At Arcada University of Applied Sciences (UAS) Helsinki – Finland, the Skills2Work project was implemented in 2010 in response to the challenge set by ET 2020 (European Commission – Education & Training, 2014) drawn up in 2009. One of the long-term strategic objectives is ”Enhancing creativity and innovation, including entrepreneurship, at all levels of education and training” (European Commission – Education and Training, 2011, Ch. 4). The ongoing Skills2Work project aims to transfer the competency-based learning outcomes of degree programmes into employability skills by operable, sustainable and innovative pedagogical solutions that build on and develop existing curriculum structures.
Generic or transversal skills are in focus at both national and global levels. The OECD’s ongoing AHELO feasibility study on tuning and performance of education (OECD Higher Education, n.d.; AHELO, 2010-11; Tremblay et al., 2012) identifies three strands, one being generic competences in which Finland is a participating country. At the Finnish level, competency frameworks have been addressed in the final report – Oivallus (Confederation of Finnish Industries EK, 2011), which builds on the earlier definitions drawn up in 2006 by the Rectors’ Conference of Finnish Universities of Applied Sciences (ARENE, 2006). In addition, the adaptability and transferability of skills according to the T-model mean “producing individuals with the right mix of skills” according to recommendations from the New Skills Network (New Skills Network, 2012a).
The project objectives are to: 1) design a skills mapping and tracking tool, 2) identify a training intervention to develop generic or transversal skills and entrepreneurship in particular, and 3) develop a Personal Development Framework (PDF) for pedagogical and coaching support throughout the study process. The project aims to extend the learning experience, thus complementing the curriculum by bridging the skills gap (New Skills Network, 2012b).
Training intervention using ‘Xing’
’Xing’ (Working Knowledge, n.d) was identified as a best-practice training intervention and introduced to teachers as well as piloted with students in three different degree programmes. In the UK, Xing has been used by around 70 higher education institutions in co-operation with employers in inter-university student enterprise competitions, called Flux events (Working Knowledge, n.d.). Arcada UAS is the only HEI outside the UK accredited and licensed by Working Knowledge to use Xing. Xing is a visual planning tool based on teamwork and active learning to train generic skills and especially entrepreneurship, which engages students in planning a strategy for a business idea through an interactive learning method.
Students from different disciplines work with Xing in small groups. Beginning with a business scenario, their task is to define a quantifiable goal with a time frame and strategy to reach that goal. Xing uses example scenarios based on real businesses, but these companies also set students the challenge to work with their own areas. Additionally, Xing can be used to help crystallise students’ own business ideas to ‘tease out’ business start-up strategies, i.e. without a scenario or case study.
Simply put, Xing consists of a planning board and strategy cards representing about 100 business decisions divided into different categories (e.g. Action, Finance, Marketing, Personnel and Strategy). The students work in groups of six and use the cards as decision prompts, which they discuss and select to form their visual business plan by placing the cards on the planning board so that their strategy gradually takes shape.
The Xing process consists of 9 steps in all which together cover the development of a strategy from idea to goal as well as, for example, an exit. One session may even take some days but can just as well be conducted in 5-6 hours. The session is led by teachers who can challenge the groups by asking students to motivate their choices, or by giving students special challenge cards, and in this way they can check the strategy’s logic and time-frame. The session finishes when the groups are ready to pitch their business ideas before a panel of experts.
The process stimulates students into quickly grasping new concepts, decision-making and teamwork, and draws benefit from the diversity of group members’ with different skills. Xing simulates decision-making very explicitly, as no alternative strategies are allowed on the Xing board. Instead, the group must plan, decide on, and implement but one strategy. This incorporates both instrumentalist and risk-taking aspects of microeconomics: If you cannot make necessary decisions to implement your strategy, and commit to managing the risks involved, then how realizable is the strategy? This offers a more personal and hands-on experience than, say, case studies or project assignments, as neither the strategy nor the specific issues to be addressed are static or given, but rather constructed dynamically by the group during the Xing process.
Innovative pedagogical approach
Entrepreneurship training sessions using Xing have so far been successfully implemented within the existing curriculum structures of degree programmes at Arcada UAS with about 400 students. Experience has shown that students’ engagement grows as their business plan takes shape, and their business logic is challenged by the session facilitator. The fact that even friendly classroom competition between the groups constitutes a team-building factor can be clearly seen, and the process encourages social interaction between the group’s participants. Students are also empowered by the fact that a group with members possessing different characteristics is usually more prone to success.
Feedback from students has been very positive, and in such cases where the students have been restricted to one day (or prolonged afternoon) of Xing, there have been clear indications of interest for longer sessions, and even among first-year students. This shows that Xing provides enough depth to sustain prolonged interest and engagement. Students are motivated by working together in a dynamic learning environment to apply what they have learned in lectures. The competitive spirit also helps promote team-building skills, and active participation of each member regardless of their level of business knowledge is encouraged. Whilst Xing is not a game as such, research into board-game playing suggests (Hull et al. 2009) that the perceived objective of games is described more in terms of mechanics than a narrative after the gaming experience. Thus, it follows that the mechanics Xing is based on appeals to the competitive spirit of participants, which is reminiscent of the more traditional approach of board games, yet the process accentuates elements of the strategic decision-making processes of business – through human interaction.
Xing is ’tactile’ as opposed to a computer game – a deliberate choice on the part of the designer – which engages students in an interactive process that transforms the traditional classroom into a dynamic, flexible learning environment, or ‘place for space’ (Wikström-Grotell et al., 2013). From a pedagogical point of view, Xing fosters active learning where the teacher becomes a facilitator, and the learning space opens up new possibilities to gain confidence, explore new ideas, exchange knowledge and experience, and create new solutions, where both teachers and students are mutually engaged in the creative process. Moreover, learning encounters like these also promote integration and team-teaching since the process over-arches specific subject learning. Xing sessions support the attainment of competency-based learning outcomes but also develop skill clusters along with transversal skills and their practical application. Furthermore, debriefing and post-session reflection can be a valuable part of entrepreneurship coaching and skills development for students in a holistic learning experience.
Complementing teaching with Xing sessions promotes those skills that students, especially future entrepreneurs, ought to be equipped with, and creates possibilities to co-operate more closely with companies. Trends within higher education indicate an increased need for graduates with entrepreneurship skills. Xing spurs creativity, innovative thinking and entrepreneurship by providing creative freedom, yet it is governed by real structures and business frameworks. Moreover, as a learning process, not only are entrepreneurship skills trained but other skill clusters that promote the development of transversal skills, e.g. language, communication, team working. The training intervention develops students’ employability skills and is based on an innovative pedagogical approach that involves students in a stimulating learning environment, i.e., active and contextual learning, which can foster links with the labour market if employers are engaged in the training process too. This approach to bridging the skills gap also encourages dialogue with enterprises and organisations, reinforces links between HEIs and the labour market, as well as provides a way to keep students’ skills updated.
Nigel Kimberley, Lecturer, M.Ed., Arcada University of Applied Sciences, firstname.lastname@example.org
Michael von Boguslawski, Research Advisor, Ph.D., Arcada University of Applied Sciences, email@example.com
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