The case for ‘ex­tern­ships’

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

The in­dus­tries of the fu­ture will re­quire peo­ple cre­ative and in­no­va­tive enough to work with tech­nol­ogy, not be re­placed by it. And work­ers will need re­silience and grit, be­cause fail­ure, more of­ten than not, is part of the in­no­va­tion process.

Un­for­tu­nately, sec­ondary schools to­day are not pro­vid­ing a plat­form for im­part­ing the skills nec­es­sary for their grad­u­ates to com­pete in the work­places of the fu­ture. With some no­table ex­cep­tions, main­stream schools in most coun­tries re­main in­su­lated from the de­mands of industry, which all too of­ten means they are cut off from rapid evo­lu­tion in the econ­omy at large. In or­der for stu­dents to be bet­ter pre­pared, schools and com­pa­nies will have to learn to co­op­er­ate more closely than ever be­fore in the for­ma­tion of the work­force.

Sev­eral Amer­i­can com­pa­nies are al­ready work­ing to close the gap. Gen­eral Elec­tric and IBM have both opened schools where stu­dents can ben­e­fit from a fo­cus on math, en­gi­neer­ing, and sci­ence. Udac­ity, the on­line ed­u­ca­tion start-up founded by Stan­ford pro­fes­sor Se­bas­tian Thrun, de­liv­ers cer­ti­fied cour­ses in part­ner­ship with com­pa­nies, giv­ing stu­dents an edge over ap­pli­cants who have un­der­taken only class­room study. Ac­cord­ing to The Econ­o­mist, more than 70 com­pa­nies, in­clud­ing Mi­crosoft, Ver­i­zon, and Lock­heed Martin – all strug­gling to find in­no­va­tive and tech-savvy skilled em­ploy­ees – are work­ing on sim­i­lar mod­els with schools.

Schools think­ing of col­lab­o­rat­ing with industry nat­u­rally think of in­tern­ships. But for sec­ondary-school stu­dents in par­tic­u­lar, this ap­proach can be prob­lem­atic. Op­por­tu­ni­ties for plac­ing young in­terns are rare, be­cause they lack the skills and knowl­edge com­pa­nies want. And com­pa­nies are re­luc­tant to have teenagers in their of­fices for many other rea­sons. (For ex­am­ple, in Sin­ga­pore, no one un­der 18 years old may sign a non-dis­clo­sure agree­ment.)

Those sec­ondary-school stu­dents who do man­age to get an in­tern­ship of­ten find the ex­pe­ri­ence un­re­ward­ing; in­stead of learn­ing any­thing of value, they are of­ten rel­e­gated to mak­ing pho­to­copies and per­form­ing other me­nial tasks. Mean­while, univer­sity ad­mis­sions com­mit­tees know that in­tern­ships are not pro­duc­tive ex­pe­ri­ences, and there­fore do not give in­terns prece­dence over other ap­pli­cants.

‘Ex­tern­ships’ of­fer stu­dents a bet­ter way to ac­quire skills, be­cause stu­dents are given an op­por­tu­nity to help a com­pany solve a real-world prob­lem from the class­room. Ex­am­ples in­clude tack­ling in­no­va­tion chal­lenges re­lated to de­liv­er­ing ser­vices in dif­fer­ent mar­kets, de­vel­op­ing tech­nol­ogy apps to op­ti­mise op­er­a­tions and cut costs, and pro­duc­ing pro­to­types for new prod­ucts.

In many ways, ex­tern­ships are a close cousin of the ap­pren­tice­ship pro­grammes that are com­mon in sec­ondary schools in Europe. What makes them dif­fer­ent are the stu­dents’ re­quire­ments: less tech­ni­cal knowl­edge and greater em­pha­sis on foun­da­tional skills like en­trepreneur­ship, lead­er­ship, com­mu­ni­ca­tion, and the ba­sics of tech­nol­ogy.

One so­lu­tion is to cre­ate pro­grammes that al­low sec­ondary-school stu­dents to tackle in­no­va­tion chal­lenges for com­pa­nies with­out leav­ing their class­rooms. Rather than work­ing on-site at the com­pany, stu­dents learn the skills to solve the tasks with their teach­ers and present their ideas to com­pa­nies at for­mal meet­ings. Com­pa­nies can over­see stu­dents for as lit­tle as six hours per ex­tern­ship.

Ex­tern­ships can last from one to four months, and they fol­low a three-stage learn­ing path. At the first stage, stu­dents try to solve the chal­lenges faced by small or medium-size com­pa­nies (SMEs). Then they grap­ple with dif­fi­cul­ties trou­bling For­tune 500 com­pa­nies. Fi­nally, they work on iden­ti­fy­ing prob­lems them­selves, form­ing teams, and com­pet­ing in in­ter­na­tional venues.

Learn­ing to com­mu­ni­cate the process by which stu­dents ar­rive at their so­lu­tions is cen­tral to any ex­tern­ship. Stu­dents must be able to make pro­pos­als to com­pany lead­ers and learn to ac­cept fail­ure and crit­i­cism pro­duc­tively. Ex­tern­ships lie pre­cisely at the in­ter­sec­tion of play and rigour, which is where in­no­va­tion thrives. For SMEs, ex­tern­ships pro­vide much-needed cre­ative man­power. For larger com­pa­nies, they are av­enues for cor­po­rate cit­i­zen­ship and in­no­va­tion.

When prop­erly in­te­grated into a stu­dent’s ed­u­ca­tion, ex­tern­ships can pro­vide the com­pet­i­tive edge on col­lege ap­pli­ca­tion es­says and at cam­pus or alumni in­ter­views, which ad­mis­sions com­mit­tees in­creas­ingly use to dis­tin­guish 21st cen­tury lead­ers from the com­pet­ing hordes of top-scor­ing test­tak­ers. Ex­tern­ships of­fer trans­parency and ac­count­abil­ity for ed­u­ca­tors and im­bue a spirit of fear­less­ness in stu­dents.

Our ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem can no longer af­ford to wall it­self off from the world of industry. Its goal should be to cul­ti­vate the kind of stu­dents that the or­gan­i­sa­tional the­o­rist John Seely Brown calls “en­tre­pre­neur­ial learn­ers.” By help­ing com­pa­nies solve their real-world prob­lems, stu­dents can pre­pare them­selves to meet the chal­lenges of the fu­ture.

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