For three years, I’ve walked up the ramparts into Edinburgh castle, donned an academic gown, plonked a mortar board on my head, then walked down an aisle behind the skirl of the bagpipes, to present degrees to some remarkable students. It was, again, a beautifully staged event, one they’ll remember all of their lives. So will I.
My speech this year was on what makes them distinct and special. These students had worked for three years to gain their degrees in Architecture, Graphic Design, Illustration and Photography. They came from many lands: India, the Far East, Middle East and Europe. All had completed their degrees online. Astonishingly, they had never met their tutors until this graduation day. Even more remarkable, year on year, these students consistently outperform their campus-based peers.
Far from being inferior to their corresponding campus-based colleagues, the graduates with these degrees are, I believe, superior. As an employer, and to be honest, as just an objective observer, if they were to turn up at my door, I’d consider them a fantastic, talent pool, eminently hireable. Why? There are traits these graduates have that are confirmed by the fact that they completed a hard-won degree in this way – online.
1. Desire to develop
“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I took the one less travelled”. You’ve heard that Robert Frost line before but these students really did make that choice. Unlike most 18 year-old undergraduates who simply progress, often in lock-step, from school to ‘Uni’, every last one of these people came a bit later to the game. They had to make a leap and actively choose to pay for a degree for personal development, promotion prospects, career change or quite simply for the love of their subject. They had the desire to lift themselves out of their normal lives, change direction and chose to make this leap. That’s brave and admirable.
2. Overcame obstacles
This is no ordinary group of graduates but a mixture of smart people who have jobs, children and responsibilities. They had to juggle the demands of their work, children, partners, friends, tutors and support staff to get to their goal. This overcoming of personal obstacles makes them ready to deal with work-life issues that a fresh-faced student couldn’t imagine.2. Persevered
Motivation, and its offspring perseverance, is guaranteed, as they have had to consistently pick themselves up and drive forward against all the odds. This trait is interesting, one essential in client work, where you have to work through problems, criticisms and setbacks; all the things that client-supplier work entails. Creative work has no end – nothing is ever perfect, judgements often subjective. These learners have lived through this for three years, under expert tutelage and pushed themselves, time and time again, towards a series of deadlines and the ultimate goal – their degree. At only 8% , the drop-out rate is wondrous.
3. Project managed
Project work, and these fields are almost wholly a series of projects, require good project management skills. In working through virtual studios to submit work, go through many iterations where online tutors provide efficient and effective constructive feedback and quite simply manage their valuable and limited time, is to manage projects and that, by definition, means project management skills.
Anyone whose work is largely online will know how sensitive one has to be when body language and other cues are absent. Taking a brief online, delivering project work and assessments online, as well as taking constructive feedback, demands communications skills that are badly needed in our world. These are new skills they had to develop over and above the standards competences of their craft. So much of the work they do, and now do at a higher level, will require strong but sensitive online communications skills. They clearly have this in abundance.
6. Self-aware and self-driven
An often ignored, but well researched aspect of good learning is self-awareness or ‘metacognition’, the ability to become aware, knowledgeable and reflect on your own learning. This, in turn, allows you to efficiently manage your own learning. This is what Higher Education aspires to, giving students the ability to become autonomous learners. Having seen the way these online students learn, the support they receive and the results, you can see how these graduates are brilliant, autonomous learners.
7. Digital doers
A digital degree is in some ways more relevant to 21st century life and work. Work, especially in the jobs where these students excel, is largely digital, even if it does eventually end up as a book cover, poster, product or building. The tools they use are digital, their work is managed digitally and delivery is digital. I’ve seen the work produced by all of these graduates, both 2D and 3D, how else but online – it was well worth the effort.
Note that I haven’t even mentioned competence. I mean competence in terms of their craft, skills and expertise in their chosen fields. This I take as a given. What matters, for me, is what they had to deal with and develop along the way, all of those extra qualities that education should impart and amplify.
The degrees are awarded by the University of Hertfordshire and delivered by the Interactive Design Institute. What makes these degrees unique is that have three intakes a year, deliver exemplary digital content, provide high quality constructive feedback from tutors through virtual studios, as well as strong pastoral support. All of this led to these degrees and this method of delivery being the first to be approved by the QAA.
I’m not saying that campus graduates don’t have these skills but I do think that the students I meet here, year after year, have a far higher probability of possessing and having developed these qualities. In my eyes, it makes them the sort of people that are a credit to their partners, families, employers and, most of all, to themselves.