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Building Social Capital: A Canberra Microcosm

My research into communications networks suggests that social capital can be developed by providing opportunities for people to learn, grow and excel. I have found that developing social capital requires leaders to 'let go of the reins' and allow people to make mistakes so they may learn from their experiences. Consequently, this approach informs my teaching philosophy, which requires universities to provide a safe space for students to make mistakes so they may learn through practice and take these lessons learned into the broader community after graduation. This philosophy sits well with the expectations which businesses and the community have of university graduates. Indeed, the Business Council of Australia suggested a few years ago that university graduates were being prepared for academic careers, not for professional work in the broader community, and were lacking in the areas of communication, innovation and leadership. Here I outline an approach which has proven very successful, in terms of learning outcomes (and also very popular with students), in a recent approach to providing students with tangible, real-life experience in leading, innovating and communicating though curriculum design.

I consider leadership, innovation and communication skills to be 'generic' skills which sit alongside the technical skills which are usually taught in university courses. Recently, there have been calls for a greater focus on generic skills teaching in all university courses. Some teaching research (conducted with colleagues at the University of Canberra) considered approaches to teaching generic skills and attributes which graduates are expected to possess. One area which appeared difficult to teach, practise or assess is that graduates should be able to 'take initiative and demonstrate leadership'. As a Duntroon graduate, leadership was taught in an off-line environment - effectively removing candidates from the 'real world' while leadership was taught, practised and assessed on an ongoing basis. Obviously, the cost per student is significantly higher in this environment than what it should reasonably cost to educate university students - indeed, the focus of a military institution is quite distinct from the civilian higher education sector.

Nonetheless, I struggled with some ideas on how to teach, practise and assess leadership within the confines of an on-campus unit during the traditional university semester. The principles I developed to underpin such an initiative were that: (1) the approach should be, for the most part, budget-neutral; (2) students should be provided with a safe space to practise leadership, particularly so that 'mistakes' would not affect their future prospects negatively; (3) the activity could be assessed without overly increasing teachers' or students' workloads; (4) students could select the activity as an option, instead of the usual asessment items (so that students who work and are unable to spend time on campus outside the normal requirements could opt out of the initiative); and (5) the activity could be conducted within the normal semester timeframe and still enable students to achieve the learning outcomes of the unit.

Having organised numerous campus events over the last few years, I discovered that many students developed leadership skills by organising and running events which added to the campus culture. Innocuous activities such as running 'Battle of the Bands' competitions, assisting with marketing projects, and organising debates and seminars exposed students to the practical issues involved in planning, organising, and leading as well as motivating others to assist in their cause. Such students have since become leaders within the university and local communities, taking the lessons learnt on campus into the broader society.

Based on my experiences on campus, I implemented an assessment item to replace a group essay and the final test with a leadership activity in the unit Leadership, Innovation and Change LIC). In groups of three to four, students were required to run a campus event and to write a reflective group essay on their event, drawing upon the leadership theories and approaches covered in the unit. The event was to be designed by the students or selected from a list of possible activities, many involving community engagement activities at the University's Open Day. The projects run by students included:

  • Aboriginal Art Exhibition - held at AITSIS
  • Candid Candidates - bringing ACT election candidates to the campus in the week before the election to inform the campus community about their policies and election campaigns
  • LIC Spring Clean - collecting used clothing for the Salvation Army, Anglicare and St Vincent de Paul
  • Open Day Marketing Project - developing a competition and marketing materials for Open Day
  • Save-a-Mate - creating awareness and recruiting students to volunteer for the Red Cross Save-a-Mate campaign during Open Day
  • UC Ambassadors - developing the information, procedures and activities to be conducted during Open Day and managing the campus ambassadors on the day
  • Improving Morale - a workplace-based activity where the student was supported by their employer to run a team event in the workplace

Many of the events were very ambitious, and some came close to the edge of the 'safe space', particularly the groups which negotiated off campus activities or venues or 'very' public events. Nevertheless, many students stated to me that 'this is what uni is meant to be about' and they were very confident in their ability to run their activity successfully. The results were very surprising and the events proved to be very successful and I highlight the major events below.

Aboriginal Art Exhibition. A group consisting of an Aboriginal, Indian and Chinese student (in their words: 'as diverse as it gets') organised a public exhibition of artworks by Michael and Dale Huddleston, two prominent Australian artists, at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies. The opening of the event was attended by approximately 80 people from the university and local communities. Ngunnawal Senior Elder Aunty Agnes led the welcome to country, with the Senior Curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art at the National Gallery of Australia, Brenda Croft, opening the event. The students were able to make the event a success and received very positive feedback from participants. There is a possibility that this will become an annual event at the University. The students reported a much greater understanding of leadership in a variety of cultural contexts and the usefulness of developing trust and establishing a shared vision.

Candid Candidates. Two students arranged for a number of ACT election candidates to speak in the UC Refectory on their election platform and policies. The response from candidates was overwhelming, requiring the students to amend the event by allocating an equal amount of time for each party to speak. The audience was encouraged to ask questions of the candidates. This event attracted media attention, with the students giving interviews on ABC FM, 2CC, and the event was covered by WIN News. The event was opened by the Vice-Chancellor, Professor Stephen Parker, and proved very successful. The students reported the need for clear communication in organising numerous candidates and developing their negotiation skills as the event evolved. The media coverage provided the students with an opportunity to enhance their media interview skills and to develop their professional networks.

LIC Spring Clean. This event received coverage in UC's Monitor magazine (see the link) and is likely to become an annual event on the campus. The students developed their professional networks and learnt the value of establishing trust and credibility to enable the event to get off the ground.

Overall, the leadership activities proved very successful. The practical aspect and the reflective group paper enabled students to better understand the theoretical aspects of leadership, and learn through experience. The outcomes of the activities led to much deeper learning and a real-life understanding of leadership. Not surprisingly, students suggested that there should be more experiential learning in the curriculum as they felt the learning outcomes were more tangible and useful in their professional practice. The next step will be to develop more rigorous documentation for the 'learning contracts' and assessment criteria. The biggest lesson for me was that I, too, need to 'let go of the reins' and let the students perform. The results from this project suggest that students, if allowed to do so, can build social capital and extend the learning experience beyond the boundaries of the campus. In an era where universities are focused on 'community engagement', the project results suggest that students should be given more opportunities to represent their place of study in the public eye. This will not only build social capital within the university community, but help to prepare society's future leaders for public life.