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MITZEL: Preparing students for a world in transition

How do universities prepare students for a world in transition, a world where 7.1 million jobs are predicted to be automated by 2020?

For many years, there has been conversation in the marketplace that views institutions of higher education as a place where knowledge is transferred from faculty to student, where students learn hard skills and leave prepared for specific task based jobs. The current reality facing a new generation of students is that in order to remain relevant to the workforce they need skills that cannot be duplicated by robots and automation. These skills, sometimes called "soft skills," include the ability to integrate learning, work across disciplines, analyze and synthesize materials to create new ideas, communicate and collaborate within teams.

The "modern" university was born approximately 150 years ago under the aegis of Charles Eliot, president at Harvard from 1869-1909. As the nation's population was moving from the family farm to the city, workers were required to learn particular skills rather than the broad based studying one gleaned from helping to run a family farm. President Eliot was the major influence in transforming the old model of institutions by establishing majors, divisions, credit hours, degree requirements, grades, etc. The university as seen today was created and honed to ensure the populace was ready to face the industrial age, and the technicality surrounding this era.

Once again, higher education stands at the precipice of a new societal and workforce change. A period in which we are connected to millions of people with the click of a button. It is hypothesized that 90 percent of online content has been added in the past two-years. The growth of human knowledge has transitioned from linear to exponential, with an estimate that soon the body of knowledge will double every twelve hours. The university must prepare a generation of students for whom education is less about the transfer of knowledge and more about helping them navigate, understand, and analyze the deluge of knowledge they encounter each second they are awake.

State financial support for higher education has been reduced up to 50 percent nationally over the past two decades, leading to higher individual costs for the student. The United States now spends less than many European countries on higher education where at least nine nations invest enough in their universities to offer free tuition. In their book entitled "Generation Z Goes to College," Seemiller and Grace find that parents and students still view college as a worthwhile investment. Indeed, a 2015 earnings study from the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education stated that workers with a bachelor's degree earn an average of $45,000 annually while those with a high school degree earn $23,900 annually. To remain competitive in the world, an investment into higher education that supports learning soft skills of critical thinking, analysis, collaboration and communication will be required. Our children and students are our greatest resource for a positive future.

To accomplish these goals, faculty must move beyond traditional styles and act more as learning facilitators than lecturers. An emergent teaching style, the flipped classroom, encourages students to access and utilize resources outside of the classroom to gain and evaluate knowledge, then use the face-to-face class time to interact with faculty members and peers for discussion and real world application through case study and project based learning. In this manner, students are learning how to learn and developing the soft skills that cannot be automated. These skills of research, analysis, collaboration and application are skills that allow for them to remain productive workforce members in a changing world.

In addition to coursework, the aspect of community on a campus remains an extremely important component of education for students. Learning goes beyond the classroom as they engage in projects outside the academic space, reaching into their 24/7 existences through projects, clubs, internships, athletics, and community. Learning is a holistic event — engaging mind, soul and body. It occurs not only in a classroom, but in interaction and collaboration with peers. Higher education must provide students with more than skills. It must provide a foundation of critical thinking, openness to ideas, and a commitment to lifelong learning and growth that will strengthen in value over time as these soft skills form the basis for the work in a changing world.

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