Innovation Agenda

It’s almost paradoxical that as TAFE faces funding cuts, other educational institutions are moving towards real world contextualised learning. Perhaps that’s just the way the pendulum swings, or perhaps educators are cottoning on to the fact that an  aggressive ‘innovation’ agenda can only really be met by taking kids out of the classroom and partnering with industry experts.

Recently, Loreto Normanhurst abandoned the confines of the  classroom in favour of a real life workplace experience for the 40 or so Year 10 students who have elected Business Studies as one of their senior electives for 2017. If the students were expecting to be greeted by Ricky Gervais in a poorly-cut suit, they certainly got a value-added experience at TripAdvisor’s new $7 million fit out office in Sydney.

These kinds of swanky renovations are ushering in a new understanding of professional culture and are part of an increasing push to attract millennials and post-millennials into the world of corporate work. Young people are eschewing climbing the corporate ladder in favour of work that is meaningful to them and a workplace that allows for flexibility and individual career development. Indeed, representing Talent Acquisition at TripAdvisor, Kelly Woodward, as well as Global Head of Human Resources, Recruiting and Office Experience, Kerry Fischer (video conferenced in from San Francisco), spoke about the importance of attracting, developing and retaining talent in an increasingly globalised market. The fact that companies like TripAdvisor and Atlassian advertise their successes in polls taken on the coolest places to work (TripAdvisor’s Viator was recently a finalist for 2016s Coolest Companies in Tech) only affirms the fact that young people are undertaking a different kind of career planning. The sheer number of questions about the potential for work related travel razed any lingering doubt about what rates in young people’s eyes.

We were there to meet Viator, and we couldn’t have selected a more appropriate company for our innovation agenda. Viator is the leader in the online activities market, they offer more than 50,000 tours and activities from over 15,000 suppliers and they’re Australian. If Australians are prone to measure their success by how much outside interest they attract, then Viator’s dance card was well and truly filled in 2014 by US giant TripAdvisor who bought the once-fledgling startup for $200 million. This kind of story is an important one for Australian students to hear if we are serious about shifting from a local competitive advantage (how we stack up against the school down the road) to a national one (how do our young people fare in a complex global workforce). A key part of the learning experience was around raising ambition for what’s possible, and the Viator narrative sets the stage in terms of lion-sized ambition. The company’s VP of Engineering, Jeff Lewis, gave the opening gambit and, as the song goes, a real indication of how from little things, big things grow. But perhaps of most value to the students was the understanding of what readiness for work means today.

Sitting in a classroom in period 5 on a Thursday afternoon and telling a student they need to be a good communicator is miles away from hearing it from an industry expert who is discussing how a global sales team works, or from a Business Analyst who must play the middleman between IT and business stakeholders. Asking students to design a travel brochure in no way stacks up to hearing about the front end design that goes into a user interface. Telling girls that they ought to consider a career in STEM is wildly different to hearing how much a female engineer loves her job or that everything they touch – everything in the office around them – has in some way been shaped by technology. As a teacher I hear ad nauseum about the desire for a career in law and medicine. Worthy professions certainly, but I wonder how many parents have considered the oversupply of graduates in law or how Artificial Intelligence is set to revolutionise oncology diagnosis thereby potentially shifting the role of doctors. Presumably, this is just the beginning of the myriad of ways AI will radically change the way we work.

So, back to the innovation agenda. What we learnt from previous outings to tech  companies is that listening is great but doing is better. With this in mind we extended the challenge from their day trip into a week long challenge. We put students in the centre of their learning activity by asking Viator to present students with actual business problems to solve. If we are serious about national competitive advantage, we need to create learning opportunities that ask students to solve real world problems creatively and to collaborate in teams. The collaborative message came through loud and clear as students toured the offices and saw Sydneysiders on high tech video conferences with teams in Las Vegas, San Francisco and London. I can only imagine what the employees on the other end thought as they saw a gaggle of blue uniforms move through the offices smiling and waving!

The business challenges our students are working on range from how to recruit more women into engineering over the next 10 years to redesigning the Viator purchasing experience. Back at school we are relying on the motivation of solving real life problems to keep the students engaged and self-directed. Making tasks purposeful is essential. Students need to know that what they are doing has impact. The fact that their work will be judged by industry gives the task authenticity. The lack of a simple solution or a textbook chapter written just for the occasion stretches them above their current level and requires original thought. We know having access to mentors and professionals is essential, and to that end we are creating a feedback loop wherein our students submit 10 questions or ‘check in’ with the relevant Viator employees. The cross-pollination of skills, interests, and disciplines is vital to gaining a sense of how adults function in the wider world. It will be interesting to watch the way the groups operate and how they navigate listening to one another’s ideas before finally deciding on pursuing one or a combination of a few ideas. Aside from intrinsic motivation and the desire to perform in a team, there’s also the promise of remuneration. In this case, a prize is being awarded to the winning team, so yeah, there’s that.

We hope that immersion events like these pave the way for greater cross-fertilisation of education and industry. It’s not that we’re handing control to outside interests and devaluing education for education’s sake, it’s that we know that humans learn through observing, experimenting and participating. Why not play when the stakes are low? Why not make room in the curriculum for activities that blur the line between learning and good old make-believe where kids metaphorically don mum and dad’s suit and go to work for the day? Just remember that in today’s world business attire is Converse sneakers, a pair of jeans and a wittily sloganed t-shirt.

 

Ms Elizabeth Green

Knowledge and Learning Strategist