Near Future Teaching Focus Group and Testing Session with Employers

Earlier this week and as part of our ongoing efforts to engage with as many groups as possible around the outcomes of the Near Future Teaching project (detailed in this report), we were lucky enough to engage with local employers with a focus group at the Lister Learning and Teaching Centre. Many thanks to Shelley Morgan from the University of Edinburgh Careers Service for her tireless efforts in arranging it. Joining us in the discussion were representatives from Enterprise Rent-a-Car, Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, and the Scottish Government.

The focus group began with a brief introduction to the project followed by open discussions around particular aims emerging from the project, with the first being a discussion around data fluency.

All the organisations mentioned how data impacted them in some way, some explicitly tied to their work and some informing what they do more tangentially. There was an interesting dialogue around the word itself and how potentially there is a disconnect between how employers are describing data skills and how that might be naturally excluding certain groups who are naturally working with data on a daily basis. This distinction was noted by the representative from the Scottish Government and how when we think of data, many are naturally leaning towards quantitative data and the numerical, computational, and statistical skills associated with it. This naturally excludes those working routinely with qualitative data and the skills involved in its analysis. An interesting discussion around how what employers are signalling in their job descriptions potentially eliminates a large swath of people who are especially data fluent, but from a qualitative perspective.

There was a great emphasis in the discussion on the communication skills associated with data use, that there is an underlying narrative or message within the data that needs to be presented in such a way as to prove persuasive or accessible. Hence, all pointed towards the continuing if not increased need for those that can communicate the data in a meaningful way.


The community aspects of the discussion were particularly focused on community building in an increasingly distributed workplace. I wanted to lead the discussion towards a particular indicative aim (Prioritising human contact and relationships) and action from the report (Invest in technologies which offer new ways for remote and off-campus students to be part of the community) and this stimulated an interesting discussion about the changing nature of work. Remote work, telepresence, distributed organisations, mixed cohorts of here and there, flexible shifts, all of it seemed to resonate one way or another with each of the organisations represented. Some had a particularly strong culture of physical presence where working from home was less pronounced than others, yet all had some degree of autonomy worked in to their organisational ethos. It struck me that organisations, particularly these employers, had embraced organisational change quite readily, working with their own constraints. Scottish Government and Enterprise Rent-a-Car were naturally very large and very dispersed organisations, and naturally more inclined to developing systems that accounted for this distribution.

There was some discussion in this section on the role of technology and working at non-traditional hours (evenings and weekends, primarily) and there didn’t seem to be a particular resistance to how technology might blur a sense of worklife balance. This possibly spoke to the autonomy of the individuals and their ability to just ignore incoming messages if they choose to but largely this wasn’t seen as an encroachment but rather a welcome opportunity to work efficiently, or ignore it altogether.

To round out the 90 minutes, we briefly discussed the post-digital and playful and experimental strands of the report as well and their applicability to the sectors represented in the focus group. Much of the discussion nominally centred around one of the indicative actions (Invest to give academics more time to be creative and risk-taking in their use of digital education) and what if any equivalent existed in their sectors. Many spoke of how their organisations address risk in their work or in their professional development programmes: simulations, challenge-led workshops and an emphasis on experiential learning, opening up closed space as open play spaces for children at the Zoo. All the organisations seemed to have a clear idea of how they would engage with risk and in experimentation. Much of this was via educational models, much of this was through careful observation and analysis (essentially a data-driven exercise), much of this was through mentoring, and more.

All in all, a very interesting discussion that lends itself to further thinking about how what we are doing with Near Future Teaching speaks to the organisational cultures, constraints, and needs in employers; and where we at the University of Edinburgh can do more to engage with them around what largely seemed to be a shared understanding of near future learning.