How to give students practical skills they need

Dr Taghreed Alsaraj

Over and over again we hear that the output of our educational system is not what the job market needs or is looking for. So does this apply only to us in Saudi Arabia? The answer is no. I previously worked at the University of London, University of Miami in Florida, and University of California, Berkeley, and everywhere I worked there were always discussions on how we (academics) can make the curriculum more hands-on so it can resemble real life situations that the students will experience during their working lives.
If you think that’s a simple question to tackle, then I am delighted to say that you have solved the trillion dollar question that governments all over the world are tackling and will continue to tackle for some time. Why, you might ask, don’t we have a solution already? Why can’t we sit the decision-makers in the Ministry of Labor and Ministry of Education in a room and let them thrash it out before we open the door and let anyone go home, you might ask? Well, I wish it were that easy.
The requirements of the job market are constantly changing, as are the skills needed, especially as we become more advanced in consuming and interacting with new technology. So how fast can we change the curriculum to adapt to this fast-paced, technology-centric world? Not fast enough, I am afraid. In fact, I don’t think it will ever catch up (sorry to be a bit pessimistic).
So, should we just give up and say it’s not our problem, and let’s just keep calm and carry on? I am afraid, even if we ignore this issue, it will never go away. So what are academics and educators supposed to do to help fix this issue now, until the stake-holders finish tackling this massive issue? In my personal view, it is up to teachers, professors and educators to quickly tackle the issue with a combination of three actions.
Students need to take charge of their education, rather than be spoon-fed information or be forced to attend these kinds of programs.
Firstly we should assign real life projects rather than theoretical exams that encourage the regurgitation of information without actually demonstrating to the students how this can help them in their daily life or work.
Secondly we must make the knowledge relevant to everyday life. For example, taking a statistics course can be connected with one of Saudi Arabia’s most popular sports: Football. Let’s analyze the game and calculate the number of passes completed as opposed to just taking numbers and doing calculations. Make sport a business case to analyze in order to evaluate the players and what they might be worth in terms of transfer fees.
Finally we should develop training programs within schools and universities that focus on soft skills, such as teamwork, leadership skills and public speaking, and give out certificates. Let’s not make it mandatory, but rather encourage the students to go to such classes in their spare time. Students need to take charge of their education, rather than be spoon-fed information or be forced to attend these kinds of programs. This by itself needs a longer discussion.
These are some quick fixes educators can implement that I think would have a significant impact on the quality of our students and their acquired skills, which will come closer to what the job market in Saudi needs.

— [Dr Taghreed Al-Saraj is a best-selling Saudi author, an international public speaker and an enterprenuership mentor]

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