This is how digital tech can improve interviewing skills

27 Jun 2022, 6:00

We beat NASA to win a top technology award because of our innovative software for learners, writes Matt Jarvis

The idea of “skill” dates back to the 13th century, when the word usually referred to physical co-ordination and denoted learnt rather than innate abilities.

The idea was radical in an era when abilities were generally considered gifts from God. In many ways the notion of teachable and learnable skills remains the liberation theology that underpins modern ideas like social mobility.

The term “soft skills” is believed to have originated in the US military in the 1970s. It has been used in various contexts to mean personal qualities such as emotional intelligence, pro-social values and resilience, cognitive skills such as problem-solving and decision-making, social and communication skills and employment-specific attributes like professionalism and leadership.

It isn’t hard to see how soft skills are relevant to success in the workplace.

Many disadvantaged learners lack soft skills, and this is one of the barriers standing between them and the workplace.

So developing soft skills in our learners is a very important part of our role as FE providers.

What excites me is the chance to deploy innovative technologies in ways that create learning opportunities that would be difficult to achieve otherwise – especially where they can impact hard-to-reach learners.

We’ve collaborated on a project around soft skills development that has brought together cutting-edge technology with a significant learner need.

We worked with a tech start-up that specialises in ethical applications of artificial intelligence, A-dapt, and together we won an Innovate UK grant, part of the government’s research and innovation funding agency.

The grant allowed us to develop and test a package that combines interactive video and AI facial expression analysis to teach interview skills including social micro-skills such as eye contact and expression management.

I wanted to focus on interview skills because, while all soft skills are important, some are higher level and must be learned in the workplace – so the first step is to enable learners to access the workplace by training them in some basics.

The interview coach software involves two stages. In the first, learners are shown a series of interview scenarios and asked to judge good and bad responses to questions.

Bad responses included shouting at a family member during a remote interview and asking for an Audi company car.

Our learner feedback on this section surprised and impressed me – I had worried that they might find this kind of stuff obvious and even patronising, but this was absolutely not the case and learners reported learning a lot from it.

This is a valuable reminder of how easy it is to make assumptions about learners’ implicit understandings of workplace norms.

It is easy to make assumptions about learners’ understandings of workplace norms

The second part of the experience involves answering interview questions asked on-screen by a recorded actor.

At this point the learner is on camera and their facial expression and position are monitored in real time by an artificial intelligence that feeds back in real time how positive and attentive they will appear to the interviewer.

If they look away or cease to smile this will show on the on-screen ‘positivity’ and ‘attention’ metres.

Our initial trial with our learners showed substantial improvements to the quality of interview answers following use of the package.

This spring we were humbled to win the science and education (remote and immersive) category of the Webby Awards, which are the ‘internet Oscars’. We beat NASA!

We were sitting alongside actress Drew Barrymore and National Geographic, who were winners of other categories.

This is why my job is so rewarding. Working at an ITP means I have the freedom to embrace innovative tech to help our learners learn and develop skills they might have missed out on.

I’m looking forward to keeping this AI work going to help more of our learners smash through the invisible soft skills barriers and get to where they want to be.

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