth and success and given the challenges these carers overcome on a daily basis, these are something these young carers seem to have in bucket loads.

Sadly, these young carers are also exhausted and we know that some carers are pushed to the point of contemplating suicide due to the responsibilities they have to manage. Many of them also seem to lack confidence in their abilities and they can lose sight of themselves because they are, in the words of one of the carers in the video ‘living one and a half lives’ – partly living the life of another through their caring role.

But where are these attributes and skills that these carers are developing being showcased? Who is helping these carers to recognise that they actually have or are developing these skills while they are caring for parents, siblings, neighbours?

For me, the opportunities to use Open Badges to recognise these attributes brings me back to what got me excited about Open Badges in the first place. This is a clear opportunity to use Open Badges to do something really useful and good. Badges could be used to:

  • Recognise the work carers are doing – which could be used to bolster their future employment options, particularly given they are developing exactly the kinds of attributes employers are saying they want
  • Help carers to recognise and articulate their own strengths – by receiving badges, what the carers are capable of can be made explicit which in turn could help them to build confidence in themselves and to connect with who they are
  • Hopefully give carers something they can use to help themselves after they have dedicated so much of their time to helping others