In the midst of today’s fast-moving, tech-heavy landscape, sit back and ask yourself an important question: How does your degree and formal education impact what you’re doing in your work life?
This question gets to the heart of the immediate need for a foundational shift in how academia and industry operate—and need to cooperate—for the future of education. In a world of information, the United States’ Industrial-era education system is showing its age. To meet the demands of a new era, learning needs to be a fundamental obligation of citizenship. Education isn’t about majors anymore; it’s about missions.
Success in business today comes from applying the lessons of today. In a time marked by constantly restructuring companies and instantaneous feedback, success tends to come to those with the best ideas, those who can both innovate with speed while applying insights about the customers they’re seeking to address. The need for flexibility can’t be understated.
The days of set disciplines and skills, of hermetically sealed and siloed professions, is over. Today’s workforce, from coders to workers on the new factory floor, needs to be focused on lifetime learning and reskilling, finding ways to adapt to changing professional flows of knowledge. Learning needs to be a fundamental obligation for everyone, but the educational system sadly hasn’t caught up.
Colleges and universities continue to change, but the entire mechanism of higher education today, from credits and grades to the different disciplines, was all devised between 1890 and 1930. It’s basically an outdated, industrial-era construct. From an economic point of view, education was organized to impart a stock set of knowledge, expertise, and abilities that students would deploy over the course of a relatively steady and stable career. For those looking at employment options in blue-collar industries and trades, vocational education and training were deemed sufficient. Even though every job in the digital age has radically shifted, the training system is still wedded to assembly-line thinking.
Now, workers who came out of that educational system find themselves, years and decades into their careers, in need of new skills and education. This need is increasingly filled by third-party actors, including educational organizations such as General Assembly or rapidly evolving online communities such as Khan Academy. These sources give workers, especially those without traditional degrees, means to adapt to a changing world.
Job sites have always been better than classrooms for learning the skills necessary for better teamwork and collaboration. But the latest patchwork of third-party educators, while important for pushing innovation, can help take on the true scope of this educational challenge only if it’s part of a larger, codified system of instruction.
Many educators have already called for a more flexible system based on specific skill sets, not four-year degrees and liberal arts curricula. Often referred to as “badging” or “microcredentialing,” this approach lets students and workers in transition pick up the design and manufacturing skills—such as 3D printing, human-centered design, or CNC programming—needed as technology evolves.
Allowing for a stackable, personalized approach to acquiring skills (taking the badge metaphor one step further, think of a scout accomplishing different tasks) helps students at any level prepare for specific jobs much more quickly than traditional classroom learning. Generative learning systems and intelligent learning systems can also be used to literally steer students toward the skills and classes they’ll need to evolve and succeed, creating a constantly improving curriculum and a path for lifetime learning.
These types of new learning modalities need a new, flexible credentialing system so that schools, universities, and third-party actors have some kind of alignment and criteria that employers can use to match qualified workers with the right jobs. At the current pace of change, a student today could be in college classes forever, waiting for the curricula to catch up with what’s happening in the real world right now.
This need for immediate skills training is a huge opportunity for the nation’s community colleges and vocational schools. The Obama administration made significant investments in this underutilized sector of the education system, spreading the important message that four-year degrees aren’t the only paths to success.
Community colleges already provide strong vocational skills. Now, they can use this as a starting point to teach the next generation of technologies. The changing economy underscores this important point, and these schools may finally be recognized for what they can become in the United States: true centers for lifetime learning.
A shift toward skill-based learning doesn’t mean abandoning liberal arts.
And, despite the focus on technical skills and technology, a shift toward skill-based learning doesn’t mean abandoning liberal arts. Rather, as many point out, it highlights the value of problem solving and critical thinking—skills traditionally fostered in a humanities-centered education. The rise of complex and interrelated systems will require more systems thinking. Moving from big, heavy, physical products to a world of subscriptions, cloud-based services, and continual evolution requires constant engagement and a higher degree of problem-solving savvy.
There’s no easy answer for such a big shift, but there are good places to start. Recently, Autodesk hosted an education summit with leaders from academia and industry. Despite the complexity of the issue and the wide-ranging nature of the discussion, one thing everyone agreed upon was the need for more transdisciplinary skills, learning to frame and solve problems with other humans, and even machine intelligence.
Industry and academia can begin to establish new frameworks and partnerships and start directing workers toward lifetime learning. Organizations such as the Lumina Foundation have already put forward potential models for lifetime-learning systems, and the conversation needs to continue. Colleges and universities will always be places for learning higher-order skills and meeting new communities of colleagues. Going forward, with the right systems in place, those skills become a bridge to continuous learning.
Today, choosing a field of study or a degree is much less important than committing to finding ways to expand your thinking and continually improve. Tomorrow’s professionals need to be nimble enough to solve an unceasingly new set of problems—whether collaborating with a human colleague or machine intelligence.