[EDUCATION] Mind the Gap

[Note: this is a re-post of my recent post to the Office of Academic Innovation blog]

A recent survey of Americans and business leaders by Gallup (sponsored by the Lumina Foundation) had some pretty damning findings regarding public opinion of higher education. You can read the survey yourself (PDF download), but if you work in higher ed, I wouldn’t recommend doing so while you’re eating lunch.

Perhaps one of the most alarming findings in the survey was that less than half of Americans surveyed agreed that “college graduates in this country are well-prepared for success in the workforce” and only 14% “strongly agreed” with that statement. Worse yet (especially if you’re a recent college grad or about to become one), only 33% of business leaders agreed that “higher education institutions in this country are graduating students with the skills and competencies that [their] business needs.” In fact, employers who were surveyed were so negative about college doing an adequate job preparing graduates for the workforce that 71% of business respondents responded that “all things being equal, including experience, ability, and company fit [they] would consider hiring someone without a post-secondary degree or credential over someone with a post-secondary degree.”


These findings are scary enough but they get even scarier if you look at them in the context of another recent Gallup survey conducted on behalf of Inside Higher Ed. The 2014 Inside Higher Ed Survey of College & University Chief Academic Officers (PDF download) polled 842 Chief Academic Officers/Provosts from 418 public institutions, 261 private colleges and universities, and 42 CAOs from for-profit institutions. And while the findings weren’t all that surprising (20% of CAOs surveyed “strongly agreed” that they wanted to be a college president some day and only 12% agreed that the new Obama ratings initiative will help prospective students), the one that really jumped out at me was that 91% of survey respondents felt that their institution’s “academic health” (overall academic quality) was “good” or “excellent” and 89% felt that their institution was “somewhat effective” or “very effective” at “preparing students for the world of work.”

Huh. On the one hand we have the majority of Americans and employers feeling that colleges and universities are doing a terrible job at preparing students for the workforce. On the other hand we’ve got the vast majority of academic leaders reporting that they think their institutions are doing a good job preparing students for the world of work. Why such a huge perceptual gap?

We can blame some of it on economics. In a soft job market such as the one we find ourselves in now, employers can be a lot choosier about who they hire because there are so many people looking for work. Experienced, skilled workers aren’t hard to find and they’re willing to work for less than in the past, a trend supported by the stagnation in real wages that occurred during the Great Recession and continues today. The bad job market also means that employers can also ask for more out of applicants when looking to hire workers for lower-paying or entry-level jobs. In fact, the 2012 Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce found that a post-secondary degree is a requirement for an increasing number of jobs, with 2.2 million jobs created between 2007 and 2012 requiring a bachelor’s degree.

As a former employer (I ran a digital agency for about 10 years and was in charge of hiring most of the employees), these numbers make perfect sense to me. Like it or not, all employers seek to hire the best people they can get for the least amount of money possible. When I started my agency in the midst of the mid-to-late 90’s boom I had to pay through the nose for qualified web developers and designers because there just weren’t that many in the job market, and those that were looking for work were in high demand from startups flush with VC cash. Today there’s a surplus of web developers and designers looking for work and, based on anecdotal evidence I’ve gathered from friends still in the industry, they’re getting paid less than they were 10-15 years ago. Considering that many of these kinds of entry-level “creative economy” jobs require more hard skills and demonstrable talent (proven via a portfolio), it doesn’t surprise me in the least that Gallup discovered that many employers are willing to look at candidates without degrees…all things being equal, they’ll probably work for less.

But economics doesn’t necessarily explain the gap between employer dissatisfaction with college grads’ skill levels and academic leaders feeling like they’re doing a great job preparing students for the job market. Perhaps the “skills gap” isn’t as much about measurable skills as it is about perceptual differences.

If you look at what employers value in job candidates (rather than their satisfaction/dissatisfaction with applicants), the perpetual answer coming out of “what employers want” surveys is that it’s the so-called “soft skills” that lead the list (a topic my colleague Brian Etheridge posted about yesterday on this blog). In most recent “employer wants” survey published by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, “technical knowledge related to the job” was ranked 7th out of 10 traits employers were looking for in new hires. (see below)

Ranking of skills and qualities employers are looking for in job candidates
NACE 2013 Candidate Skills/Qualities Survey












As you can clearly see, the most desirable qualities are those typically associated with the classic liberal arts education: teamwork, problem solving, organization, communication, research and analysis.

If you look at the “skills gap” between employers and academics in the context of the NACE report, the reason for the gap starts to become clearer. Since many academic leaders came up through a more traditional liberal arts education, they’re going to hold these “softer” skills in high regard and feel satisfied with their institution’s ability to prepare students for the job market if they feel these skills are being emphasized in the curriculum. Many are also bolstered by studies such as the recent “How Liberal Arts and Sciences Majors Fare in Employment” published in January by AAC&U which found that over the long term liberal arts graduates actually do pretty well for themselves…provided they get a Masters degree at some point. Apparently, Mr. President, it turns out that art history grads actually can make a good living.

But why do employers seem to be talking out of both sides of their mouths when it comes to the skills and qualities they’re looking for in job candidates? How can Gallup find them pessimistic about higher education’s ability to prepare grads for the workforce while the NACE survey seems to say that employers aren’t looking for specific skills as much as they are looking for employees who can collaborate with colleagues, communicate effectively, and find and analyze information? If the softer skills are so important, why are studies finding higher rates of unemployment (or underemployment) among liberal arts majors who, it can be assumed, graduate with the kinds of skills employers say they’re looking for?

The answer, I think, is time. Looking back on my hiring days, I can safely say that when we needed to hire a new employee, we probably needed them yesterday. If a gap in the company opened up due to employee turnover, increased business, or someone being let go, that gap could become a gaping hole in our business if it wasn’t filled quickly. There was work to be done and it needed to be done now, not at some later date after a new hire had time to learn specific skills on the job. Every hour they spent learning (and not producing) meant another hour that couldn’t be billed. And when belts have to be tightened during a recession few businesses are going to be interested in paying the costs required to teach new employees how to do their jobs…especially if there are lots of qualified candidates to choose from willing to work for lower wages.

Educators think long-term. Employers, unfortunately, often think short-term. But neither way of thinking is necessarily wrong. Colleges and universities have traditionally considered their role to be preparing graduates for life while employers typically rarely have the luxury of thinking beyond the next quarter, especially in tough economic times . In times of economic stability, however, they can begin to look longer-term. Unfortunately we’re not there yet, and haven’t been for a while.

Perhaps the answer to closing (or at least narrowing) the skills gap is to recognize the need to strike a balance between employers’ short-term, easily-definable skills needs and the benefits of developing skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, communication, and collaboration that will benefit students over the course of their lives. Of course, many of us in higher education say that we do this now through general education requirements, “writing across the curriculum” initiatives, and other programs designed to develop the skills and qualities that define what it means to be a “college graduate” no matter what a student decides to major in. But it can be tough to maintain these ideals when everyone from parents to the President is focused on the short-term employability of graduates, the need to increase participation in STEM disciplines, and anxiety over the increasingly rapid pace of technological development and its impact on society.

Striking a balance between long-term and short-term needs can be tough in any situation, but it seems to be particularly tough when it comes to preparing undergraduates to thrive in today’s world. The structure and pace of undergraduate education was developed over a long time and is highly resistant to change. But we have to recognize that the way we educate undergraduates was, for the most part, developed during a time when the pace of change was much slower and the need for a college education much lower for those looking to enter the workforce. According to the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce (PDF download), by 2018 63 percent of job openings will require workers with some college education. In 1973, that number was 28%.

If employers are expecting job candidates to have college degrees and specific job skills (many of which are technology-related), it may be a mistake to think that we can teach those skills over the course of the four (or five, or six, or longer) years it takes an undergraduate to earn a degree. The pace of change is just too fast. It’s no wonder that most employers think that graduates aren’t prepared…the skills they’ve learned are obsolete by the time they graduate.

The answer to striking the balance that’s going to eliminate the skills gap perhaps lies in several avenues. A greater emphasis on experiential learning that allows students to get real-life experience in the workplace through internships, co-op programs, practica, and even apprenticeship-style training would allow students to gain valuable workplace experience. Re-thinking the structure of the undergraduate experience so that it can incorporate both the development of long-term foundational knowledge and critical skills through more traditional semester-length (or even longer) experiences and more immediate-term development of specific technical skills through shorter intensive formats that emphasize real-world applications within the students’ chosen discipline would provide greater flexibility for students and more intensive development of their skill base. And working to build bridges across disciplines would help better prepare students for a world that’s increasingly interdisciplinary and would encourage the kind of innovative thinking that’s essential to their future success.

The “skills gap” may be a combination of economic conditions, perceptions and priorities, but that doesn’t mean its not real. We can either stick our heads in the sand and keep pretending that everything’s OK (and suffer the consequences for not changing) or we can work to innovate how we educate in order to meet the challenges (and realities) of today…and the future.






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[EVENTS] NET/WORK Baltimore job fair: Thursday, February 20, 2014

Photo from Philadelphia

Reserve your free tickets now for NET/WORK Baltimore on Thursday, February 20th. If their last event ( Philadelphia, shown here) is any indication, it looks like it’ll be a great event for job-seekers!

Local tech news hub Baltimore is hosting a jobs fair on Thursday, February 20th at the Emerging Technology Center on 101 N. Haven St. in Highlandtown. With over 16 technology-related firms attending (and planning on hiring people now), this event is a must-attend for anyone looking for a job in web design and development, information systems, cybersecurity, game design and development, technology consulting, programming, mobile app development, marketing/advertising, or e-commerce. A number of Baltimore-based non-profit technology community groups will be in attendance, too including Accelerate Baltimore, Betamore, Digital Harbor Foundation, and Girl Develop It Baltimore.

Tickets are usually $5, but students with a valid ID get in for free. Check out the event site to learn more and reserve your ticket before the event sells out.

Some of the firms planning on recruiting at NET/WORK Baltimore include:



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[EDUCATION] The history of distance education: a timeline

Distance Education Timeline is also available as a 1.5mb PDF. It’s a long one, so you’ll have to zoom in to view it.

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[EDUCATION] Udacity Schadenfreude Roundup

Picture of little girl sticking out her tongue

Academics React to Thrun’s Admission That Udacity is a ‘Lousy Product’
Photo Courtesy Eric Peacock

In the latest issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Wired Campus  , Steve Kolowich recounts some reactions from academics to Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun’s admission in Fast Company that the MOOC is a “‘lousy product’ for educating underprepared college students.” Thrun made the admission as a response to the less-than-stellar results of an experiment at San Jose State University where students (some at the university and some from local high schools) used Udacity to learn mathematics.

Here are some of the more…err…pithy comments:

  • From George Siemens, Athabasca University Technology Enhanced Research Institute: “After two years of hype, breathless proclamations about how Udacity will transform higher education, Silicon Valley blindness to existing learning research, and numerous articles/interviews featuring Sebastian Thrun, Udacity has failed.”
  • From Martin Weller, Open University: “Thrun seems to have ‘discovered’ that open-access, distance-education students struggle to compete….hey, OU has known this for 40 years.”
  • From Rebecca Schuman, University of Missouri at St. Louis: “Thrun’s cavalier disregard for the SJSU students reveals his true vision of the target audience for MOOCs: students from the posh suburbs, with 10 tablets apiece and no challenges whatsoever.”
  • From Jonathan Rees, Colorado State University at Pueblo: “Who’s left to teach all those less-than-ideal students at San Jose State? Living, breathing professors…the only way to open higher education to the masses is to hire more people to teach, either in person or online.”


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[EDUCATION] Digital Skills for Liberal Arts Majors


Septem artes liberales from “Hortus deliciarum” by Herrad von Landsberg (about 1180) via Wikimedia Commons

In a new column in the The Chronicle of  Higher Education, English Professor William Pannapecker argues that Liberal Arts majors should learn technical skills.  He points to work he has done, as well as surveys of companies that indicate employers want to hire recent graduates with liberal arts majors because they are perceived as being creative and good communicators.  Unfortunately, these same employers also need people with enough technology skills to help with the company web presence on things like blogs, websites and social media.   Pannapecker argues that even though these skills are often much more easily taught than something like “creativity”, employers often won’t even consider applicants without evidence of digital skills.

Pannapacker further argues that academia should be teaching these skills to their LA graduates in order to open up more opportunities for these graduates to apply their LA skills beyond academia.  He promises a future posts on one way to accomplish this, that should be worth reading.

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[EDUCATION] What’s my grade?

OK. So this isn’t exactly “digital” (except in that it was taken from a presentation in Google Docs), but it does provide a pretty great illustration of the consequences of various grading methods often used: average, median, and deleting lowest score. It’s probably safe to say that Students 4 and 5 are going to be pretty confused when they get their grades!


Table showing consequences of different grading methods

Your grade depends a lot on how its calculated

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[EVENTS] TEDxYouth@Baltimore November 16 10am-noon

Image of stage and screen setup

TEDx Youth@Baltimore Coming November 16th

When: November 16, 2013 10am-12pm

Where: UMD BioPark 801 W. Baltimore St. Baltimore, MD 21201


Youth are expected to learn in an enclosed environment — with seemingly infinite amount of assignments, tests, and exams. Break out of that and come to Baltimore’s TEDxYouthDay to get “The Spark” and Make a Difference!

Official Web Site:

TEDxYouth@Baltimore – The Spark: Making a Difference 

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[EDUCATION] 7 Great ways to learn how to code

Chart showing the difference between a dreamer, a coder, and a hacker

Image courtesy of Paul Downey via Flickr

One of the most common pitches endured by freelance programmers comes from the enthusiastic, wanna-be entrepreneur who thinks that he or she has come up with the greatest idea for a web site (or app or technology) that the world’s ever seen. There’s just one problem: they don’t have the skills to create even a working prototype. So what do they do? They reach out to any coders who will listen to them for more than 5 seconds or who made the mistake of responding to their emails. And the pitch is always the same:


Budding Entrepreneur: “Hey! Listen! I’ve got this idea that’s gonna be the next Facebook/Twitter/Instagram/Google! All I need is for someone to do the code! I don’t have any funding right now so I can’t pay you (though confidentially I’ve been working on a few angel investors and might have some funding coming through soon), but I’m willing to offer you an equity stake in my new company if you’ll do the coding for me! It’s the chance of a lifetime!”
Freelance Coder: “Uh…no.”

The problem is that everyone’s got ideas… but few people have the skills (or are willing to learn the skills) necessary to turn their ideas into something tangible enough to convince other people just how great their idea is. Those who have these skills — coders, designers, engineers, architects, Makers, etc.– acquired them with a lot of blood, sweat, tears, and hard work. Remember, if it was easy, everyone would be doing it. The real key to success  having the creativity to innovate combined with the skills to create what you dream.

That being said, most people can learn how to code. Granted, you might not be cranking out new operating systems or single-handedly writing console games after a few months of practice, but you’d be surprised at what you can do once you know the basics and apply a little creativity. Better yet, these days there are a number of fabulous and free (or very low cost) ways to learn how to code online.

Interested? Check out 7 best ways to learn how to code on VentureBeat.

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[EDUCATION] Jason Farman “A Manifesto for Active Learning” Teaching and learning in the Digital Age


image of Jason Farman teaching

Jason Farman

Jason Farman, Assistant Professor of American Studies just down the road at UMCP, published a provocative piece in today’s ProfHacker blog where he recounts his experience as a teacher in the context of technology, pedagogy, and the ongoing changes in higher education. While the piece isn’t as strident as one might think of a work with “Manifesto” in the title, it does make some powerful points about what teaching and learning mean today in a world where information on just about anything is available to anyone, any time and anywhere. By examining the role of the teacher in the classroom as participant, guide, curator, and coach, he challenges many of the assumptions swirling around higher education in the digital age. Here are a few of his best points:

  • On the difference between receiving information and learning: “What’s the role of the university classroom if students can simply get a great syllabus on the topic of their choosing and go through the assignments on their own? … If someone were to pick up one of my syllabi and engage all of the readings I assign on their own, they would miss the core of what makes my classes successful. Information transfer is not what my classes are about. My classes, instead, are focused on developing intellectual curiosity and teaching students to learn how to learn…”
  • On why the lecture is still important: “I consider lectures as a component of achieving my first goal: teaching my students how to learn. If I can spark their intellectual curiosity about a subject and teach them how to actively pursue knowledge about that subject—and that’s all I’ve done in a semester’s time—then I consider myself a successful teacher. “
  • On combining lecturing and active learning “My ultimate goal here is to make [students]  self-reflexive about their own responsibility in learning in a lecture setting.”
  • On using technology to give shy students a voice: “I also require my students to respond to the topics being discussed that day on Twitter…I want to make room for the listeners to speak up.”
  • On incorporating–not fighting–student use of technology in the classroom: “Getting students to take their most intimate technologies and completely reimagine the possible uses can be a truly transformative experience.”
  • On going beyond the classroom: “In an era in which most of our students interact in asynchronous ways, finding techniques to bring that asynchronicity into the course experience allows for the ideas to be present with the students throughout the week.”
  • On the humanities and job skills: “I don’t believe that humanities education is about obtaining job skills; however, the skills needed for any job are obtained in a humanities education.”



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