Despite the creative license afforded me, writing this piece has been difficult. Perhaps fittingly, this particular type of creativity within-the-unknown is representative of how students of the future must learn, explore and create. The big question is, how can the university best prepare students for a world that can’t be prepared for?
The experiential university
Recent research (such as that by Foundation for Young Australians)and popular discourse suggest a need to prioritise highly developed thinking and feeling skills – critical and ethical enquiry, complex problem solving, collaboration, community building and adversity intelligence, among others. At present, jobs that are high-touch – that is, those that are inherently human-centered, such as consulting or customer service– are increasing yearly at a rate of 86%. And low-skill, low-touch jobs are vanishing at a similar rate. Yes, the robots are already here. Hence the need for transferable skills. We develop these skills by feeling, sensing and discovering through personal interactions and experiences. Alas, education is increasingly monetised and shipped at scale as ‘content’ rather than as ‘learning’ and is becoming impersonal – particularly in the digital space. Our uniquely human capabilities are at risk if this trend continues.
The successful university of 2040 therefore is one that is able to foster these human skills through experiential education, at scale and at quality. This experiential university – let’s call it ExU– is a learning laboratory which emphasises transdisciplinary exploration of solutions to real challenges and is self-directed and curiosity-driven.
Discipline areas will be wide-ranging: philosophy, logic, innovation, technology, science, politics, health and commercial acumen. And students will need to be inherently entrepreneurial, human-centred and socially conscious. To do this, ExU will significantly reduce the course options – a move away from longer-form domain specific courses such as a 3-year Bachelor of Marketing – and instead open up new and ambitious pathways and opportunities within select programs based on project opportunities. Electives therefore will no longer be the signifier of flexibility and choice, projects will. As an example, a project brief within an Enterprise Transformation program may require student to execute marketing initiatives alongside leadership, systems thinking, psychology or the like. The learning process will be genuinely student-led, dynamic and transdisciplinary, not structured and siloed. In this model, students are supported by experts – much like the present-day industry guest speaker or the tenured professor – but they are primarily supported by their coach, who is a highly skilled mentor with behavioral science, neuroscience, service design and teaching expertise. ‘Online’ learning will play a significantly different role. ExU effectively utilizes virtual reality, mixed reality and artificial intelligence technologies so students can ‘feel’ and ‘experience ‘as an augmentation to their project-based learning. Envision a student virtually testing communication approaches prior to confronting her client about an unpaid invoice. Because ExU will require higher-touch resourcing – such as high paid coaching staff – the business model of the current university will need to pivot. As value creation is at the heart of the student experience, the majority of university administrative work – marketing and communications, customer experience design, change management, events planning and career services – will be done by student project teams. Forth few staff left it will be mandated that all staff are directly connected tithe student experience – by providing expertise, facilitating workshops or leading students in a collaborative project, for example. The student will be at the center of the university, once again. Block chain will also disrupt the present-day institution. All learning experiences and assessment at ExU will be distributed on the smart ledger system and mapped into a national network. This will reduce the load on administrative staff while providing much more valuable record of the student’s capability, which can be made available to future employers or new project teams. Thus constructive alignment will be usurped by a more student-centric pedagogical design approach which focusses on the learning process, rather than the learning outcomes. The value-generating nature of ExU will allow it to find novel ways of generating revenue by driving commercial outcomes through project deliverables, demand-driven research and consultancy. In essence, a ‘factory of innovative thinking’ will replace the ‘factory of degrees’.ExU doesn’t need to forgo its research responsibility. Like the learning experience, research undertaken at ExU can be explorative, value-creating and multidisciplinary. Student sand researchers will proactively collaborate to solve research-based problems; it will no longer be domain specific and researcher-led. Research at ExU will be much quicker at responding to societal needs and trends.
Lifelong learning and upskilling
For all the importance placed on ‘human’ skills, professionals will also need to have complex technical skills. Experiential project-based learning isn’t enough to support the next generation of robot programmers, artificial intelligence scientists, systems architects, drone engineers, memory surgeons, commercials pace pilots, or indeed teachers! And these skills need to be learnt efficiently as technology evolves. ExU will cater for demand-sensitive learning by strategically partnering with industry leaders who will provide work-and-learn programs delivered in-house. As an example, all computer science courses will be delivered within a tech firm so that students learn through practice. Such a shift will create new business models and revenue opportunities for learning-focussed industry partners, revitalize the vocational education sector, and facilitate more effective cross-sector collaboration. Strategically, ExU will recognise its responsibility to play a critical role in lifelong learning and upskilling. It will offer lifetime memberships via subscription model which will allow continued access to services, courses and project collaboration opportunities, while reducing the reliance on student loans and supply-centric course fees. In essence, the Alumni department will be replaced by the Lifelong Learning department.
Finally, ExU will care deeply about learning experience design. Not only is ExU a student laboratory, it is also learning design laboratory. Through effective data practices, the university can continually monitor and adjust the student learning experience. Mirroring the project-based approach, ExU will be entrepreneurial in its thinking and will continually test and iterate, and search for opportunities for value creation. The university of the future will practice what it preaches. And that alone would be a welcome change.
Dan Sleeman believes in the power of education to foster genuine positive and meaningful change. He works at the intersection of entrepreneurship and education and fights to bring the entrepreneurial mindset to education design. In his current role with RMIT’s Activator initiative, he is responsible for the design and delivery of a range of educational offerings that specifically focus on the development of entrepreneurship, leadership and innovation capabilities through experiential learning. Dan has worked with higher education, corporates, start-ups and government initiatives. He also runs The Shed, a community-minded woodworking space in Melbourne’s inner north – the most creative and critical thinking happens when ‘doing’, he says.