From education to employment

The learner value in a chocolate cake

Looking back over 2014 I remain consistently encouraged by the strength of innovation through adversity that college principals can show. With such pressure on funding, the burden of college operations and the demand from learner expectations, it is hard to find leaders that have the time and inclination to take a risk on something new. Working with those leaders and engaging with their colleges is the reason I love FE. Another thing I love, is chocolate cake.

In my view, one of the most lucrative ways to innovate through these challenges in FE, is augmenting the learner journey with the rich engagement of alumni and industry. Alumni offer that perfect balance of shared understanding and employment experience to learners, offering a vital connection that can motivate higher attainment. Industry offer the professional application of skill development and that reality of learning application can define and inspire careers. I am sure we have all seen examples of this to learners on the ground and understand the immeasurable value it has.

At the recent Association of Colleges Annual Conference and Exhibition I was asked by Sussex Downs College principal, Melanie Hunt, to run a student event to deliver inspiration. This is something I have done over a hundred times as an exclusive programme to our six partner colleges, but I was convinced to branch out and sample the skills at Sussex Downs. After some extraordinary facilitation by the college team, they selected their sixty best students spanning every curriculum department, delivered an extensive brief to students and prepared their facilities and in mid December we launched the IBM event.

On the day we ran a focused guest lecture on technologies that support the space age, a graduate mock assessment centre and an entrepreneurial exercise in building solutions for a Smarter Planet. We had a tremendous event that was a significant challenge for learners and after eight hours of intense development we had achieved excellence. Within the guest lecture, students had surprisingly mature moral and ethical challenges to the development of technology in civilization. The mock graduate assessment students yielded above average performance for most universities and gained invaluable experience of the recruitment process with tips and tricks. Within the entrepreneurial exercise student teams came up with revolutionary ideas to global challenges: automatic ocean cleansers, predictive health diagnosis and proactive food recycling all featured with detailed business cases and thought leadership.

Feedback from students made it, it always does. “In the future I now know how to come across better in job interviews; the feedback and comments were tailored to me. This made it particularly useful.”. “Top tier students don’t often find things challenging, so I think a very hard and testing experience like this is vital to encouraging extra study and commitment”. One of the overwhelming elements was that students wanted more. More employer and alumni activity built into curriculum to empower them to be successful. Melanie Hunt, CEO and Principal of Sussex Downs said “We value ‘real life’ input to curriculum from employers and IBM didn’t disappoint. The high energy approach engaged students from the outset and clear expectations and challenge stretched their understanding and ambition. Feedback from staff and students has been very positive”.

I couldn’t help feeling energized on the drive home. Not just because the chocolate cake sitting next to me had been well earned after a nine hour event with 60 students, but because of the genuine development seen in students across that time. From reserved, unsure and self conscience individuals very quickly with the right focus came engaged, ambitions and self confident leaders, craving feedback to fuel their development.

From the exceptional work of those learners, I have agreed to run another event focused on professional skills, that runs for over 10 hours and requires them to be harder, faster, stronger and smarter. No surprises we have every invitation accepted. I am deeply looking forward to working with a PR agency CEO, council leader and a vice president of British Petroleum in building these students further and diversifying the development they gain.

And what was the cost for all of this learner value? A chocolate cake. Having colleges focus and drive relationships with alumni and industry is such a small cost when measured in this way, given the relative impact it can make to learners on the ground. I now feel a sense of loyalty and duty to those learners and the college to help develop the next generation of professionals across all industries. I know so many that have done as I have, do too. If this is the case, why doesn’t it happen more?

My New Years resolution for you and your college in 2015 is to fearlessly reach out, drive alumni and industry engagement into curriculum and remember the learner value in a chocolate cake.

Cailean Hargrave is UK Education Lead at Portal, an IBM Business Partner assisting colleges to create exceptional student experiences

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