I was recently at the University of Washington in Seattle marveling at the 1800s architecture that still graces much of the campus. Many of the colleges on the West Coast were established in the mid-to-late 1800s; University of Washington in 1861, Berkeley in 1868, University of Oregon in 1876 and Stanford in 1885. The West was young and states were trying to establish an economic and academic base. This was in the early days of trains in the West, long before automobiles, connected electricity, or even the hint of modern computers. Students were eager to make their mark on the world in engineering, economics, the arts and other areas.
As I soaked in the 19th century architecture I pondered whether higher education is staying relevant to our current needs. Are we preparing students to lead and innovate, or are we stuck using 150-year-old educational paradigms? Part of this blog post is a personal exploration as to how I can improve my teaching, but it is also a call to action for those seeking relevancy in our world. I hope you will contribute insights and comments as we strive to improve education.
I am currently teaching the AIM innovation course and I continue to be amazed at the workplace complexities facing my students, structurally, organizationally, and culturally. It’s a miracle to me that any innovation emerges at all given the barriers they face. To combat this I try to present simple, sound models they can tailor to fit their needs and hopefully cut through that complexity on their way to an elegant solution. Part of my job is to teach sound principles, then watch as students extend and apply those principles to their own situations. I have to be flexible enough to recognize that we are trying to solve real problems, not just following rigid academic exercises.
I believe that to maintain relevancy we need to form closer partnerships between universities and employers. It seems disingenuous to grant degrees to students without preparing them for life in the workplace. Many employers have extensive onboarding programs just to prepare new employees to adjust to their workplace. I think those onboarding programs could somehow be integrated into the academic curriculum so new graduates could start contributing right away. How would we know what was needed in such a transition program? The simplest answer is to ask employers what specific technical, social, and cognitive skills they require of their employees. Are we covering those areas in our curriculum, or are there gaps? Are we staying relevant to the needs of those who will employ our students? Are we rigid in our curriculum, or are we willing to add in a corporate, governmental, or non-profit component that could be co-taught by practitioners? Are we really preparing our students to tackle today’s complex social, political and technical issues?
It is important that we stay flexible in our teaching, stay current on workplace needs, and bring employers behind these 150-year-old walls to build strong partnerships. I think this is what 21st century relevancy looks like. What are your ideas? I look forward to hearing your thoughts.
Kelly Brown is an IT professional and assistant professor of practice for the UO Applied Information Management Master’s Degree Program. He writes about IT and business topics that keep him up at night.