10 May 2011

Polytechnics and skills for the innovation economy

The last couple of days have seen some interesting articles in the Globe and Mail about postsecondary education and the rise of college and polytechnic credentials. The latest one refers to polytechnics and colleges and our role as finishing schools for those graduating university with BAs in need of work related context. The debate here is about the relative utility of a BA, and while an interesting argument, the focus on how polytechnics and colleges can offer post-graduate programs to give graduates practical job skills on top of these BAs is most relevant. As Rick Miner puts it in today's article, if we had a fully articulated postsecondary education system with full transferability, then we would better be able to give students more seamless education in less time, and for less money invested overall.

These points were made very clearly at the Polytechnics Canada Annual Meeting last week hosted by BCIT. As I noted in my brief summation, our focus on innovation and entrepreneurial skills, labour market mobility and credential laddering is pushing forward a necessary conversation in Canadian postsecondary education. A lot of the discussion focused on the "context skills" commensurate with working in teams and for greater workplace productivity. We know these as a group of skills we call innovation literacy, and it was good to see so many of our industry speakers calling for the integration of these skills. The Plenary Panel: "Start-up Canada: Building entrepreneurs through polytechnic education" featured a group of speakers (myself included) who had a very engaging discussion on the opportunity we have as a country to chart a course of differentiated education that is "outside in" focused, rather than "inside out." By this I mean we can offer laddered credentials, integrated within applied workplace projects (such as we do with applied research and capstone projects), that are focused on what employers need, and the needs of those seeking skills, training and education to become full participants in the knowledge economy. We can make a bold statement with education delivery in this regard, and help transform Canadian education for the 21st century. This transformation integrates science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) skills with nonSTEM skills, realizing that a people-centred innovation and the innovation economy requires us to remain flexible and nimble in our approach to innovation and entrepreneurship more generally.

And this leads nicely into the summation of the innovation and entrepreneurship session I moderated at the conference. The group landed on the following three priorities:

1. Integration
- of innovation and entrepreneurship skills in all PolyCan programs - start early, not just capstone, but foundation of programs
- ensure graduates understand the importance and relevance of I.E. skills
- of STEM/nonSTEM skills across curricula (inclusion of technical, soft, and context skills
- of benefits to industry in core messaging

2. Harmonization
- of messaging with sector councils and industry, government and community audiences, and other PSE advocacy organizations to jointly advocate for innovation and entrepreneurship skills, importance, and retraining/ongoing education needs of workforce

3. Differentiation
- between innovation and entrepreneurship
- in our focus on applied research - switch from outputs to outcomes - benefits to industry, other audiences
- in PolyCan programs - make a bold shift to lead the way in redefining innovation, entrepreneurship and links to education

These are good thoughts for this day, or for any day, as we work together to redefine education for the innovation economy.

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