Friday, May 6, 2022

How Do Employees Learn

In "How Do Gen Z Employees Learn?" Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) provide a summary of research findings on what young professionals want from education.  It is a very long time since I was a young professional, so I read this with interest. However, I have doubts over the idea that different "generations" have different outlooks. Human nature doesn't change within a decade or so.

The so called "Gen Z" (mid-1990s to late 2000s) are "true digital natives" according to SNHU, growing up with smartphones. However, my experience is that doesn't make them any better at using the tech. Also it seems unlikely that today's beginning professionals face greater challenges. As a beginning computer professional, I had to correct a program in a language I did not know. So I had to learn the language, the subject matter and fix the bug. For my staff, a decade later, it was no easier: they had to learn HTML, and what the agency did, to be able to help me prepare the first web site for the Defence Department. 

A degree is "just one step" as SNHU point out, but I suggest that is not anything new. Old hands have delighted in pointing out to new graduate staff how little they know (I did). The issue I suggest now is not that training is needed, but if the employer will provide it, or at least provide time off for it. As a recruit to the Australian Public Service I was provided with extensive training by world class experts in small classes. This was followed by professional development over decades, supplemented by that by my professional body. SNHU cite a Deloitte survey of Generation Z graduates who felt their university education was not sufficient for the job, but is this different to previous generations? 

SNHU then switched to what employers want, as opposed to the employees. As expected “soft skills” are top priority. This perhaps should be taken as a vote of confidence in universities, who must be at least be teaching technicalities of a profession well. Some years ago the Australian Computer Society (which I am a member of) responded to these concerns by increasing requirements for training in communication skills, particularly digital communication, and teamwork. Universities responded with new courses and modules (otherwise their degrees would not be accredited). As an example, ANU requires Master of Computing students to undertake professional communications units. Students are also offered internships,and group projects, working for a real client. These courses are resource intensive for the institution, and something students really don't like doing, but very valuable experience. 

SNHU also claim Generation Z prefers video-on-demand, over scheduled lectures. But I find it hard to believe anyone ever preferred lectures. Students had mostly already abandoned lectures, years before COVID-19 made this officially okay. 

Similarity SNHU asserts Generation Z likes to collaborate. But as a baby boomer, one thing I learned as an online international student, was I wanted a gang to study with. 

Feedback is also something, I suggest, common to all students, and professionals. I was trained to provide feedback (and assessment) to all students at least weekly, and do so routinely. As a student I found it frustrating where I was answering lots of questions, commenting on mind numbing numbers of papers, but getting no feedback. What I have found works well in ANU Techlauncher is peer feedback, backed up by a grade from staff. Similarly it seems bizarre to contemplate that new professional would not get constant feedback, given what an expensive investment they are for the organisation. 

The article from SNHU is obviously intended to sell education to students. But beyond the basic first degree, what education is suitable for the working professional? The obvious answer is that it must be online, with face to face classes a desirable optional extra (I just don't enroll in face to face programs any more). 

The usual next study is a coursework masters, but that is a significant chunk of time and money. I spent about six months shopping around for a MEd, attending careers fares, before ending up on the other side of the planet (online). During the pandemic, the Australian Government funded graduate certificates and a new undergraduate equivalent. These proved popular, but are in effect, the first six months of a Masters. This makes them still a large lump of learning, and not particularly flexible. 

Universities were also encouraged to offer micro-credentials,  but example what they are, who would want them, and how they nest into a larger qualification, is not clear. An alternative, which I undertook between a Graduate Certificate and a Masters, were VET courses. The Australian VET sector offers very short, very targeted modules of vocational learning. Unfortunately for business and cultural reasons, most universities been unwilling to learn from, or incorporate VET education.

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