Certification really does matter…

This is an opinion piece and is unapologetically skills-y. As with everything on my blog, this piece represents my personal thoughts and is not representative of any organisation I work with.

Today I had the pleasure of attending Prodigy Learning’s CertMatters Live conference. The event was hosted at the British Library, which is always a bonus as it is one of my favourite places in London (no surprise for someone who works in a library!). If you are not familiar with Prodigy Learning, they are a leading company in the training and certification industry in the UK and Ireland. They are responsible for managing certification programmes for Microsoft, Adobe and more in the UK and Ireland.

Why is this of interest to someone working in higher education?

Excellent question. I’m going to make a rare jump into the ’employability and skills agenda’ to answer that. Businesses are looking for skilled graduates, and there is a wide base of evidence that suggests there is a HUGE skills gap in the whole labour market. While a lot of these are soft skills like critical thinking, leadership, communication and so on, there is also a dramatic shortage of those with the right technical skills. Many of these technical skills can be demonstrated through the Microsoft Technology Associate (MTA) examinations. For more practical Microsoft Office certification there is the Microsoft Office Specialist (MOS) certifcations. There is also an excellent certification for educators – the Microsoft Certified Educator (MCE).

For this blog, I’m going to focus on the certifications related to Microsoft Office Specialist. This is not to suggest any less validity in those offered for other software vendors or from the Microsoft certifications (MCE/MTA), but my interest lies in Office and it is easier to leverage examples of the benefit of MOS certifications. In short, if institutions can offer students the opportunity to gain MOS certifications, it gives students more opportunity to evidence their skills in a crowded jobs market. It makes them look less-risky to employers as there is evidence of their competency. More importantly, it gives them the chance to brush up on their skills – these certifications are not all easy to get and they will need to earn them!

I think it’s also important to acknowledge the wider context our students are working in. Many of them will graduate and work in careers that don’t yet exist – especially when we look a decade ahead. To cement this point, I’m just going to bring my notes in from the keynote from Chris Rothwell at Microsoft:

Okay – but why certification?

These technical skills can actually be difficult to evidence. This makes it very difficult for businesses to identify graduates that actually possess the skills they are looking for. Immediately the value of internationally recognised certifications must be clear.

Certifications also have the possibility of addressing another serious problem. Many students write application forms or curriculum vitae that suggest they have skills. Sadly, this is not always a reality. I am not suggesting they are intentionally deceitful. Far from it! Many are often unaware of what they don’t know about the software they are using every day. From personal experience, I have interviewed many students who claim to be ‘expert’ in Microsoft Office. On further digging with Microsoft Word for example, it turns out they’ve never come across styles, mail merges, master documents, content controls. Experts they are not.

Certification gives them the option to actually learn and practice the software to a recognised level of competency. When confident, students can take the formal exam and if they pass, they can receive certification. Simple!

Where does this fit in?

Well. There are many approaches. It can be used both within the curriculum or as an optional extra-curricular opportunity. Whatever you do, offering certification alone isn’t enough. Anyone working towards certification will need learning materials to help them towards it. This could be resources developed in-house, or the badging of existing teaching where it links to certification. There is also the option of products like Microsoft Imagine Academy, lynda.com and GMetrix.

This diagram may give you a better feeling of how this all interacts:

Now. I am personally not going to suggest these should be rammed into every programme. I don’t think it would be appropriate. I’d love to see a world where every student could have the opportunity to undertake these employability-enhancing certifications. I just don’t think it should necessarily be core or forced. Some people came to university, not for employability, but for curiosity or the love of learning itself.

Now – there are exceptions. For example, people studying certain business modules probably should be competent with Excel. In those cases, I am all for curriculum integration. There are definitely cases for this with the MTA certification too.

I am not suggesting a wholesale buy-in to the degree/graduate factory. But I want to make it clear – offering certifications does not suggest this. It is about providing students who are about to go out into the rapidly developing employment market a better chance at evidencing what they can do and gaining a job! It is also acknowleding that there may be spaces where these certifications should actually be incurriculumn because it actually represents what it is to have a degree in that subject area.

It isn’t just students…

So – I’ve focused heavily on students. I think I would be doing certifications a disservice if I suggested it was for students alone. There are huge technical skills gaps throughout the whole higher education sector. There are many professional services that would be quicker, slicker and more efficient with the right technical skills in place. I am not suggesting this is part of delivery savings, but if we use Office Software to make the business of education more efficient we can all spend more time with students. This is not a bad thing.

For this bit, I’m going to defer to my notes from Elaine Topham‘s (Grimsby Institute) session on creating super staff. Elaine had an inspiring approach to fostering lifelong learning in staff, especially professional services.

What’s the catch?

Well. Like everything good in life, certification isn’t free. Single exams can be quite expensive, but these are incredibly efficient when purchased in bulk. Compared to the cost and development of in-house solutions, I think certifications represent excellent value. It’s also important to reinforce the recognition these certifications hold with employers. They also offer digital badging through Acclaim. I’m very interested in digital badging and I put a question to the panel at the end of CertMatters Live to dig into this a bit deeper. I ask the panel them how important they feel the ‘digital badge’ aspect of certifications is. The best answer was simple:

Employers are lazy.

Digital badges are quick and easy to see and verify.

More about CertMatters Live

CertMatters Live also hosted the UK and Ireland regional Word, Excel and PowerPoint Championships, with the three winners being sent to New York to compete internationally. Exciting stuff.

More information about CertMatters Live can be seen on the website.

Learning development and student narratives – Professor Shân Wareing

Professor Shân Wareing delivered an incredibly relevant and interesting keynote today at the Association for Learning Development in Higher Education (ALDinHE) Conference. Here are my notes (in mindmap format) from this session, which include elements of the discussion and wider definitions:

See link below for accessible, linear download

Exploring possibilities for the ‘critical’ in Learning Development practice & theory; critical academic literacies?

Gordon Asher delivered a very thought-provoking session this afternoon at the Association for Learning Development in Higher Education ALDinHE Conference. Here are my notes (in mindmap format) from this session, with the caveat, that they are but a small representation of what was a VERY deep discussion.

Session mindmap:

See below link for linear, accessible Microsoft Word version
Mind map of Gordon’s session

Broader conceptual framework:

Critical academic literacies are linked to critical university studies, critical/powerful literacies, popular education, critical pedagogy and academic literacies.
Critical academic literacies and the association with other related concepts/frameworks.

What is Learning Development Scholarship?

This post forms a personal reflection of a session I attended at the Association of Learning Development in Higher Education (ALDinHE) Conference 2019.

On day one of the ALDinHE Conference, I attended the Research Funding & Scholarship of Learning Development session led by Dr Maria Kukhareva & Dr Carina Buckley. This was a really interesting, interactive session, structured around the following question:

‘What is scholarship?’

This led to a rather expansive view of scholarship, not only accounting for peer-review publications, but also wider scholarly activity such as review, conference involvement and so on. However, this led to the eventual question of:

‘What is learning development scholarship?’

This question is not as easy as it seems. Scholarly activity can be pinned down and defined. Yes – there are different interpretations, but it is easy to find something that generally applies to most people. How learning development contributes to the wider scholarship of learning and teaching in higher education is however a bigger question. There must be something distinctive about it that makes it stand out against the scholarship of language learning, education and other fields.

What does learning development contribute? What is unique about learning development research?
Boyer’s model of scholarship (1990)

What makes learning development scholarship distinctive?

The real challenge of defining the distinctiveness of learning development scholarship perhaps lies with the difficulty of defining learning development. Our practices are incredibly diverse and sometimes disparate. If practice is so varied, can the scholarship be coherent enough to be classed as distinctive? While I struggle to answer this one, I ‘feel’ there is something distinctive about learning development. This is not so distinctive as to pry away from the disciplinary foundations of education as a discipline (psychology, history, sociology and philosophy), but I believe it is distinctive enough to carve out it’s own corner in the higher education literature.

This *feeling* I have regarding the distinctiveness of learning development has roots in my practice. This is because I *feel* my practice and approach is distinctive in comparison to traditional lectureship. This is because I am supporting the development of attributes, competencies, skills, approaches and so on – just not the development of disciplinary knowledge. This does not mean I have no knowledge base and convey no knowledge, just that such knowledge is of ‘being a student’, learning, writing and so on.

So – back to the question at hand. What does make learning development distinctive. We were encouraged to approach this question creatively, and this is the model the group I was part of ended up creating:

A conceptual model answering the question. The paragraphs below explain this in detail.

In the above photograph, you can see some of our core ideas. One of my primary contributions was the ‘lens’, as I feel learning development has a different view and approach to scholarship than other areas. In short, it is distinctive. There IS a learning development way of looking at things, even if we can’t exactly define it. I also built the pile of rubble and labelled it as ‘What is learning development?’. I promise you that the answer to that question is under those bricks. It just isn’t uncovered yet. Interestingly, I paired ‘lens’ with ‘reflection’. I think this was to highlight the reflective nature of our practice (or at least the development of it).

We also had knowledge, philosophy, inquiry, evidence and discipline(s) also on the table. These are all ideas long associated with scholarship. Once again, we had an interesting debate about what learning development brings to the table. The one we were really unsure about was ‘Mastery’. I’m still not sure how I feel about that, and this is the reason I picked it up. I think it is perhaps better related to scholarship with ‘status’ – a term another table has picked up.

I added the term ‘validity‘, because any research and scholarship must be ‘valid’ – but I think we can take this further as it links back to the question.

What makes learning development as a distinct approach a valid contribution to the wider higher education literature?

Reflection on what learning development is

This does not answer the big question. The closest thing we have to this are the ALDinHE values:

  1. Working alongside students to make sense of and get the most out of HE learning 
  2. Making HE inclusive through emancipatory practice, partnershipworking and collaboration
  3. Adopting and sharing effective LD practice with the HE community  
  4. Commitment to scholarly approach and research related to LD
  5. Critical self-reflection, on-going learning and a commitment to professional development 

Beyond these values, we did have a nod to practice on our model.

On the model, you can see a precarious bridge from one table to another. To fall of this bridge is to plummet between the tables. This kinda represented the journey students are on, with each step of this bridge further and further apart. While the definition of learning development is buried on our model, one thing is clear. We exist to fight anyone who would push a student off the bridge. We exist to help them over it – not to lead them, but to give them the abilities they need to take themselves over it.

You will see this bridge is hidden behind a wall. Sometimes the way ahead is unknown. It is difficult. It is hidden. We often tear that wall down to help students see where they need to go – and enable them to get there.

References

Boyer, E. L. (1990), Scholarship reconsidered: Priorities of the professoriate. [PDF], Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching

Dear computer programmers. Please make accessibility easy.

Why does accessibility need to be so difficult?

I’m sat in my hotel room, using my last few minutes before the start of the ALDinHE Conference to reflect on accessibility. Part of the reason for this is the journey I went through to make a resource about accessibility accessible. It isn’t as easy as it should be…

I have a graphic design background, and I have been trained in the use of Photoshop and InDesign – both industry standard pieces of software for the creation of materials. However, when I first learned these tools, the concept of accessible design was not at the top of anyone’s mind – or the top of the feature list for any program. Time change thankfully!

Take Microsoft Office 365 for example. Nearly every update for the last three years has included significant new features – or tweaks that make accessibility even easier. In contrast, Adobe may have created the features – but they are kinda buried and not easy to use. Designers are not the most famed for their accessibility credentials. Furthermore, many of us may not have been trained in how to create accessible materials or the importance of doing so. This is especially the case if the designer has been qualified for some time. Generalisations – I know, but, also generally true.

I need to talk about Microsoft Office a bit more to illustrate my point.

For example. I insert an image into a Microsoft Word document or PowerPoint presentation. If I right click on that image, in the context menu, I can clearly see the option to add alt text. Awesome!

A screenshot of a Microsoft Word context menu. It shows the option to 'Edit Alt Text...'

When I select this option, I can see the ability to add the alt text. If I have Microsoft Intelligent Services enabled – it’ll even have a go at filling it in for me. I also have the option to make the image as decorative. Awesome!

A screenshot from Microsoft Word showing the side panel to edit Alt text. It shows a dialog to edit alt text or mark it as decorative. It advices 1-2 sentences and states "How would you describe this object and its context to someone who is blind"

When I head to the review ribbon, I’ll see the Accessibility Checker has a prominent place. It’s right alongside the Spelling & Grammar checker, Read Aloud and the Translate option. It normalises checking for accessibility. Again, this is awesome!!!

So now I get to my point. Microsoft has been pretty ‘awesome’ at making accessibility a prominent, normalised feature. Now let’s look at Adobe InDesign – a piece of ‘industry standard’ software that is used for thousands of posters, books and resources. Now I know this software is for ‘professional’, users, but why do they need to bury accessibility?

For example, to add alt text, you need to choose ‘Object Export Options…’

A context menu in Adobe InDesign. It says Object Export Options...

This is not clear. No one would think to click on ‘Object Export Options’ to get to alt text. You then get this less thank helpful dialogue:

The Alt text dialogue in InDesign.

This is nowhere near as clear as the options in Word. What’s worse, is adding the text is not enough. There are a series of options and tick boxes that need to be selected, and the document needs exporting in just the right way. If all this is done correctly, it is highly accessible. However – it is not easy. If we want to encourage designers to make stuff accessible, those options need to be accessible too!

I am not criticising Adobe for their features. InDesign is powerful, and has *everything* you need to make a document accessible. However – all of these features are buried. In the current social climate, this should be a lot easier and a lot more prominent.

If you need any more convincing, see this dialogue between me and another user on the Adobe Forums Community trying to figure out how to get it working!

In short, Microsoft one, Adobe nil on this one! Once again – not because of the options in the program, but because of how easy and prominent they are to use. It simply sends the wrong message!

Learning development: Supporting students to be mindful

Since my initial introduction to mindfulness through Ruby Wax’s (2016) A Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled, I’ve been meaning to reflect on mindfulness in the context of learning development. I didn’t quite get around to it. However, the publication of Cottrell’s (2018) Mindfulness for studentsfinally pushed this back onto my agenda and here I am blogging today.

Cottrell describes mindfulness as ‘being fully present in the moment’. This is framed as a pathway to greater self-acceptance and self-awareness.  Mindfulness is a hot topic at the moment. There are dozens of books on mindfulness (see: Waterstones) and even the NHS has pages on Mindfulness to promote wellbeing. Is this study-focused volume of use, or is it jumping on the bandwagon?

BrainA quick answer here – a bandwagon it may be, but there is a reason behind it. While it is cliche to say, ‘modern life’ is hectic and full of distractions. This is highly problematic when it comes to learning, especially in the self-directed learning context of higher education. Technology, social media and other student activities are all in constant competition with the need to study. While any form of study supports the long-term goals behind graduation, instant gratification is difficult to avoid. Here is where mindfulness may come in.

Mindfulness is often seen as an antidote to anxiety and stress, but more importantly, it can help with a number of common student woes such as problems concentrating, issues with maintaining attention or coping with difficult situations. I think learning developers often witness these issues and address them by supporting students to manage their own learning and time, to become self-directed learners and by encouraging the use of self-reflection. While certain aspects of mindfulness may come into these activities, they are often framed under the guise of study skills. I am not saying this is a bad thing, but there may be benefits to explicitly acknowledging mindfulness and encouraging its use.

Mindfulness in learning development

This needs to be applied carefully. Learning Developers are not life coaches or therapists – but we are there to help with learning and study. While we won’t be leading students through meditation, there are certainly some aspects of learning where mindfulness can be applied.

Here are a few possibilities that come to mind:

  1. Increased awareness of learning pitfalls. Helping students reflect on their own study practices can help them identify common distractions, lapses of attention and forms of procrastination.
  2. Develop a mindful approach to study. The ultimate goal is to help students develop a positive and enjoyable attitude, often gained through increasing their self-awareness of how they see study.
  3. Embed self-care into study. Students cannot be effective in their learning if they are stressed, tired or not looking after themselves. Good habits and time management are essential here.
  4. Contextualising feedback. Helping students look beyond immediate reactions to tutor feedback and helping them reflect on learning points and future applications.
  5. Utilise as a coping mechanism for stress and revision. While it won’t work for all students, there are applications for mindfulness in the support of exam readiness and stress busting.

I don’t think anything on this list falls outside of learning development. For this reason, I think there may be space to bring in the concept of mindfulness into our work. This may even have some advantages. A lot of the above is currently badged under self-reflection, but this is occasionally seen negatively by students. Sometimes self-reflection is an area they are assessed on, and so it is too closely associated with assignments. Sometimes it is because students hail from disciplines not traditionally associated with reflection and so it is seen as an unnecessary skill. Perhaps ‘mindfulness’ will be an easier approach to stomach? Yes – self-reflection is an element of this, but at least it isn’t the leading idea. Maybe mindfulness has some element of being on-trend?

There does, of course, have to be a distinct boundary in our use of mindfulness. Mindfulness can be (and is more traditionally) applied to wider aspects of life that study alone. While these are outside of the learning developer remit for most, the points above show there is certainly a lot of stuff that we can pick up.

Stacked Pebbles. Kinda Zen


References

Cottrell, S. (2018) Mindfulness for Students. Red Globe Press.

Wax, R. (2016) A Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled. Penguin Life.

 

Image 1 (CC0) and image 2 (CC0)