Can higher ed stay relevant to 21st century learners?

August 10, 2020
  • Change Management
  • Competencies
  • Leadership and Management
  • Meetings, Workshops, and Trainings
  • SEM Conference
  • covid-19
person wearing a virtual reality headset gestures with their hands

“COVID is an accelerant of many of the issues already facing higher education,” says Laura Wankel, Interim Vice Chancellor for Learner Engagement at Northeastern University. 

These forces include, but are certainly not limited to: student debt; access, equity, and changing demographics; public perception of higher education being “too liberal;” employer (dis)satisfaction with graduates’ skillsets; the changing nature of work (i.e. the gig economy, the global economy); and changes in technology and AI.

“Though there are differences between institutions and nuances regarding these topics, the public paints institutions with a broad brush,” Wankel said. “That means to some degree we all have to respond to these charges.”

Transformational leadership & institutional change

“Changes are coming rapidly — so rapidly that some more traditional approaches to management are out of sync with what’s needed,” said Wankel. 

Wankel’s recent publication Higher Education’s Road to Relevance(co-written with Susan Ambrose) addresses these pressures. Though published prior to the pandemic, the challenges raised in the book are not superseded but rather amplified by this new crisis. To survive, institutions, which typically change at a grindingly slow pace, must now learn to embrace disruption. 

“We need to have an innovative mindset, rather than ‘the sky is falling,’” Wankel said. “That means our plans need to be contextual, because it’s true that ‘one-size-fits-nobody.’ This requires transformational leadership at multiple levels of the institution.” 

Reimagining education in context

To make the changes required to meet the needs of today’s learners, institutions can no longer see themselves as separate from the communities they serve. Rather, they must embrace systems-level thinking; become more agile, flexible, and adaptable; and develop stronger partnerships with employers, schools, and other purveyors of learning and training. 

With a recalibrated focus on lifelong learning, institutions can remain relevant, helping students: 
  • Develop skills that are valuable and marketable to employers.
  • Be self-directed, a skill which extends over a lifetime of work. 
  • Retool and reskill over a lifetime. 
  • Easily navigate onto and off of the education superhighway. 
  • Account for skills and competencies developed in non-academic settings, such as internships, study abroad, research, student government, and athletics. 
“We can no longer see ourselves as an island, impenetrable to employers and the communities we’re in; we have to see ourselves as part of the greater context,” Wankel said.  “If we embrace it, rather than holding on, this can be an exciting time for higher education.”

Join us at SEM 2020

Wankel will discuss how higher education can seize this opportunity in her keynote address at AACRAO’s 2020 SEM Conference. Learn more about the virtual event here.



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