Field Notes: Trackable Human Skills in Academia

June 24, 2022
  • Professional Development and Contributions to the Field
  • Technological Knowledge
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Group of students staring at phones.

By: Erin Seheult, Ph.D., MBA

"Field Notes" is an occasional Connect column covering practical and philosophical issues facing admissions and registrar professionals. The columns are authored by various AACRAO members. If you have an idea for a column and would like to contribute, please send an email to the editor at connect@aacrao.org.

Education has historically been tasked with preparing students for the real world. I think we can all agree these past two years have seen a drastic change to the real-world flow. There is more fluidity in how work happens, and the only thing we can depend on is the need for technology and relationships. As such, deeper intentionality to prepare for the use of technology and the growth of relationships must exist in the educational space.

The workforce has become less dependent on physical proximity, and more dependent on human interaction and relationships. We can now “meet” without seeing anyone’s face or reading body language. Side conversations can be held in private chats without others knowing (unless someone unwittingly sends a private message to everyone). The way we interact has changed.

No one can refute that technology remains important, as its use is not dwindling. In 2014, a study by Baylor University found that students spent up to 10 hours per day on their cellphone. That rate was seen as “astounding.” 

Enter COVID-19, and in July of 2020, Stanford’s students were found to spend 78% of their day staring at a screen

Staring at a screen boosts technological savvy, but cripples interpersonal skills.

We have all become used to spell-check smoothing over our fat fingering, grammar check making suggestions we blindly accept, and Zoom filters making us appear more put together than our spare bedroom would let on. In short, while we are mastering the latest technological advances, we are losing our ability to be human.

Being human involves relationships. Relationships are messy, raw, and fostered through the little things. The first impression of a handshake; the ability to maintain eye contact for the appropriate amount of time; the tone of voice coupled with pleasant words strung in the appropriate sequence; the sincerity in look and tone during a difficult conversation. All of these things are lost in direct proportion to the increased handling of technology, which COVID-19 has accelerated in all realms, education not excepted.

Relationships have always been the key to success, academic and otherwise. Knowledge can only get people so far if relationships don’t exist to leverage and share it. Articles like this one (https://hbr.org/2020/04/ensure-that-your-customer-relationships-outlast-coronavirus) are cropping up, identifying success in the real world as relationships.

Here’s the rub: we are losing the ability to build relationships. Those who have moved through life without exiting the womb attached to an electronic device likely have some raw interaction skills to fall back on. The younger generations, however, are not so lucky.

In order to continue successfully preparing students for the real world, the education industry must address this deficiency. This means an intentional focus on what is glibly labeled soft skills. 

For the record, I agree with Simon Sinek and refute the term “soft,” since skills like positive interpersonal communication, critical thinking, clear and succinct writing, and leadership are anything but soft; they are difficult and are a basic requirement to be a good human. As such, I join his bandwagon and refer to them as human skills.

As a University Registrar, I support academia’s hard-line on requiring the academic transcript to describe quantifiable outcomes. It should. Six credits of a course equate to a specified amount of time and the course description and syllabus define what is to be taught during that amount of time. The assigned grade identifies just how well the student spent their time accomplishing the prescribed learning. Done. Clean.

The good news is we can do something similar for human skills. Most (if not all) accredited institutions have institutional learning outcomes (ILOs) or student learning outcomes (SLOs). Most (if not all) of the programs in accredited institutions have programmatic learning outcomes (PLOs) and course learning outcomes (CLOs). These hold the answers to how the education industry can combat the dwindling relationship quotients of our students.

A general online search of ILOs, for example, shows commonalities. Terms such as communication, critical thinking, global awareness, writing, community service, leadership, and many others fill copious documents describing how students will obtain training in these outcomes through their programs. Sound familiar? These are the basics of being human. And we say we teach them to our students. How can we demonstrate that in a tangible way?

An answer is to create acknowledgments (e.g., credentials, badges, certificates) that identify which human skills have been mastered while completing an academic program. Current cutting-edge co-curricular conversations revolve around this very important topic. As with anything, the greater the visibility, the greater the attention received. The greater the attention on teaching these learning outcomes, the more successful the teaching of these skills will be.

How can these things be tracked in a consistent and quantifiable way?

Remember those copious accreditation and program review documents that outline the ILOs, PLOs, CLOs, and SLOs? They are more valuable than a paperweight or dust collector on your bookshelf or a gigabyte hog on your external hard drive to be accessed only during the accreditation cycle.  Those documents often contain crosswalks on a granular level of which assignments assist in gaining which human skills outlined in an ILO, PLO, SLO, or CLO. 

Any academic dean or program director worth his or her salt should be able to show which courses teach which ILOs. If they can do it, so can a computer. Allowing the student information system (SIS) to track and award acknowledgments of completion of these learning outcomes puts intentionality behind filling the human skills gap in our up-and-coming students.

Academia and human skills do not need to be mutually exclusive. They must become more inclusive if the next generations are to succeed past our virtual doors.