Leave the lecture hall and step into the 21st century

We have information at our fingertips like never before, transforming the way we learn and retain information yet university learning and teaching has changed very little over the decades, argues Fiona Godsman

June 3, 2018
Students with technology

Thanks to the rapid technological pace of change, there’s very little we can’t do on our devices in our own time – from shopping and banking to entertainment and leisure – freeing us from traditional restraints.

Clock in, clock out, fixed roles and responsibilities. In many industries, nine to five is a thing of the past, with flexible working taking its place and a growing expectation that employees will have a range of skills to adapt to business needs in a rapidly changing environment.

And yet, as students arrive at university ready to revel in many new-found freedoms, they still find themselves tied to the lecture halls and seminar rooms. The higher education sector has changed relatively little over the decades, and it hasn’t kept pace with the way young people learn. There is value in traditional methods of information sharing, but students are beginning to question if it is always the best use of their time.

There are fewer barriers to knowledge thanks to the internet, and young people are taking advantage of this. Not knowing something is no longer seen as an obstacle, as knowledge is now easy to acquire. Accustomed to having information at the touch of a button, students are right to question traditional methods of study.

Not only this, they are proving themselves as independent thinkers and catalysts for change – witness the youth movements spreading across the world – who also welcome collaboration. As chief executive of the Scottish Institute for Enterprise, I regularly meet students looking to develop their skills and experience to match their passions and to carry them into rewarding future careers that have a real impact. They have a good breadth of knowledge, but they still have to learn how to apply it.

This is especially important in a saturated graduate market, where work experience is prized almost as highly as a degree, and students are looking for other ways to allow them to stand out and boost their career opportunities. This means developing skills that will help them in years to come, including collaboration, innovation and entrepreneurial skills.

These skills can be learned at university, but traditional learning structures simply don’t give students the flexibility they need to go out and develop the attributes that will make them stand out.

Students tend to focus on subject-specific research projects and dissertations, rather than working in collaboration with other disciplines, which is what would happen in the “real-world” environment. While it’s important to develop deep subject specialism, it is equally important for students to bounce ideas off others in different disciplines and to spur new trains of thought.

Universities are not just about imparting knowledge to the next generation; they have always been a catalyst for new, exciting ideas, and they need to reinvigorate that role with a greater focus on bringing students together to work on big societal and economic challenges.

Many of the innovative business ideas that we have helped students to develop come from combining their subject knowledge with their other interests and abilities, and this is why it’s important to encourage exposure to new opportunities and challenges, and working with others, throughout university studies.

It’s also worth considering moving away from rigid teaching schedules to allow students to develop outside the university campus. Study enriches the mind, but it doesn’t always give the hands-on experience that students need when applying for jobs or starting businesses.

Students who are passionate and willing to learn will fit studying in wherever they can, around internships, part-time jobs or other extracurricular activities; and there should be a way of recognising the skills that they learn outside the traditional setting within their academic qualifications.

Students still require guidance and contact time with professors, but there should be a more flexible approach to learning. This will allow them to tailor study to their own personal goals, as well as develop further interests on and off campus. Technology is ingrained in the lives of our students, and so it should be used to help them in their studies, too.

Flexible learning is available, but it’s not seen as the norm. Conventional teaching and learning practices don’t work for everyone, meaning that we could be missing out on the opportunity to nurture some of the UK’s best talent. The education sector is ripe for disruption, and introducing new “real-world” challenges, opportunities to collaborate and flexible learning practices are ways that universities can move with the times.

Fiona Godsman is chief executive of the Scottish Institute for Enterprise.

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