Innovating Education for Tomorrow: Some Takeways from #TSummit2014

One college president believes that the way to solve the education crisis lies not in the classroom, but within “innovation zones” that encourage experimentation and invite the prospect of failure as a pathway to success. That’s not something you hear every day among academics, is it?

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The panelist spoke at IBM/Michigan State University #tsummit2014, held at IBM’s research center in Aladmen, California, which I had the pleasure of attending this year. Over 200 business leaders and higher education institutions attended to discuss skills for the 21st century.

A variety of thought-provoking panels, speakers and discussions made for an informative and entertaining conference. The focus was not on meeting today’s employment demands (a popular topic of discussion among parents and in the media), but on a longer-term view of producing students for the global economy of the future.

One of the event’s panels, which consisted of college presidents, provided for a lively, candid discussion on what is needed to prepare students for the economy of tomorrow. They all seemed to agree that education’s center of gravity will be outside the classroom, not in it.

One of the presidents described his vision of an “array of high impact learning experiences that are not defined exclusively by traditional measures or approaches.” As the president pointed out, we now have content available in formats “that don’t require it to be written in scrolls.” How best to take advantage of this?

According another panelist, there are only about 200 institutions in the U.S. today that reject more students than they accept. The vast majority of institutions are aggressively competing for students, and many of these students are not as well prepared for school as we would like them to be. To add to the problem, he said, there are now roughly 40 million American adults with some college credits, no degree and often a lot of debt. “This is a “debilitating trifecta,” he said. “You’ve got none of the things that we hold out as a promise.”

Despite the conventional wisdom, all in higher education are not merely whistling and twiddling their thumbs when it comes to confronting these important challenges. Some promising developments are under way. One is so the College for America Program at Southern New Hampshire University. Approved by the Department of Education in 2013, this is the first degree program in the country that is competency-base, offering a degree based not on credit hours or courses, but on direct assessment of student learning – a profound change.

SNHU President Paul LeBlanc said the program was inspired in part by Muhammad Yunus, a social entrepreneur who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for founding the Grameen Bank and pioneering the concepts of microcredit and microfinance.

In an interview for 60 Minutes, Yunus was asked how he came up with the idea of the bank. According to LeBlanc, “He said, I thought about what big banks do and I thought what would happen if I did the opposite. They lend to men. I’ll lend to women. They make you come to the bank. I’ll go out to the village. They only want to lend big amounts of money. I loan little amounts of money. They want a lot of interest. I’ll take a little. They require collateral. I won’t take any and I’m not and changed banking in a developing world.”

LeBlanc wondered what would happen if they asked the same sort of outside-the-box questions at SHNU. “Rather than using the credit hour in which time is fixed and learning is the variable, what if we could flip that? What if the university changed the business model? What if we went to a mentoring model? What if we could find other resource than text box for materials? What about the length of class?” The result was the College for America.

If a new hire can articulate and demonstrate their skills and knowledge through presentations, analysis and collaboration, is the end result a better predictor for success on the job than a high GPA? Time will tell, but we will need to follow up on the University of Pennsylvania Health Systems, Partners Healthcare System in Massachusetts, ConAgra Food and Dunkin Donuts, as all have signed on to support the College for America program.

Another college president made the point that we need a “different kind of innovator” now and in the future, one who understands complexity, a concept he said is completely overlooked in conventional engineering programs. A narrow, focused, nose-to-the-grindstone view of the world has resulted in countless innovations in the past, he said, but also countless unintended consequences. Climate change, for example.

T-shaped education is part of the solution, the president said, enabling students to span a variety of disciplines and have conversations with people in very different places right from the start. It’s easier to learn how to do that – to talk to people who are disciplinary experts in different fields — when you are young than it is when you are in mid-career, just as it’s easier to learn how speak Spanish if you’re five than when you’re 45. Students are “wet cement” when they’re young. So we need to consider educating within the T-shaped paradigm earlier, rather than later, he maintained.

Innovation isn’t just about thinking: it’s about doing

Another panelist defined innovation as the process of generating original ideas and insights that have value and then implementing them in a way that changes many peoples’ lives. Without implementation, he said, it’s not an innovation. It’s just a cool idea. A genuinely profound innovation is an innovation that changes the world so dramatically that you can’t remember what it was like before it happened. Electricity, the automobile, the airplane, the Internet, radio, and television are all such examples. They had an impact not merely because they were great ideas, but because people used them.

Last year, the president said, the percentage of bachelor’s degrees in the U.S. that were awarded to students studying engineering in any university – 4.5 percent, a declining market share. In Europe it’s about 12 percent. In Asia it’s about 30 percent. What are we going to do in ten years when the U.S. number drops to, say, one percent? In addition, the number of students who find what we define as “engineering attractive” is not great, he said. About half of all students who begin studying engineering last fall won’t graduate in engineering – a big hole in the pipeline. In addition, only 18 percent of the students who graduate in engineering are women, another big gap.

His university’s definition of an engineer is a person who envisions what has never been and does whatever it takes to make it happen. So how do we create great engineers? We have to change three things, according to this panelist. Who we teach in engineering – we’re teaching the wrong people. There are creative people out there. Have you heard of folks like Steve Jobs? Bill Gates? Creative people who started down the engineering path, and left. Why? Because the way we teach stifles creativity instead of encouraging it, he said. In addition, what we teach has to change, and how we teach it has to change. We’re using methods that are known to be fundamentally ineffective. “Otherwise,” he concluded, “we’re doing a great job.”

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