Technology Shifts the Direction of Higher Education

GW Board of Trustees chair says the future of universities is to “teach students to learn.”

Jeff Selingo, contributing editor at the Chronicle of Higher Education, Sabrina Kay, Fremont College chancellor and CEO, Nelson Carbonell, George Washington University Board of Trustees Chair and Susan Aldridge, president of Drexel University Online
November 14, 2014

By Brittney Dunkins

When Nelson A. Carbonell, B.S. ’85, started his first job in engineering as a young college graduate, he quickly realized one thing— he had a lot to learn.

“I didn’t know anything useful because technology was moving at such a rapid pace,” said Mr. Carbonell, now the chair of the George Washington University Board of Trustees. “But my employer didn’t care what I knew, he cared about my ability to learn new skills.”

Mr. Carbonell charged universities in the future to “teach students to learn” during a panel discussion Wednesday before an audience of higher education leaders and policymakers at the National Press Club.

The conversation, moderated by Jeff Selingo, a contributing editor at the Chronicle of Higher Education, was part of the Thought Leader Summit, a two-day National Education Week conference on the state of education featuring a keynote address from Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.).

Mr. Carbonell, Sabrina Kay, entrepreneur and Fremont College chancellor and CEO, and Susan Aldridge, president of Drexel University Online, examined big-picture issues affecting higher education in the future from the structure of the traditional university to the disruptive power of technology.

Mr. Selingo kicked off the discussion with a broad question, “What will higher education look like in 10 years?”

The panelists agreed that technology had drastically changed the structure and services offered by universities—and would continue to do so.

Dr. Aldridge said that universities should continue to adapt to the learning styles of tech savvy students and change the “mode of delivery” for content. On average, Drexel students show up to campus with seven different personal tech devices, she said.

“They’re multitasking—this is how they learn,” Dr. Aldridge said. “We know that when we give them really rich, robust media experiences and exercises, they spend four times the amount of time on those exercises.

“The students are demanding more and more online courses,” she added.

For Ms. Kay, the shift toward technology and online coursework is indicative of a shift toward a nontraditional educational training experience such as those offered to students through extension and continuing education programs with flexible scheduling and short-term completion. She said that the end goal is to curate programs that partner with employers to improve students’ job prospects.

According to Ms. Kay, employers want workers who can “talk, think and show up.”

“Employers are our ultimate customers because students can get knowledge anywhere. So content means nothing,” Ms. Kay said. “The motives have changed from 10 years ago where students used to say, ‘I want to be an expert in my field and help people.’ Now they are saying, ‘I want to be more financially successful.’”

Mr. Carbonell said that GW offers both the quintessential “college experience” that trains young adults to be active, engaged citizens and flexible programs for nontraditional student populations, such as the more than 1,000 veterans, military service members and their families who attend the university.

He pointed to the School of Nursing’s newly developed online M.S.N. and D.N.P. programs as an example of using innovation to produce graduates who can serve communities where they are needed. He said the programs allow nurses in rural parts of Virginia that have a shortage of nurses to stay and work in their communities while completing an online degree at GW.

“They’ve done so much of their work online that they’ve been able to stay in their community,” Mr. Carbonell said. “I think that’s where you are going to see innovation—where it matters to do this type of innovation and not just doing it because we can.”

He added that innovation within and institutional collaboration that allows sharing of faculty, resources and materials are keys to helping students prepare for the workforce.

“Employers say, ‘give me someone who can learn what I need them to learn, when I need them to learn it,’” Mr. Carbonell said. “As universities, an inability to change will hurt us more than anything.”