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Graduates for a World of Change

25 Oct 2019 | Dr Kay Hack The focus of this week’s combined #AdvanceHE_chat / #LTHEChat, will be on how we develop the knowledge, skills, values and behaviours required to create a more sustainable and equitable world. Join in the conversation on Wednesday 30th October at 8:00 PM on twitter using the hashtags #AdvanceHE_chat and #LTHEChat.

Consider a first year student….

Hello World!  Her mother was listening to an iTunes birthing playlist on an iPod – her first day at pre-school was captured on a camera phone and shared on Facebook; meanwhile, in academia we were grappling with newly installed VLE’s. As she started primary school we were recognising the potential of interactive web-based tools to provide authentic opportunities for collaborative and participatory learning.  Secondary school meant getting her own smartphone; we wondered whether MOOCs really signalled the end of Higher Education.   

Floating in the exaflood?  At the time of her birth, there was approximately 5 Exabyte of data, as she entered secondary school we joined the zettabyte era (1000 Exabyte).  Like 87% of the British population, she uses the internet daily[1], typically via her phone or her tablet. She gets her news from social media and websites even though she knows that regulated sources of news are more reliable[2].  Her school course work is stored on the cloud - no more worrying about lost or corrupt USB pens! But she missed the emails about university open days.

Hey Google- what is the value of a University degree? Her parents and teachers expect her to go to university, but she worries about the cost and the value of a degree. She recognises that a degree is still the gate-keeper to the careers she is considering, but wonders if she could develop the required knowledge and skills through taking MOOCs or a series of short courses from different universities, whilst still working her four or five jobs in the gig economy.  What about a full-time degree via distance learning or an apprenticeship?

Eco-warrior or Eco-worrier? She has experienced eighteen of the nineteen warmest years since 1880 and a 10% increase in atmospheric CO2 levels[3].  She has taken part in the school strike for climate. She knows of friends and classmates on antidepressants[4], or who have eating disorders or self-harm[5]; globally, suicide remains the second-highest cause of death among people in her age-group [6].

Who is GenZ?   

Stereotyping a whole generation is a futile and potentially risky strategy; students are individuals who will respond to issues like the climate emergency, social identity, employment and debt, in individual ways. But, their approach to learning, living and working has been shaped by constant access to information and constant connectivity. They have grown up in a rapidly changing world and arguably will be more resilient and adaptive to change than previous generations.  They have learnt in diverse classrooms and are more aware of issues of equity and equality. They have had opportunities to study in an international environment.   They are more aware of the choices open to them.

They see their degree as a stepping stone in their education.  They do not expect to have a ‘job for life’, but recognise that they may only spend a few years, if any, using the content knowledge acquired during their degree programme. They recognise the importance of being able to communicate with colleagues, clients and collaborators, ethically and professionally, across disciplines, cultures, national boundaries and cyber-physical interfaces. They will be making decisions based on data drawn from a wide variety of sources supported by AI, and informed by ethical, environmental and economic considerations.

The role of HE

We are in a unique position to take a holistic approach to developing the next generation.  Providing authentic, participatory and connected learning is not just a transformative experience for students, but also has the potential to transform society through developing and supporting flexible and cognitively agile workers and citizens. We need to develop graduates with the critical thinking skills required to question evidence and make informed choices.  There is an understandable focus on the scientific, technical, and digital expertise considered critical to developing a sustainable economy, but the levers for transformation do not reside in single disciplines.  Intersections between governance, economics, finance, society, behaviour, and culture, will all have a role to play in achieving a global, equitable and sustainable society[7]. Curricula should foster students’ understanding of how their discipline intersects with the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  We all need to develop cross-cultural competency and understand how human rights, equality and citizenship impact on the global and the local workplace.  The changing workplace will require everyone in the academy to continually reflect on their personal goals, skills and attributes, and adopt resilient and flexible approaches to learning and to teaching. 

To hear more about the themes discussed in the  #AdvanceHE_chat / #LTHEChat book onto the Advance HE STEM conference, which will further explore how we prepare our students in a constantly changing world.

[1]https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/householdcharacteristics/homeinternetandsocialmediausage/bulletins/internetaccesshouseholdsandindividuals/2019

[2] https://literacytrust.org.uk/research-services/research-reports/fake-news-and-critical-literacy-final-report/

[3] https://climate.nasa.gov

[4] https://www.bmj.com/content/364/bmj.l1508.full

[5] https://www.nhs.uk/news/mental-health/number-girls-and-young-women-reporting-self-harm-england-rise/

[6] https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/sdg3

[7] https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/content/documents/24797GSDR_report_2019.pdf

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