Soft Skills and Online Learning: Why Should We Care?

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When I was in college, I gained as much between my classes as I did within them. This is not a knock on the classes themselves, which were usually excellent, but a reflection that much of our learning occurs in ways we don’t expect. For instance, sidebar conversations before or after class, unexpected job opportunities from chats with a professor, leadership roles with student organizations, internships and field-based projects, or late-night study sessions with friends in the library. These all enriched my development in ways no lecture or reading assignment could offer.

We call these developmental experiences the noncognitive side of learning for students, sometimes also named “soft skills.” Noncognitive skills such as teamwork, leadership, interpersonal skills, cross-cultural competence, and self-regulation are valuable, though hard to measure, outcomes of higher education, and they are routinely listed among the twenty-first century learning skills needed for success in a knowledge-based economy. Diane Schanzenbach and her team at the Hamilton Project at Brookings have measured the impact of these skills on the labor market and concluded that noncognitive skills have become increasingly important in the workforce over time due to the automation of many routine tasks. They stated, “Tasks that involve working with or for people are substantially more important today than they were in the 1980s and 1990s.”

While opportunities to develop these skills exist in spades in a traditional college setting, what happens when higher education for millions of students is suddenly reduced to a virtual Zoom or Blackboard connection? How do students continue developing their interpersonal skills and building their social capital? Experts have been concerned about the impact of online learning in cutting off social and networking opportunities for those who need it the most, particularly low-income students. Researcher Jennifer Morton cautions, “Online education can teach very many things but it is not a promising space for students to practice and develop the non-cognitive skills they need to navigate many aspects of having a successful career in the middle-class.” Essentially, online education can leave many students knowledge-rich but network-broke.

Fortunately, developing noncognitive skills doesn’t have to be an either-or dilemma. Schanzenbach and her team found that certain interventions such as service-learning, experiential learning, leadership development, and even mindfulness can enhance the noncognitive abilities of students. Many of these approaches can still be done or modified in online learning. But it requires faculty and administrators to be intentional and creative in creating new kinds of space for this learning to occur. New space must be created “between,” “across,” and “outside” our traditional settings for online education.

Creating “Between Spaces” for Student and Faculty Interaction
In an online setting, it’s important to set up spaces between formal class activities for students to interact with each other and with faculty members. This may be informal space such as online student cafés, instructor office hours, and open time before and after class for connecting. Some instructors practice “last one out” in the virtual space to ensure students can approach with follow-up questions, or they leave the chat room open for students to continue connecting. If your course is asynchronous, you may consider using audio or video software like VoiceThread to stimulate conversation among students rather than using only text-based discussion boards. Students also need to take part in smaller groups and discussions where social norms are tested and learned, and a sense of belonging can occur.

Making “Across Spaces” for Peer and Mentor Networks
Beyond the course itself, creating “across spaces” enables students to make connections across campus and build a network of peers and mentors who will help them in their personal and career pursuits. Extracurricular activities are one way of building this network. Cross-disciplinary collaboration is also a great non-cognitive learning opportunity and a hallmark of the resident college experience. Faculty and leaders can encourage interdisciplinary projects, workshops, and competitions, or even group students from various disciplines in a class together for group work.

“Across spaces” also means reaching across the academic and industry divide and introducing students to mentors who can enrich their networks and expand their vision for the future. Julia Freeland Fisher at the Christensen Institute and author of “Who You Know: Unlocking Innovations that Expand Students’ Networks” gives a number of alternative ways to foster student career networks in online learning. For example, Nepris is a virtual space that offers “industry chats” with professionals, online tours, and informational interviews for students to learn about their careers of interest, and Career Village is a hub where students can get free personalized advice from professionals in their fields.

Building “Outside Spaces” for Co-Curricular Experiences
Experiential learning has long been a vital part of students’ noncognitive growth in higher education. Internships, work-study programs, industry partnerships, and field studies or studies abroad enrich students immeasurably. While some of these opportunities are limited now for travel or health reasons, there’s no reason students can’t still be gaining real-world work experience. Fisher highlighted the role of “micro-internships” run by companies like Parker Dewey and Ripen that connect college students with virtual work projects. These short-term consults are a win-win for students and organizations, letting students gain experience working on targeted projects of need to the organization without relocating. In some cases, students can also earn academic credit. Students may also need to get creative and look for local opportunities for work or internship experience. Faculty can help by integrating these learning experiences back into the classroom. These co-curricular experiences are like “riders” on students’ education insurance policy. They add extra benefits and fill holes in coverage, preparing students for whatever labor conditions they will face in the future.

In summary, widespread online learning is not just a momentary blip on the radar due to current world conditions. It’s the inevitable direction both education and work are going. As online learning becomes a more permanent part of many students’ higher education experiences, we must think seriously about the impact it will have on their noncognitive growth and network-building. Then we can take concrete steps to bridge these gaps in intentional and creative ways, creating space for new learning and growth to occur.

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