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.

Using academic social networks for literature searching

This ‘perspective post’ is going to look at using academic social networks for literature searching.

Now I want to make it very clear I am not advocating replacing a proper academic search strategy – with a social network. That’s a terrible idea! The University of Hull Library subscribes to some fantastic resources and you can check them out via your Subject LibGuide.

That caveat aside, I can now say that networks like Academia.edu and Researchgate.net can be very useful for collecting literature. I think they have two very specific purposes in any literature search:

  1. Expand your search beyond academic databases
  2. Find papers that you have already identified as useful, but we do not subscribe to

Expanding your search

The University Library has a fantastic guide on How to plan and conduct your searches. This is definitely the place to start any search, focusing your search on the resources identified in your Subject LibGuide.

If you still need more evidence, want to go beyond this kind of search or find more literature. That is where the networks come in. On both Academia.edu and Researchgate.net – you can search for research papers. This is never as precise as an academic database and it doesn’t have the same level of configuration –  but it will potentially give you access to thousands of articles.

One strength of Academia.edu and Researchgate.net, is that it is what I like to think of as a ‘human-curated’. I’ve struggled to find many topics through traditional databases, but come across a trove of papers on networks. The tagging and conversations on these networks allow a different kind of search to the title/keyword/abstract search of most databases.

Academia.edu and Researchgate.net will give you very different results to a database. Often results are lots of peer-reviewed papers, many with full-text available. Where text is not available, you can always ask the author for a copy and I tend to get a 50% success rate. This isn’t as immediate as library subscriptions, but is useful to expand the search. Results are however not always peer-reviewed and reliable. You may find unusable, non-peer-reviewed papers or essays. While you cannot cite these papers, their bibliographies are a treasure trove of potentially useful papers that you may not of already found.

Finding the full-text of papers you have already identified

The University Library subscribes to a large range of journals. Often, if you can’t find the full-text, it may be that you are not searching in the right place. The Library Catalogue will point you in the right direction (search for the journal title – NOT article title). If you can’t find the journal through the catalog, University of Hull staff and students are eligible to request an inter-library loan. This is an excellent service – but before using it, it is often worthwhile checking Academia.edu and Researchgate.net for the papers. Even if the papers are not there – the author may be and you can get in touch with them. This may get you the paper quicker, and lets you save ILLs for when you really need them.