Curiosity-Driven Education or How to Prepare Students for the Digital Future

Curiosity-Driven Education or How to Prepare Students for the Digital Future

Manuel Dolderer

 

The rise of technology in the work environment

In 2011 Marc Andreessen, co-founder of Netscape and co-author of Mosaic, the first widely used web browser, wrote an essay titled ‘Why software is eating the world’, in which he stated: “Six decades into the computer revolution, four decades since the invention of the microprocessor, and two decades into the rise of the modern Internet, all of the technology required to transform industries through software finally works and can be widely delivered at global scale.1

Today we also see even traditional products like toothbrushes, coffee machines, running shoes, and vacuum cleaners becoming ‘smart’ or ‘connected’. They – among so many others – now include computer hardware, run software, and are linked to the Internet of Things. In the near future, every product will be a digital product. Or to be more precise: every product and service will have some aspect or part of the value chain that can (and therefore will) be dramatically improved or disrupted by digital technologies.

As a consequence, and as so many labor market studies show: there is an enormous demand for ICT professionals. For the last three years, I have been talking to companies of all sorts to find out what exactly they were looking for, since ICT professionals can have very different skill profiles. After all, we were in the process of founding CODE, a new tech university of applied sciences, and wanted to understand which skill profiles would make it easy for our graduates to find a job in the future.

What I learned, was quite surprising. When asking about the future expectations of those companies, the answer was always: “We could tell you what we are looking for today, but we have no idea what technologies, frameworks, tools, and methods will be relevant for us five to ten years from now. To be honest, we don’t even know if our business model will still be the same.”

 

The need for new competencies

In the end, most of the expectations could be summarized as follows:

Perfect employees should be able to work in international and interdisciplinary teams, they should have the ability to understand and creatively solve problems, and they should have an eagerness to learn. From the perspective of today’s companies, these aspects are entirely reasonable. After all, they honestly don’t know what the digital transformation will do to their products and business models.

What does that mean for universities? They have to reevaluate the way they prepare students for their future professional life. Today’s study programs still focus heavily on the transfer of predefined expert knowledge from professors and textbooks into the heads of students. Teamwork and creative problem solving are usually not the most important skills to succeed in such a learning environment. Let alone that it promotes students’ curiosity and eagerness to learn.

 

The CODE way

For our own university, we decided that in order to learn how to be a productive member of an international and interdisciplinary team, your learning environment should provide you with lots of opportunities to work in teams.

As for the development of problem-solving skills, you would be presented with real-life problems to be solved over and over again. Finally, to help you to develop (or better rediscover) your eagerness to learn, we created a learning environment where students’ main driver for learning would be their own curiosity.

At the beginning of a semester, our students ask themselves: “What am I curious about, what competencies and skills do I want to focus on during the coming semester?” They all have one of our professors as a personal mentor who helps them to answer these questions in a meaningful way.

They then select a project and a role within the project team that matches their chosen learning focus. Most projects are offered by one of our partner organizations, but students and professors can initiate projects as well. While the project constantly challenges their problem-solving ability, it also lets the students discover how much they need to know about a certain skill or competence to successfully finish the project.

Professors and student teams meet once a week to reflect on their performance as a team and to learn more about successful teamwork, conflict management, and interpersonal communications. In that learning environment, our professors most of the time act as mentors and coaches trying to enhance our students’ learning experience. They also offer lectures, seminars, and workshops, but only if our students ask them to. They don’t give answers if students don’t have a question.

 

Building competencies is more important than grades

To document our students’ learning outcomes and overall progress, we don’t rely on grades but instead, use a competence framework. All students have their individual competence profiles, and whenever they can demonstrate that they’ve reached a new proficiency level within a competence it is documented in their competence profile.

We believe that all students should think about the social impact of their work, and understand political forces they are feeding, as well as understand something about history, philosophy, and the arts. That is why we provide our students with a space to ask the big questions and to take the time and effort it needs to improve their answers.

In our Science, Technology and Society Program, students get a chance to study the works of writers, historians, and artists and discuss fundamental philosophical, sociological and ethical concepts. It also invites them to think for themselves, to reflect on society, politics and the impact of technology. It challenges their creativity and critical thinking and broadens their horizons.

The digital transformation is happening, and it will change society in a fundamental way.

Universities “have to think carefully about how to provide students with a relevant skill set for the 21st century. At CODE, we’ve decided that a self-directed and curiosity-driven learning concept is our way to approach this challenge and to educate the digital pioneers of tomorrow.

We believe that the principles outlined above, which are the principals upon which CODE was established, could be the basis for the university of the future toward 2040. Our belief is that such an approach will better prepare students for increasingly technical and rapidly changing labor markets and better enable them to play an active role in shaping our society’s future.

 

1Andreessen, M. (2011). Why software is eating the world. The Wall Street Journal, August 20, C2.

 

Manuel Dolderer studied Economics, Philosophy and Cultural Studies at Germany’s oldest private University in Witten/Herdecke. As a student, he joined the executive board of the StudierendenGesellschaft Witten/ Herdecke, a non-profit organization that offers an income-adjusted tuition model that promotes equal opportunities in education. After founding two research institutes with projects focusing on healthcare, education, and digitalization he joined Klett Group in 2012, one of Europe’s leading education-dedicated enterprises, where he became co-founder and managing director of a private university of applied sciences – praxisHochschule. In 2016 he joined forces with Thomas Bachem and Jonathan Rüth to build CODE – a new kind of university for the digital pioneers of tomorrow.

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