Universities do a great job of enabling their students to gain in-depth knowledge in core degree disciplines. An academic degree also demonstrates a student’s ability to learn to potential employers. This is an increasingly important attribute in an ever-changing world where job, careers and whole industries may come and go over the course of a lifetime.
In a previous post, we discussed how important it is for students to gain wider ‘employability’ skills. This time, we’ll add to the discourse by examining the short and long-term benefits students can gain from exposure to industry experts and expertise during their time at university. Universities can, and do, use multiple approaches, depending on their location, areas of expertise, existing and developing industry partnerships and so on. A key message here is that there’s no one right way of doing this. In this article, we’ll share some of our own experiences at the University of Leeds.
We’re big fans of the Leeds University’s Leaders in Residence program. This uses a network of professionals, ranging from chief executives, managing directors and entrepreneurs to early career professionals from a wide range of sectors and skills areas. Each leader volunteers to share their experiences, business expertise and insights with students. This is achieved in several different ways, such as one-to-one mentoring, group discussions, guest lectures and other student-facing activities. All are designed to connect students with real-world practice and preparing for their future careers. (Leaders, of course also benefit, too, but we’ll come back to that later…)
We have also developed our own way of collaborating with practitioner experts in our own ‘Innovation Thinking and Practice’ module. We took a good deal of input from industry when designing the module. This included insights into the wider skills recruiters look for which they believe their graduate applicants often lack, such as team-working, problem solving and communications skills. To enable students to develop these skills, our students work in diverse and interdisciplinary teams. Each team is assigned a real-world innovation challenge to address, developed in concert with an external industry expert.
Once the students have begun to research the assigned problem area and industry, they interview one of the industry experts. Students are encouraged to do this in a ‘professional’ manner. They prepare well and treat their expert with empathy and respect. Each team is tasked with gaining as much relevant information as they can from the interview by using probing enquiries, actively listening to the answers and asking supplemental questions as needed.
We use reflective journals for students to learn more from their experiences. Student feedback from the expert interview sessions is always particularly positive. It is easy to forget that a professional meeting of this kind is something most of them have little experience in. Identifying the right questions to ask and leading a conversation with an expert is not easy. It requires both preparation and thinking on the spot! Although some find questioning a senior person from industry daunting at first, by the end they realize the experienced leader in front of them is a person just like them. Future connections are often made.
We also invite external experts into our classroom-based workshops. Often, they say a few words at the beginning, but the real benefit comes from having them roam around the room, spending time with each team, asking and answering questions and sharing their experiences. The students benefit greatly from these personal encounters.
We encountered a problem here when we were hit by the pandemic. Temporarily teaching online, we didn’t want to lose the industry insights. To address this, we asked a series of industry leaders to create short selfie-style videos where they talked about a key skill (e.g., resilience or commercial awareness) drawing upon their own experiences. The videos have turned out to be a great resource. Students cherish the opportunity to learn from the experience of a successful practitioner. As a result, they feature very positively in our students’ reflective journals. The videos have also been reused in other modules.
In fact, we’ve used a similar approach in our book Design Thinking for Student Projects, which the module inspired. One design element our students wanted to see in a textbook was input on the key topics from a range of industry experts. To achieve this, we have included 22 short interviews on topics such as innovation and design thinking, empathy, commercial awareness and other attributes graduate recruiters are looking for. Feedback to date has been hugely positive.
At the end of the module, we bring our industry partners back into the classroom where they form an expert Dragons’ Den / Shark Tank-style panel for the students to pitch to. The experts listen, ask questions, provide feedback and vote for the best team pitches. Having their work critically analyzed and often praised by leading industry experts is a great experience for our students. Frequently they receive invitations to graduate recruitment programs. Equally importantly, many of the leaders encourage students to connect on LinkedIn and seek them out for advice and questions during their future career. Longer term connections are made.
As we bring this post to a close, we should discuss the impact. The primary benefits are numerous and mainly for the students themselves. We’ve looked to highlight this above, but here are some additional quotes from student evaluation surveys: “The industry guests and industry aspects of the module have helped with my graduate application and interviews. I have been able to articulate the industry context of what I have learnt” / “Amazing to have industry experts with such positivity and enthusiasm” / “The industry guests gave a broad and insightful view of how our project work relates to real business practice”.
Of course, the industry experts benefit from the experience, too! Giving something back and working with such unconstrained minds is hugely rewarding. The prototype solutions developed by the students often act as a catalyst for more innovative thinking in the experts’ organizations.
But we do have a warning for our experts! Sometimes they might value what they’re doing too much – and move to academia themselves. We write from experience. After various guest lectures and being an early Leader in Residence, one of the authors of this post made a career jump into academia. Now that he’s here, it’s important for both of us to maintain and grow industry inputs into our teaching and learning for the benefits of our students. Please feel free to get in touch if you have questions, wish to get involved with programs or would like to share your own successful examples of industry inputs into higher education. We’d love to hear about and learn from them.