Friday, July 19, 2013

clueless in the ivory tower


I recently had a conversation with a tenured English professor at a university in the Mid-west. We were bandying ideas back and forth about the role that institutions of higher learning have in preparing today's learners to be successful contributors to the emerging global job economy. 

We both agreed that the system was broken in a major way and needed to be fixed. That kids were getting out of college with skills that were not applicable or extensible – that they were not well-prepared to meet the needs of the current global borderless workplace.

But then he said something that completely blew my mind. He said that his role, as a professor, was to *teach for the ages.* Meaning he thought that the perspective and insight and facts that he was responsible for transferring were designed to merely provide his students with an esoteric worldview that would in turn pass through them and their progeny and into the broader society and culture, informing and influencing the coming millennia.

What a pompous and irresponsible statement. Global economy, we have a problem.

Thank goodness he is in the minority (I hope!). This unrealistic and disconnected perspective, represents a key aspect of the challenge students face today as well as a “going out of business” strategy for him and his colleagues.

Because education is more geared to a public sector approach at its core, there are no clear motivating factors to encourage investigation and adoption of innovative and bleeding edge approaches. No rewards for innovation that drives efficiency and improves outcomes, increases customer satisfaction – all factors that keep leaders of modern businesses up at night. But the rise of MOOCs and for-profit colleges is clearly an indication of a sea change, as broader and more practical and inclusive approaches gain momentum.

But this guy is now tenured in and thinks he can simply pretend the outside world does not exist and that his wit and wisdom are all that his students will need to have successful careers. 

Maybe he could get away with that empirical approach at Oxford or Cambridge where the students are brilliant, but in most institutions of higher learning this worldview won't work. Especially at state schools in the middle of nowhere.

Business has the opportunity to step in and wield an increasingly influential role in driving the transformation of education. Clowns like this professor, so disconnected from the rapidly changing requirements of the workplace, should be fired. Or his courses should at least be clearly and explicitly positioned in the course catalog as totally esoteric, so students know they are not going to get any real, practical training or perspective from this guy.

To deliver the proverbial goods - graduates who will be successful in the new workplace paradigm - teachers need to work more closely with the private sector - especially in fields where disruptive business and socio-cultural transformation is occurring - healthcare, privatized space exploration, renewable energy and robotics, to name a few. Learning from these verticals what kinds of cross-discipline experience and insight are needed to drive their business models forward will be key to the success of the next instantiation of higher education.

Share your thoughts.

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