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Let’s Prepare Graduates for Jobs that Don’t Exist (Yet)

May 12, 2021
We need a transformed education system for our time.

Let’s imagine you’re shopping for groceries and you’ve forgotten what a family member asked for. Would you search for the nearest payphone?

Or your boss tasks you with a project on the housing bubble of the early 2000s: Would you crack open volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica in your office library?

Or you’re preparing students for a future where artificial intelligence, smart machines, and digital competencies will predominate: Would you channel everyone into four-year universities and require them to study a curriculum developed in the last century, using a teaching methodology—passive learning through lectures–popularized in the Middle Ages?

As Gary Bertoline, former dean of the Purdue Polytechnic Institute and now Purdue’s senior vice president for Purdue Online and Learning Innovation, asks, “How can we allow our educational system to use something that we know is no longer effective?”

Dr. Bertoline is passionate about learning and passionate about changing the way students learn. Why? Because, as he told our members at a leadership meeting, our higher education system is stuck in a different era trying to prepare students for a world that is evolving very fast—so fast that manufacturers are confronted with talent shortages and a yawning skills gap that threatens sustainable growth. The modern university system in this nation was created in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to train farmers, shopkeepers, factory workers, and office managers. The training was very prescriptive, disciplinary, and specialized, and it served the country well – until the fourth industrial revolution.

“The change from industrialization to computing is a game-changer,” Dr. Bertoline says. “But we haven’t thought about what that means for higher education. Just as leaders of manufacturing have to transform their world, we need a transformed education system for our time.”

General-purpose technologies (GPTs) have historically been a major driver of a society’s education curricula. By the turn of the 20th century, GPTs included electricity, internal combustion engines, railroads, and sanitation. At that time, universities organized around a system of majors, minors, credit hours, degree requirements, grades, class rankings, upper division electives, college entrance exams, tenure, and school rankings. Well over a century later, many still do.

Now comes the digital revolution, with new GPTs including AI, big data analytics, the Internet of Things, smart robotics, and cloud computing – or more precisely, the integration of all of these. In the first three industrial revolutions, we needed people to be smarter than machines. Today, we need people smart enough to work with machines that are smarter than them. 

To get there, Dr. Bertoline argues that we need to transform our system of higher education. Purdue Polytechnic Institute was launched as a disruptive transformer and incubator for higher education – in effect, to transform STEM education from within. It is a model for many educators pursuing or expanding alternatives to the traditional degree for a new era, from online and experiential learning opportunities, to certifications and new apprenticeships. Its curriculum is designed to educate students on, as the dean asserts, “the remaining human advantages.” These include: 

  • Cognitive tasks requiring creativity and intuition to solve problems that require great logical leaps of imagination.
  • More quantifiable skills related to testing, programming, and overseeing machines.
  • Social skills that require emotional intelligence rather than cognitive intelligence alone. 

In other words, our current higher ed system that trains the workforce in cognitive skills – especially repetitive ones – will not be enough for the fourth industrial revolution.  As Bertoline puts it, “How do we prepare graduates for jobs that do not exist”? 

To answer that question, the school starts by requiring every one of its students – and the students at its affiliated high school in Indianapolis – to study design thinking instead of scientific discovery thinking. Students also learn systems thinking, to view an enterprise, machine or subject holistically. And they learn entrepreneurialism, to apply the creative mind to the economic and social sphere. Finally, they learn cultural agility. All these new learning experiences are taught across disciplines rather than in 3-credit-hour silos. Purdue Poly does this through project-based learning – in effect, active learning, rather than lectures – that provides students opportunities to synthesize knowledge across these fields of study. In advanced programs, they deliver this pedagogy with the country’s first Intelligent Learning Factory to immerse students in Industry 4.0 technologies.

Of course, this nation’s students still need to learn critical thinking. They still need to know to read and write and calculate. Those requirements will not go away. But this is complementary to the new literacies of data literacy, technological literacy and human literacy. 

Dr. Bertoline observes that occupational demands for skills of the head have dominated those of the hands and those of the heart for centuries. That’s shifting. “If we don’t wake up tomorrow thinking about these technologies and the effect they have on us as human beings and our societal institutions,” he says, "we’ll be destined to continually go back to old policies and procedures that will no longer work.”

Stephen Gold is president and CEO, Manufacturers Alliance.

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