Figure 1.4.1 Knowledge workers Image: Phil Whitehouse, 2009. Retrieved from https://www.flickr.com/photos/philliecasablanca/3344142642/.
Figure 1.3.1 Knowledge workers
Image: Phil Whitehouse, 2009. Retrieved from https://www.flickr.com/photos/philliecasablanca/3344142642/.

However, there is a real danger in tying university, college and schools programs too closely to immediate labour market needs. Labour market demand can shift very rapidly, and in particular, in a knowledge-based society, it is impossible to judge what kinds of work, business or trades will emerge in the future.

The focus on the skills needed in a digital age raises questions about the purpose of universities in particular, but also schools and two year community colleges to some extent. Is their purpose to provide ready-skilled employees for the work-force? Is it really the job of historians or physicists to teach skills such as attentive listening, time management or social perceptiveness?

Certainly the rapid expansion in higher education is largely driven by government, employers and parents wanting a workforce that is employable, competitive and if possible affluent. Indeed, preparing professional workers has always been one role for universities, which have a long tradition of training for the church, law and much later, government administration. The goal here is to ensure that as well as a deep understanding of the content and core values of a subject discipline, students can also develop skills that enable them to apply such knowledge in appropriate contexts.

Secondly, focusing on the skills required for a knowledge-based society (often referred to as 21st century skills) merely reinforces the kind of learning, especially the development of intellectual skills, for which universities have taken great pride in the past. Indeed in this kind of labour market, it is critical to serve the learning needs of the individual rather than specific companies or employment sectors. To survive in the current labour market, learners need to be flexible and adaptable, and should be able to work just as much for themselves as for corporations that increasingly have a very short operational life. The challenge then is not re-purposing education, but making sure it meets that purpose more effectively.

Thirdly, enabling students to live well and to feel some measure of control in a technology-rich society is surely the responsibility of every educator. For instance, all students, whatever their discipline, need to know how to find, evaluate, analyse and apply information within their specific subject discipline. With so much content of varying quality now available at one’s fingertips, such skills are essential for a healthy society.

Thus in some cases it is a language issue: instructors may be achieving some of these ’21st century skills’ such as critical thinking within the requirements of a specific discipline without using this terminology (for example, ‘compare and contrast…’ is a critical thinking activity). However, the HEQCO study (Weingarten et al., 2018) indicates that high-level soft skills are hard to measure and probably need to be defined and communicated more clearly and purposefully by instructors. In particular, development of such skills need to be considered at a program level so instructors can define what level of skill they expect of students when they arrive, and to what level that skill has been increased or improved by the end of a course or program.

A good example of this is from the Faculty of Computer Science at Dalhousie University. The department developed a map showing the inter-relatedness between specific learning outcomes, course content, and course and learning outcome sequencing, so that each instructor understood what level of skills and outcomes students would have from previous courses, and could identify what levels of skills they were passing on when students left their course. One result of this was to move the theory courses from the fourth year to the first year, as this helped students in the later stages of the program.

These activities do not challenge in any way core disciplinary values, or make universities or colleges merely preparatory schools for business, but they do ensure that students leave with skills that prepare them well for living in a very challenging age.


Weingarten, H. et al. (2018) Measuring Essential Skills of Postsecondary Students: Final Report of the Essential Adult Skills Initiative Toronto ON: HEQCO

Activity 1.3: What are the skills you are developing? Part 2

The new Ontario provincial government in 2019 announced that it would link funding of its post-secondary institutions to ‘performance outcomes’. Institutions would be encouraged to suggest their own performance measures.

Your institution has decided to focus on the development of¬† ’21st century skills’ as a ‘key performance indicator’, and is asking all its academic departments to list the ‘core’ skills that their programs are developing.

If you were asked this, what would you suggest from looking not just at your teaching but the teaching of the department or program as a whole? And what evidence would need to be provided to show such skills are being achieved by your students?

Would having to do this be an infringement of your academic freedom?

No feedback is provided on this activity.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License

Teaching in a Digital Age: Third Edition - General Copyright © 2022 by Anthony William (Tony) Bates is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book