Nurturing graduate employability with prosocial engagement

Nov 16, 2022

The post was originally posted on the USYD Co-Design Research Group Blog: https://cdrg.blog/2022/11/03/nurturing-graduate-employability-with-prosocial-engagement/

Graduate employability – the ability to find, create, and sustain meaningful work across the lifespan of a career and in multiple contexts (Bennett, 2020) – is a top priority for the University of Sydney. Our graduates have been ranked the most employable in Australia and fourth globally (QS, 2022). Although our industry engagement is world class, the focus on corporate partnerships (University of Sydney, 2022) means much potential has remained under-utilised in our engagement with prosocial organisations (PSOs). PSOs are organisations which foster durable social change through core work with specific beneficiaries and community work to obtain the support of stakeholders (Cavotta & Mena, 2022).

This post showcases how my approach to learning and teaching across three units in the Business Information Systems major has nurtured graduate employability through students’ engagement with PSOs. I show how key learning activities, assessment principles, and exemplary student works support student development of the University of Sydney’s dimensions of employability, and address the United Nations’ sustainable development goals. Reflecting on student feedback and my own experience, I propose that prosocial engagement can helpfully complement industry engagement, contributing not only to graduate employability but also to the broader vision of leadership for good.

Tell me more about prosocial orgs?

In response to Covid-19, many of us have become more mindful of our social responsibility and how our actions impact others – one of the few silver linings from the pandemic. But how can we, as academics and students, make a positive impact on our community?

One way is to engage with PSOs whose shared primary purpose is altruism and philanthropy, rather than profit (as with corporations) or public services (as with government institutions). Examples include charities, non-profits, and NGOs. This does not exclude such organisations that make a profit or contribute to public services. However, as I have learned in the past few years of doing these engagements, PSOs differ from corporations and public institutions in one distinctive characteristic:

PSOs actively try to become unnecessary. They serve disadvantaged communities whose basic needs are not met by corporate nor public services. This means they operate on a fundamentally different logic:

  • PSOs try to maximise social good with minimal resources.
  • PSOs rely predominantly on volunteers.
  • PSOs offer their beneficiaries a hand up, not just a hand out – they help people to help themselves.
  • PSOs wish to keep their organisation as lean as possible, ideally non-existent.
  • PSOs spend their revenue (typically donations) to maximise stakeholder value, not shareholder value.

Why should students engage with prosocial orgs?

Engaging with PSOs has many direct benefits for students’ employability. For starters, engaging with a PSO, just as with corporate or public institutions, is an opportunity for students to expand relevant disciplinary knowledge in real contexts and apply it to business problems. In developing collaborative solutions for PSOs, students demonstrate critical thinking and problem-solving skills. They can also develop skills working with and influencing others while practicing their oral and written communication.

PSOs are generally easier to access – both for unit coordinators and students – because they are less restricted by intellectual property concerns and confidentiality obligations in comparison to large companies. PSOs appreciate every helping hand! And they have no shortage of highly impactful real-world problems that require students’ effective interdisciplinary collaboration, cultural competence, digital literacy, and inventiveness.

Because PSOs often face resourcing challenges, students have to exercise a high level of inventiveness and critical thinking to develop appropriate, sustainable solutions that don’t rely, for example, on an expensive technical design.

What might this look like for students?

Solutions developed by students include some very inventive prototypes! An interdisciplinary team of INFS3600 students, who major in BIS, marketing, and advanced computing, identified a waste overflow problem across Australian clothing donation bins. They identified a lack of data-driven decision making as a root cause. The team developed an IoT- and cloud-based prototype solution to measure, retrieve, and analyse clothing donation volumes remotely to optimise bin pickup scheduling. Another team developed a donation data tracking and visualisation tool for a Sydney-based disability service provider. Students working in another team developed an immersive virtual experience that allows donors to explore newly built schools in remote rural areas.

BETTER Timor - Nurturing graduate employability with prosocial engagement
Examples of student work from engaging with prosocial organisations.
BETTER Timor - Nurturing graduate employability with prosocial engagement
Examples of student work from engaging with prosocial organisations.

Importantly, all of these prototypes were built using very cheap or even free technologies that are simple to use. The maximum allowed expense for the prototype was 100 AUD. The proposed full-scale implementation needed to consider the scarcity of resources and technical expertise of many PSOs. This forced students to focus on the root causes of important problems and to prioritise cost-effective solutions over fancy gadgets, which is certainly a useful skill that is highly transferrable to the corporate business world.

An added benefit of engaging with PSOs is that students can contribute directly to one or several of the UN sustainable development goals (SDGs). Some of our recently completed student projects contributed to reduced poverty (SDG1), reduced hunger (SDG2), quality education (SDG4), gender equality (SDG5), reduced inequalities (SDG10), sustainable cities and communities (SDG11), responsible consumption (SDG12), and climate action (SDG13).

BETTER Timor - Nurturing graduate employability with prosocial engagement

Through their engagement with PSOs, students also developed higher resilience, higher professional, ethical, and personal identity, and increased self-awareness (aligning with the University of Sydney’s dimensions of employability).

What do students say?

Don’t take my word for it! Here are some of my students’ reflections on engaging with PSOs:

We liked how the assignment enabled us to consider how technology can be used by smaller organisations for social good and appreciated how this exploration was balanced by a discussion about the negatives / limitations of technology e.g., environmental impact of NFTs, deep fakes, and algorithmic bias.(INFS1020)

I learned a great deal about how charities struggle with logistics, the importance of needing to better understand consumer behaviour as a root cause of a problem, and how charities generally struggle to adopt new technology and change existing practices due to lack of resources.(INFS3600)

I learned that problems and root causes are interdependent, and that to encourage technological adoption, a simple but effective solution is often ideal.(INFS3600)

The assignment forced me to challenge the underlying assumptions how I conduct my work. Before I had learned about these concepts, I underestimated my own capabilities.(INFS2010)

Unlike other INFS projects, the assignment allowed us to develop a passion for the problem and team bond, leading to increased productivity and healthy team culture. Everyone was eager to help, unlike in other teams, where members were only concerned about their personal marks.(INFS3600)

It’s a highly practical course and I’ve felt more challenged and accomplished than ever before in my studies!(INFS3600)

Ok, I’m hooked. How do I design student engagement with PSOs into my unit?

It’s simple. The basic ingredients are an open mind and a strong focus on student-centric learning and authentic assessment. An example design could involve students in interdisciplinary teams working across the semester to research, prototype and present solutions to a challenge or business problem faced by a PSO. Unit coordinators could partner with a PSO, or allow students to find their own. The ease of access to PSOs and their intrinsic motivation to collaborate means that diligent students can find their preferred PSO themselves, simply by following their curiosity to a cause they deeply care about. Many students have existing connections, for instance, from previous altruistic engagements in high school. Students can easily find accredited PSOs in the online register of the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission or an overseas equivalent.

Unit coordinators can provide guidance by specifying a preferred set of causes, such as a sub-set of the UN SDGs. You can support academic integrity by choosing a different sub-set of causes each semester and prohibiting students from using a similar cause as in previous semesters. I allow similar causes if the key problem is sufficiently distinct from previous semesters. You can provide further support by suggesting PSOs, causes, or problems that you personally care about. For instance, I established an ongoing partnership with BETTER Timor, an Australian PSO providing educational development in Timor-Leste, because I care deeply about equal access to education. Reviewing annual reports and strategic plans of PSOs can help to identify their current problems and priorities, which can make collaboration easier.

The key challenge in assessment is that there will be no model solution. The assignment specifications and rubrics need to be both structured and flexible. In my units, I require that students identify and analyse an important business problem faced by a PSO, then design and develop an IS-based solution . Students need to tackle the specific problem and develop a specific solution while also reflecting on the general nature of the problem and solution. Working in groups of 4-5, students need to play pre-defined roles such as Business Analyst, Solution Architect, or Team Leader – or, they may define their own role. I use a mix of individual progress reports, a group report, a group presentation, and an individual reflection to evaluate students’ learning.

I hope this advice inspires, motivates, and guides you to incorporate prosocial engagement into your teaching. This kind of approach does require some upfront work. But you and your students will be rewarded with meaningful projects that can have a positive impact in your communities.

References

Bennett, D., 2020. Embedding employABILITY thinking across higher education. Department of Education, Skills and Employment. Retrieved on 27 June 2022 from https://pure.bond.edu.au/ws/portalfiles/portal/94712031/Embedding_employABILITY_thinking_across.pdf

Cavotta, V., & Mena, S. (2022). Prosocial Organizing and the Distance Between Core and Community Work. Organization Studies, forthcoming. doi:10.1177/01708406221099696

QS, 2022. Rankings revealed: QS Graduate Employability Rankings 2022. Retrieved on 27 June 2022 from https://www.qs.com/rankings-revealed-2022-qs-graduate-employability-rankings/

UN, 2022. Take Action for the Sustainable Development Goals. Retreived 18 October 2022 from https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/sustainable-development-goals/

University of Sydney, 2022. Collaborate on real-world projects. Retrieved on 27 June 2022 from https://www.sydney.edu.au/engage/industry-business-partnerships/work-with-our-students/real-world-projects.html