The Future of Higher Education and Preparing the Workforce of Tomorrow

Tom Noonan, Georgia Tech alum and entrepreneur, once stated that the next 25 years will see a projected five- to 10-fold increase in advancements in knowledge. He surmised that if that’s true, then we would look to our children and grandchildren as the 1890s look to us today — no cars, no airplanes, no computers, no modern communications, no highway system, no TV, no water purification, no antibiotics … primitive indeed. 

The statement captures the essence of modern society and certainly of higher education: rapid change. Our mission, our pedagogy, and our business models have to change not only to adapt, but to stay “ahead of the wave.” That “wave,” or future, will still have economic growth that is driven by science and technology, but the individuals who make up the workforce of the future will look very different from the generations that preceded them.

The workforce of that economy will consist of individuals born to a completely digital world where communications are instantaneous. For them, Facebook will be history, but social networking will increasingly be part of every aspect of their lives. They will change jobs five to 10 times in their careers. And, those careers will be much longer since their healthy lifespan will considerably exceed the expected lifespans of today.

Human-machine roles will become increasingly blurred in their jobs and daily routines. They will seek challenges. They will need constant stimulation, and if they do not get it, they will create it. They will work in increasingly interdisciplinary teams because the challenges they will face will not depend on any single body of knowledge. They will see themselves as “doers.”

Whatever knowledge they acquire in the “schooling” years will be obsolete by the time they are ready to change jobs for the first time. They will feel an obligation to make the world a better place. The best ones will be the leaders — defined as those with integrity and honesty who can identify and create opportunities for many and can see the future in their work or that of others. They will empower all to reach that future. Those leaders will be women and present-day underrepresented individuals — a result of simple demographics.

Should the above scenario hold true, and I believe it will, then higher education needs to consider some changes. Poets and scientists may need a common language to understand this knowledge-rich society. Problem-based learning may be the dominant pedagogic tool, particularly in the early years. Disciplinary boundaries will be blurred. Learning will never stop, and universities will need to provide access to new ideas to all, particularly their alums — creating a “once a student, always a student” approach.

The latter implies that universities will need to meet the educational needs of a different set of learners — a sophisticated, mature, older individual who is probably working full time and not on campus. In this new educational model, credentialing would need to change — credit hours, distinct courses, and grades may not mean that much beyond the early periods of learning. All students will need to understand leadership and be given the opportunity to develop those skills. They should experience the addictive nature of creating value and effecting social change with their ideas.

I believe Georgia Tech is in a good position to “define the 21st century technological research university.” We are certainly in the sweet spot that the future will be built upon, and we are already doing or experimenting with some of the required changes. I have written before about the Commission on Creating the Next in Education. I am confident that commission will move us closer to that bright future.

- Rafael L. Bras

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