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Skills Courses

I’ve written before about employer comments on Georgetown graduates (Hacking Georgetown-Provided Skills). Their comments resemble those of some Georgetown parents. The common theme is that Georgetown excels at providing its graduates with strong critical thinking and writing abilities; the graduates are well-schooled in the key theories and research in their areas of concentration. They lack, in the opinion of these folks, some skills that a 21st century leader in any organization often exercises. They ask, properly enough, whether Georgetown can’t start supplying their students these skills.

In completely independent events, it appears that similar messages are heard when law and medical school deans seek feedback on their curricula and when faculty discuss desired attributes of new PhD programs. We hear messages that our curricula should assure that the basic skills necessary for modern work organizations be part of the student experience.

Last year, the law center offered a seminar on financial literacy for its students, taught by faculty at the business school. Last year, and again this year, a voluntary noncredit class in coding, under the rubric of GU Women Who Code, attracted hundreds of women students to pick up computer coding skills. The Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation has designed a course called Creating Transformative Change: How business, government and civil society can work together appealing to students interested in acquiring a variety of problem-solving skills.

As part of the Designing the Future(s) program, students over the summer worked with faculty to tag courses, beginning to indicate what skills are obtained by taking the courses. Once matured and vetted, this will be a core database that students can use to guide their course selections.

Further, from the Red House educational incubator that we built as part of Designing the Future(s), a proposal is emerging for a new menu of courses, unaffiliated with any one school, open to undergraduates and graduate students. These UNIV courses might be credit-bearing or noncredit courses. They would be modularized to offer compact, exercise-based pedagogy, designed to teach specific skills in a large set of domains.

They can include design thinking skills, web-page analytics, balance sheet construction, project management, oral communication forms (the debate, the negotiation, the “pitch,” the autobiographical introduction, etc.), and conflict transformation. More examples of cross-cutting courses include crisis mapping, grant writing, and advocacy techniques. Further, the menu of skills courses may involve courses available freely online that provide rigorous skills-development, where the role of Georgetown may be providing assessment of absorption of the skills.

We seek to build courses with certification features, which document the student’s acquisition of the skills at the time of the course. We seek to have transcripts and micro-credentials that reflect their successful completion of these courses. We envision a time when students view these as an essential part of the Georgetown experience, preparing them to be effective members in work organizations in all sectors of society. We don’t see these as subtracting from any academic content of current curricula; instead, these are additional educational services that Georgetown will offer a student a valuable and integrated supplement to their academic education.

We need wide input on this initiative. We plan to have an academic and senior staff advisory group to oversee the menu of skills courses. We’ll seek reactions of faculty, staff, and students in a variety of ways over the coming weeks.

13 thoughts on “Skills Courses

  1. This is a great idea that will benefit students and enhance Georgetown’s distinctive educational offerings. Faculty buy-in will be crucial to effective implementation, especially wrt additional effort and recognition thereof

  2. Very important topic. The GU Alumni assoc is looking at alums offering practical financial pearls to students at all schools addressing pratical advice for students at various stages. Balancing your checkbook for freshmen to advice on retirement plans, insurance. Basic investment strategies etc. this could be done by alums in a two hour evening pilot. The pres of GUAA and I are looking into a pilot at the med school. If it works it may be a way to connect alums with students, show the students what alums can offer. Etc. the main focus iof
    our new GUAA president is fostering student alum connections. If this works alums could do this to offer personal connections. Also if it works, there could be recorded webinars available to all students at all campuses and also for young alums. Also there is med curriculum committee looking at teaching in a more formal way professional skills important to be a good doc ie. empathy, establishing rapport, how to deliver bad news, self awareness to improve your effectiveness as a physician. In summary great post and I am sure Pres George Peacock of GUAA and the med curriculum committee would be happy to discuss with anyone working on these issues.

  3. Thank you; this is one of the most important issues facing our University. I suggest that in witnessing these trends we are seeing the results of years of neglect in science and math requirements. The quoted skills that are lacking in our students are closely related to math (e.g. “financial literacy”) and science (e.g. “computer coding”) skills. Depending on the field, scientists at GU and many other universities also do a fair amount of “crisis mapping” (particularly in infectious disease / global health), “grant writing” (pretty much all of us, and pretty much all of the time) and “advocacy” (see “grant writing” and our extensive service on various gov’t panels). The point being, these skills are already deeply imbedded in a long list of undergraduate and graduate science and math courses at GU. Yet, undergraduates in SFS are required to take 3 courses in history, 2 in government, 4 in economics, 2 in philosophy, 2 in theology, but (best I can tell) zero in math, zero in the natural sciences, and zero in computer science. In the college, undergraduates are required to take 2 courses in history, 2 in social science, 2 in philosophy, 2 in theology, and 2 from a cluster that includes all math, all natural sciences, and all computer science; which appears to suggest to our students that although philosophy and theology are distinct (each requires it’s own 2 course concentration), chemistry, biology, physics and computer science are not (a two course amalgam from this huge cluster is sufficient). How then can we be surprised when our students lack skills whose acquisition is a normal outcome of any reasonable exposure to math and the natural sciences ?

    Is it possible that all our students really need is to see more of what is inside math and science classrooms ? Perhaps. Perhaps there are also additional concepts that could be added to non science major courses in science and math, that would make these experiences even more potent. Serious, in depth discussion between faculty from math and natural science disciplines vs non science disciplines, that work to illustrate where science and math do indeed provide these skills (rather routinely in fact), might be helpful.


  4. Have you thought about making some of those new UNIV skills courses or modules open to faculty also? Maybe that would enrich our learning community down the road, since, as faculty build up their own skill sets, they might find it easier to include such skill development within their own course syllabi.

  5. I commend the provost for his insightful remarks about the future of higher education; I can think of no better pedagogical aim than to serve the desires of employers in their quest for a more technocratic, more docile workforce. In the future the University should consider partnering with corporate sponsors to ensure a better fit between employer demands and student capabilities. Perhaps, too, a series of retraining programs for when 21st-century skills—really, the skills required of graduates in 2014—are rendered obsolete by organizational and technological change.

    No doubt, too, that this move is in full accordance with the tradition of Jesuit pedagogy. When Matteo Ricci reached China in 1582, it was certainly his work skills and not his profound intellectual training that prepared him for the task of understanding Chinese Civilization. Likewise, can one dare to imagine what would have happened to the Italian Baroque had minds such as that of Athanasius Kircher been broader and deeper? Thank goodness that Kircher, like all Jesuits and their students, were well trained artisans and merchants. Perhaps the University should return to its Jesuit heritage by restoring the curriculum to that of a trade school.

    C. Tazzara, SFS ’04

  6. Perhaps proficiency in foreign languages or deep knowledge of other cultures might be added to the list of useful skills.

  7. i was in the med school and in an office that had their mission statement AND seventeen skills that we should teach including more of compassion, etc. I will try to forward that to Provost Groves office .I am sure he is aware of them but they address some skills similar to the ones hes has brought up. It would be interesting for all faculty to take a look at the Med School’s Goals in that regard.. Regards Bill LIcamele

  8. It is, as the Provost says, “quite reasonable” and to be expected that employers ask that we provide our students with practical skills that will be immediately applicable to their work environments. It’s not inevitable or necessarily reasonable that we say “yes.” Unless I’m missing nuances in what employers and parents (it hardly surprises that parents’ concerns match up exactly with employers, so I wouldn’t make too much of that) were asked, this looks like a pretty crude use of “data.” It is obvious that if you ask a business, “what do you need from our students that they lack when they show up,” employers will add some things that we don’t provide. Were followup questions asked? For example, “relative to critical thinking, writing, etc, which you say we do teach our students, how important is reading a balance sheet on day one, or is that something you can teach quickly?” What would be lost if students spent more time learning how to do x and less time thinking about y or z or learning to write?” I can think offhand of many more. And there is always the issue that Corey Tazzara so well identifies: today’s “skills” will not be tomorrow’s.

    Perhaps this is just a question of “marketing.” But “marketing” is not curricular planning. Our curriculum is already (over) crowded. Paul Roepe is right to raise the question of the gen eds. We continually seek to overlay this or that, because we collectively lack the stomach (after many others have been burned) to confront head on those with powerful interests in thwarting a rethinking of the gen eds and the curriculum as a whole. That discussion would be the place to think about what telos and what goods we are aiming for. Absent it, just tacking practical skills onto an already over-full curriculum (and onto a studentry that is already quite occupied with practical matters like internships) is not a solution; Georgetown already has a reputation of being more practically oriented than many of its peers. That’s all fine; but I fear the slippery slope to becoming Georgetown technical college.

  9. Re Alexander’s point the med school offers some ungraded voluntary mini courses to avoid cramming the curriculum. Eg on mindfulness. Also the use of alums to offer voluntary practical courses such as the pilot project on pratical financial pearls for med students avoids cramming in more requirements or required faculty time. The key is what fits and is academically possible as part of the curriculum and needed vs what can be offered by volunteer alums to supplement ongoing curriculum. Just a thought to put in the mix. Then we need to determine what are the future necessary skills for students to function and lead in the future .

  10. Short skills courses can indeed help students secure jobs, which is certainly very important in the present economic situation. However, a number issues need to be considered in order to minimize any unintended effect.
    • A major issue that needs to be taken into account is that GU students are already extremely busy. They carry a heavy and challenging course load, and are heavily engaged in extra-curricular activities and internships. Some observers have wondered if they really have enough time to absorb and reflect on what they study or experience. If short skills courses are to be taken in addition to the students regular workload, it could further overburden them. To avoid that, skills courses could be offered during semester breaks, vacations, during summer in pre-session or regular summer school sessions, and/or on-line so that students can take them in their free time (if they have any!) with the support of an instructor. Skills courses could also be offered for credit during regular semesters and taken as electives by students. In that case however, schools (and possibly departments) would need to approve them. To lessen the pressure on students, skills courses carrying credit could be graded on a pass/fail basis.
    • Some GU units and departments such as MBS, the Computer Science Department, SCS, and UIS have capabilities in some of the areas to covered by the proposed skills courses. For example, MBS already offers undergrad courses in entrepreneurship, project management, and management communication, although these are not always open to students from other schools. Similarly, it would be easy for the Computer Science Department to design and help implement a course on coding or website design , if it is inclined to do so and if resources are made available. The capacity of these schools, departments and units should, if at all possible, be used in designing and possibly conducting the skills courses. Some credit bearing skills UNIV courses could even be cross-listed with departmental courses, subject to approval by departments.
    • Using qualified alumni to conduct some of the skills courses is a great idea. Alumni represent a large underutilized pool of resources. The more alumni are involved in GU activities and develop a sense of ownership in the school the better it is for its future. However, such courses offered by alumni should still be reviewed by schools or departments to ensure quality in line with regular GU courses.
    • The mandate of the Provost and his deputies is to strengthen all of GU’s main campus schools, departments and programs on which the school’s reputation rests. They should be careful not to weaken them through the implementation of skills courses. For example, the introduction of these skills courses should not result in cancelling some elective courses of regular departments. Also, if possible some of these skills courses should be offered through or at least in collaboration with relevant schools and departments.
    • Finally, it should be remembered that while learning professional employable skills does result in graduates being employed more easily, studies have shown that it is graduates with a good liberal education who in the long-run tend to rise to positions of leadership. If GU is able to provide a sound liberal and pre-professional education, along with some immediately employable skills, this would be a major accomplishment.

    • I LOVE the idea of using GU Alums to teach some of your skills courses. That would help to solidify the connections between alums and students. It would give alums who have much to offer a greater sense of connection to Georgetown and especially its current students. It would give students a greater sense of the talent and dedication of a huge Georgetown treasure, the experience and talent of its wonderful alumni pool . I am sure the President of the GUAA and the Board of Governors would be happy to work with you on the role of the alums in such courses. In fact he and i are doing a brief pilot project at the Med School on Practical Financial Pearls. It is a one shot brief course . If it seems to be well received, we may then try it at the undergrad or other grad levels. Also it is something that could be taped or done as a webinar for different levels of students or alums. So its a great idea in many ways, and i am sure the GUAA would be willing to work with you and others on such involvement of alums with students.

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