Nelson Mandela once said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” Unfortunately, since Mandela’s time, that weapon has become outdated and rusty. Today, education is probably the slowest evolving industry in a world that is changing faster than ever before. Customer obsession is the new business rule, yet no one teaches about it in college. Companies are increasingly placing a premium on job applicants who demonstrate human skills (flexibility, self-motivation, empathy, resilience, creativity, communication, etc.), as they know “humanness” will become a competitive advantage in a world driven by AI-driven machines. Unfortunately, only 46% of higher education institutions believe soft skills will be critical in the future and as a result, many new graduates are being thrown into a world they are not prepared for, so it’s no surprise why many companies complain that the graduates they hire do not possess the skills they need to contribute meaningfully to work.
To be clear, it’s not that higher education institutions don’t understand or care about the need to embrace change. People running these institutions are smarter than the average person, but they are also faced with challenges that are deeply entrenched into the system. For instance, the slow pace of curriculum changes, the inability to effectively insert new subjects and skills into an already-established education system, a lack of clarity regarding which skills to prioritize for future jobs, and the resistance of faculties to embrace change are some of the prominent challenges institutions face today, and as time goes on, it will be increasingly difficult for them to live up to these challenges. Breaking down the status quo is a tall order for higher education institutions.
The fundamental issue here is that our decades-old education system was created to prepare a large pool of people who could perform repetitive tasks in a strict hierarchy. That’s why longstanding educational models always prioritized standardization and stability over agility. However, as automation and AI continue to take over many routine, repetitive and low-end tasks, human skills have become like mobile apps that need frequent upgrades and as a result, the educational models that worked for decades are no longer making the cut. Not only do higher education institutions need to prepare students for jobs that currently exist, but now they must also prepare them for jobs that don’t exist yet, creating a sense of anxiety among educators. The current reality is that future jobs will require a combination of human and technological capabilities, and consequently, so will the educational systems preparing the future workforce for these roles.
Thus, to stay relevant, higher education institutions will need to fundamentally redesign their learning and teaching processes and structures by responding to the changes needed to equip students for the work ahead. Bringing these practices to scale will require them to act on three critical areas:
- Identify the skills required for future jobs. Although the “skills landscape” has never been as complex and vital as it is today, as the future of work unfolds, what makes us human is what will make us employable. AI and robotics are becoming disciplines in themselves and are emerging as majors, minors, areas of emphasis, certificate programs, and courses in many colleges and universities. However, while these developments represent positive steps in the right direction, there is still much work to be done. These courses still need to be complemented with problem-solving components to produce workers who can use technology to address real-world problems.
- Overhaul the existing curriculum. Preparing students for current and future jobs will require a significant curriculum overhaul to enable higher education institutions to align with actual workplace needs. To get this process rolling, institutions will need to see themselves more as curators of content than creators of content to provide flexible and adaptive learning content that is on-demand and continuous in nature. The proliferation of content from massive, open online courses (MOOCs) (e.g., Coursera, Udacity, etc.) and other free open-learning content (TED, MIT, etc.) has provided an immense opportunity for educators to benefit from the use of already-created content. Another way higher education institutions can address the curriculum issue is by complementing traditional degrees with badges and certifications from employers. For example, careers in cybersecurity are based on a series of certifications that define an individual’s career path and their future job prospects, and the same approach can be applied to soft skills.
- Embrace new forms of teaching and training (e.g., from faculty-led to AI-driven and AR/VR-adapted) to increase learning effectiveness. Tomorrow’s learning experiences will be more active, interactive and frictionless, taking place in an environment that blurs the boundaries between the traditional classroom and the world outside of it. By applying AR/VR technology to education, anything is possible: imagine a class of astronomical students landing on the moon as astronauts. AR/VR can help higher education institutions address the current disconnect they face with human-centric skills by providing students with an environment not just to learn but also to test out the human-centric skills they need to be successful. In the future, AI will help teachers break free from the one-size-fits-all approach and focus on learning that matters. For instance, AI assistants can also help teachers provide real-time feedback on students’ performances, strengths and weaknesses so that teachers can determine the specific skills gaps and learning needs of each student and provide supplemental guidance accordingly. While AI will not replace teachers, it will guide them to be better educators.
The earlier linear model of education-employment-career will no longer be sufficient in the age of AI automation. With this in mind, making future job preparation an educational priority will require transformations that are every bit as dramatic as those that came about in the early part of the 20th century. Our current education systems will soon be supplemented, if not replaced, with new education models offered by nontraditional competitors that embrace organizational innovation, responsiveness and agility.
However, when everything is said and done, preparing the current and future workforce for the work ahead cannot take place in a vacuum. Higher education institutions must also explore innovative ways to partner with various stakeholders (governments, tech companies, training providers, consultants, co-working companies, start-ups and industry associations) to build new learning approaches. The fundamental purpose of education is learning and therefore, our educational organizations must ensure they are providing the most up-to-date and relevant curriculums to prepare students for the future of work.