It was a pleasure to present our SMART choices and SMART tools project at the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management (APPAM) Spring Conference – particularly the development and roll out of our tailor-made toolkits. Following a discussion on the employability of public policy graduates and skillsets required by employers, we were asked to share our open access project with our peers and the public.
Access all our SMART toolkits here.
Not only was it unique for me to have a full hour to present our work and debate with the audience, but even better was the fact that the audience of deans, managers and staff of top US public policy schools, along with potential employers, was perfect for our project. Together with Katerina Triantos, who implemented the project for us, we took full advantage of their presence and designed an interactive session that encouraged debate.
Our SMART toolkits include eight open access tools that enable users to navigate a public policy related field any time and anywhere. What makes the tools most useful is their accompanying narratives that guide public policy students step-by-step, starting from our own staff expertise before linking to many external sources of information in a clear storytelling format.
The toolkits we designed were chosen by our own teachers in the Master’s programme, and are primarily used to serve their MPP students. Some teachers include the toolkits in their coursework, and our students have the tools integrated in their employability service package. However, the open access format means any teacher anywhere can use the tool, build on it and include it in their classes. These tools could be valuable for institutions that have limited staff resources, or institutions that have less well-developed library services. Also outside of academia, any employer that thinks a toolkit is useful for new employees can refer to them. Overall, then, this sounds really good in theory.
Our debate, however, threw up some clear hurdles. The fact that we offer the toolkits free of charge and available to integrate in anyone’s classes, does not mean that they will automatically be used. If teachers do not want to include the materials in their classes as part of the core curriculum of a Master’s in Public Policy, it is then up to the student to spend the time on the tool (or not). But if students do not know about the tools or do not see their value clearly, they will not invest their time in reviewing them. And if neither teachers nor students use the tools actively – why would we maintain them? The tools should clearly fill a gap, which would result in the use of the tool.
In our debate on clarifying value, we discussed the option of adding employer endorsements. For instance, if a public policy think tank sees value in sharing our ‘Policy Memo Writing’ toolkit with their employees, we could then add their endorsement. This would be clearly visible to students, so any who are keen to work at that particular think tank would then see immediate added value. We could even develop new toolkits from the bottom up, which particular employers can request and endorse — thus ensuring usage and practical value from the start.
Inclusion of the materials in existing university courses, beyond those courses taught by the teacher that created the toolkit, may be harder to achieve. The participants of the session agreed that teachers are not always open to using other teachers’ materials. While we all see the problem of our students not being trained well enough on practical employability skills, finding a common solution may not be easy. Teachers believe they have a competitive edge – and simply prefer their own materials above others. We could consider having toolkits designed by the top scholars in the field, endorsing the skill via reputation. Alternatively, we could complement the toolkits with classroom exercises, allowing teachers to offer the toolkits as homework, and the exercise as material for debate in the classroom. In other words, flipping the classroom by using the tool.
Lastly, we debated the general value of open access public material. Here we were talking with representatives of schools or institutions with a super-abundance of staff and funding to develop course materials. These schools have the option to choose whether or not to use materials. Our toolkits do not fill an immediate need for them but in many ways complements their existing services. It would be great to have a similar debate with universities that have less resources, a shortage of staff and limited library services; i.e. universities in countries where investment in higher education is a luxury and where teachers are overburdened with work. For those schools and teachers, having the materials available that are developed by good policy schools and free for them to use, may fill a need.
There are plenty more hurdles ahead, but also many possibilities to explore. In the debate, we found curiosity and excitement for the project and a willingness to explore next steps. So, we look forward to bringing this project to the next level! If you are interested in using the toolkits, as an employer, teacher or as student – check them out here.
Even better, if you would like to explore with us how to create a toolkit that suits your needs well, please let us know! At this stage – we are open to any feedback and happy to explore future options.
Access all our SMART toolkits here.
Deze publicatie kwam tot stand in het kader van de Regeling open en online hoger onderwijs van het Ministerie van OCW, onder begeleiding van SURF (www.surf.nl).
This publication was provided within the open and online higher education framework of the Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture and Science, supervised by SURF (www.surf.nl)
The structured literature review toolkit was funded with financial support of SURF.
The opinions expressed here are the author’s own; they do not necessarily reflect the views of UNU.
Flickr / JPDonaho