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Letter: Higher Education Must Reinvent Itself

on October 01, 2019 4:30 AM

Tectonic shifts and even epochal changes in society are happening, catalyzed by disruptive innovative technologies. This conclusion was highlighted at the 2019 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Higher education is not ready. It has traditionally been viewed and accepted as a public good for political and economic systems by integrating young people into the socialization of culture and preparing them for the work force. However, the onset of the Digital Age characterized by rapid technological transformation is causing disruptions to multiple industries and sectors of society by displacing workers, which will become a significant challenge for many academic institutions.

In the U.S., massive disruptive changes to society last occurred in the late 19th century, when the introduction of new technologies fueled an industrial revolution and caused curricular and institutional changes to higher education. Academia was forced to transform itself from educating primarily the elite to include the industrial classes, which is explicit in the Morrill Act of 1862,  “in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life.” The technological shocks created specialized fields to feed the explosive demand for professionally trained scientists, engineers, and management, which led substantially to the organization of university education of today.

Fast forward 100 years and the impacts of disruptive technology were described in detail in 1997 by Dr. Clayton Christensen of Harvard University. He demonstrated organizations which do everything right fail because new, unexpected competitors with novel technologies rise and take over which he termed “Disruptive Innovation.” He stated higher education was vulnerable to disruption, and it needed to make dramatic and disruptive changes to survive.

The current Penn State University strategic plan states it will be a leader in the transformation of education by fostering a curriculum which leverages online capabilities for digital learning options. Faculty will be required to possess the skills and tools to meet changing pedagogical needs with creative approaches. A second plan, One Penn State 2025, for online education proposes to leverage digital resources and provide lifelong learning opportunities anytime and anywhere in the world. Neither plan directly addresses unpredictable futures from impacts of technological disruptions.

Penn State is no different from other academic institutions who also do not directly address disruptions for the following reasons: faith that everything will work out as it had in the past, assumptions that the value offered is so great it confers immunity to disruption, and a mildly tweaked, incremental operational approach will continue to thrive because higher education is different, insulated from the outside world. Disruptions are unpredictable and not amenable to the traditional academic planning processes which are slow to be implemented because they demand consensus of the university community.

Higher education will have to embrace and exploit advanced technologies such as 5G wireless networks, artificial intelligence, and virtual reality. Siloed bureaucracies, colleges, and departments must morph into innovative networks to share information and resources in a collaborative continuum to achieve results that are cost-effect and that matter to the student. Reinvention will need to be in the strategic plans in which the priority for students will be how to teach them how to reinvent themselves by embracing technological disruptions as a fact  of life. Innovate or Die!

Jack Matson
State College

(Jack Matson is an award-winning innovator, Penn State emeritus professor of environmental engineering, and author of several books, including Innovate or Die)

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