Rethinking Credentials: The Power of Soft Skills

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Rethinking Credentials: The Power of Soft Skills

By Anant Agarwal     Dec 14, 2016

Rethinking Credentials: The Power of Soft Skills

This article is part of the collection: EdSurge 2017 Personal Statements.

“Oh, The Places You’ll Go” is one of the most popular books by Dr. Seuss. Where do you hope education technology will go in 2017? What aspects of curriculum or community might get us there? (Dartmouth College)

In 2017, I hope (and insist!) that education technology (edtech) does not lose sight of power skills. The best way to explain these invaluable skills is by sharing a conversation I had with Philip J. Hanlon, President of Dartmouth College, the school asking this prompt.

I was chatting with President Hanlon about skills we consider to be the ‘most important,’ for students to develop during their time in college to set them up to get a job after graduation. I began to talk about the importance of soft skills, like communications, critical thinking, and teamwork, but President Hanlon stopped me in my tracks saying, “These are not ‘soft’ skills! These are ‘power’ skills.” Power indicates something much more important and meaningful. It creates a sense of necessity—soft skills sound like a mushy nice to haves, but power skills sound like a must have.

Burning Glass, a company that delivers job market analytics, reported that skills such as writing, communication and organization are growing more difficult to find. Yet these very skills are required across nearly every industry. For example, the same report found that most standard job postings, even in fields like IT and Engineering, look for candidates that can write well.

Writing is traditionally considered a ‘soft’ skill, but when listed as one of the most in demand skills across every industry, it becomes a power skill. Being a good writer could mean that you can write persuasive emails or craft creative social posts. Or that you can write thorough product documentation, snappy ad copy for an app, or a compelling business plan for a new product. The same can be said for communications, critical thinking, and organizational skills—they apply across all industries. In 2017, edtech must place precedence on developing courses and curricula that speak to these skills.

This leads me to the second part of the question. How will the edtech community achieve this new focus? First, we must approach the creation of curricula and courses with the goal of being completely explicit about the outcomes learners can expect at the end. All too often I have heard that humanities subjects are particularly good at teaching these power skills. If so, then let’s list those outcomes explicitly so that our “what’s in it for me” generation can more easily discover the hidden value in such courses.

We’ve already started to bridge the knowledge gap between higher education and the workplace, and we’re already seeing innovative resources and credentials from top schools and corporations that enable learners everywhere to achieve specific outcomes like becoming a UX designer or a data scientist. Edtech has become a vital resource in closing the tech skills gap, enabling learners to gain access to programs teaching computer science, coding, and data analysis.

These are still incredible efforts, but in 2017, I believe we need to pair these programs with ones that map back to outcomes like becoming a collaborative team member or an effective manager. In addition to advertising power skills outcomes when relevant in existing courses, why don’t we create new programs that target explicit power skills. If we continue to focus only on the tech skills, we will create a new power skills gap. One reason that power skills have been so maligned in the past is that the edtech community has not always taken the time to clearly articulate the outcomes of investing in learning them. As we head into 2017, informed with data that shows the true value of power skills, I encourage the edtech community to think about this new set of powerful outcomes. Oh, and don’t forget to learn how to code, too!

At EdSurge, we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to get more thoughts on how this year’s election might shape the edtech industry. Here’s Anant’s response to our supplemental Part II essay question:

2017 is shaping up to be a big year of what-if’s. The President just called and is asking for advice on shaping the U.S. education technology agenda. What do you say?

The need for accessible and quality education should always be a priority for the President, especially today when the skills gap continues to impact companies and, as a result, our economy. I would reiterate to President-elect Trump that education technology is one of the best ways for people to learn or relearn the background and skills that they need to succeed in today’s increasingly unpredictable and competitive job market.

For one, the future of education is changing as people live longer and as fast moving technology continuously creates entirely new fields and makes older ones obsolete. Today’s learner is looking for continuous education and for credentials that go beyond the traditional bachelor’s and master’s degree. And, in many cases, those traditional programs and degrees are not viable options for today's learners. They’re looking for credentials that can be achieved more affordably, in shorter amounts of time and within specific, in-demand skill sets that increase the chances of getting hired. And, universities are starting to pay attention to these new learner needs and concerns. New online initiatives, like edX's MicroMasters programs, offer these modular digital credentials, in addition to creating a path to on-campus programs. This form of digital education gives learners the flexibility to customize the learning they need at that moment in time, re-enter and re-energize their education at any point in their lives, and refresh their knowledge in ever-evolving fields of study.

Additionally, just as we are calling on traditional educational institutions to reimagine education, the President-elect should be asking the same of employers. With competing forces—such as the skills gap, rising student debt and changing millennial needs in the workplace—business and education as usual does not work anymore. Companies need to seriously think about how they can engage their workforces by giving them continuous opportunities to grow their skills—a tactic that is proven to increase employee engagement. Technology-enabled online learning is an effective approach to continuous professional development. This will be especially important for the future of our American workforce and, consequently, our economy.

Twenty-one percent of millennials say they've changed jobs within the past year, which is more than three times the number of non-millennials who report the same. What does this turnover cost us? About $30.5 billion annually, according to Gallup. So, what if we can reimagine education, how we prepare for life and work, how we assess qualified employees and how we continue to educate and train our current workforce? Asking the questions is the first step. Applying online education to these questions and challenges will help us find innovative solutions to move forward.

Anant Agarwal is the CEO of edX

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