How higher education can prepare graduates for the Fourth Industrial Revolution

November 26, 2018
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female presents from a podium next the the stars and stripes and another undistinguished flag by Pamela Horne, AACRAO Consulting

SEM attendees were fully engaged at the Tuesday morning plenary session presented by Janet Hyde, President of Academic Strategies and former faculty at a number of Canadian institutions. Her topic, Post-Secondary Education in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, generated thinking and conversation about planning for the academy of 2030.

Although there are differing views as to what the future of higher education may hold, there are some givens: demographics are changing, as are societal, political and workforce expectations for higher learning. Change will require not only mindfulness, but also the ability to be nimble, market-informed and collaborative. Through an examination of the literature and examples Dr. Hyde walked SEM participants through important considerations for our future.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution and the Complex World
Following the first (mechanization), second (mass production), and third (automation) industrial revolutions, the emerging "fourth industrial revolution" is a fusion of technologies that blurs the lines among the physical, digital, and biological spheres.  IT and other employers are telling institutions that graduates are not coming prepared to meet sophisticated workforce needs, much less the jobs that may exist in five or ten years. Higher education’s slow development of academic programming is ill-equipped to keep up with the meta trend of an accelerating technological and social change. At the same time, society is demanding greater accountability for the cost, resources, goals and outcomes of higher education.

Skills shift
Dr. Hyde cited work by McKinsey, as well as U.S. labor data, to show that the demand for physical and manual skills is declining, replaced by growing demand for higher-level cognitive, emotional, social and technological skills. The top growth fields will be in health and green energy, although these are not always high earning jobs. Dr. Hyde predicted future jobs will require many different kinds of skills, not just specific skills for a single job. Higher education needs to consider basic, context-specific, cross-context and existential skills -- the last of which can be universally applied in different contexts and across a lifetime. Components of all models include critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity. Skills might include process management, teamwork, written communications, problem-solving, digital literacy and many others.  What is clear is that one single set of skills for one single position or career will no longer be a viable educational model.

Impact on academia
There are many higher education prognosticators, some with contradictory predictions, such as
- that machines will do the intelligent work and we will have no one left to teach,
- that the pendulum will swing back to lectures,
- that faculty will be replaced by devices or
- that technology in the academy will make little significant change.

A plausible scenario for the future of higher education is that educational hubs (virtual or physical campuses) will be at the center. These hubs will be open to a wide range of students at different life and career stages and with different learning styles, and educational experiences will be of different durations – from minutes to years. Another plausible scenario is that education will become more demand-driven: programming will provide pathways and alignment between desired qualifications and available training adapted to the needs of both the learner and the employer. The goal would be graduates ready to access rewarding careers over the lifetime.  

Some changes that are very likely are closer alignments with industry, more open market for transfer credit and moving from “content-laden” programs to more flexible and applied learning models. The most nimble organizations have a sustained ability to quickly and effectively respond to change. Engagement needs to happen at every level of the institution. Collaboration to create a shared vision, cooperation as reciprocity and coordinated synchronization of activity are all critical.

Preparing post-secondary institutions for the future

Dr. Hyde believes that effective planners for a complex future should develop likely scenarios based on data and trends and then pose strategic alternative futures with dependencies. Doing so uses the best of information sources and data trends and provides decision-makers with a range of strategies to consider and the means to stress test them. The purpose is not so much to immediately provide solutions, but to stimulate discussion and strategic thinking.

Technical training for the jobs of today isn’t enough, nor is training the mind only.  Meeting the demands of our complex world and its problems and opportunities requires higher education to both think and act differently.