Viewpoint

Jobs for Graduates in the Knowledge Economy?

We are in a recession from which we won’t recover in the usual sense: We won’t return to economic vibrancy with the same distribution of employment opportunities as we had even a couple of years ago. Technology is now pervasive and has changed both the nature of knowledge and the ways we use knowledge in our jobs. It is time to replace classroom experiences with high-impact learning experiences, because right now our curriculum is out of step with the preparation our students need right now, this year, and next year and into the future.

College faculty in four-year colleges, universities, and research institutions in the U.S. traditionally have not expected to gear their teaching approaches with undergraduates to the specific needs of a job, even in the professions. Rather, undergraduate education has been perceived as preparing students to go into a field or into graduate school. But how that happens hasn’t seemed to be the concern of college faculty in the past. Course planning has traditionally not started with research into what kinds of work graduates are actually doing and how to teach your course to match that kind of work. Why not? We faculty have believed that teaching students job skills is too shortsighted. We thought we needed, instead, to focus on higher-level thinking skills and we needed to pass on disciplinary knowledge. Adjusting our curriculum to changes in the economy at the undergraduate level was not in the job description. Besides, graduates have always found jobs so what’s broken?

This frame needs to fall away. Not only has the economy radically changed along with the skills needed to succeed, but the economy is the knowledge economy, the new universal graduate school. This is not a problem but a great opportunity--teaching for the skills of the knowledge economy is like preparing your students for graduate school.

Our economy and our ways of learning, researching, communicating, and knowing are in flux, changing in fundamental ways and more quickly than anyone could have imagined. We cannot assume that students will somehow find a job, or a way to earn a living by our doing what we have always done. In this time, college faculty at all levels must know more about the work their students will be doing. More and more, that work is different than 10 or 15 years ago, career contours are different, and in most sectors of the economy, the nature of work is constantly changing. To not pay attention to what we are preparing our students for is not an option.

How we faculty have framed our purpose and our means for educating our students no longer applies. The urgency for fundamental change in how we frame our purpose and means would be sufficient if it were driven only by the demise of our core learning technology--the book and paper--and the rise of a new multi-variant (all processes are effected) set of technologies that are the new de-facto and almost incomprehensible tools of our trade. This punctured equilibrium alone would be enough.

But higher education is now confronted with a second disruptive element with two parts:

1.The same technologies that have restructured knowledge and the processes of disciplinary consensus-building have also re-structured the nature of work.

2.America’s competitive position in the world, and our basic ability to provide economic opportunity equivalent to previous generations, are severely challenged. Thomas Friedman sees us at the end of a 70-year cycle of abundance (“The Fat Lady Has Sung,” February 21, 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/21/opinion/21friedman.html).

Therefore, higher education has this tripartite challenge:

1.Quickly and intelligently adapt to the new higher education learning ecology enabled by digital tools; the current curriculum, seat-time business model, credit model, and learning approaches are re-structuring far too slowly.

2.Understand the skills needed in the knowledge economy, which is itself a new ecology. In just ten years, the nature of work has changed so much that many of the personal qualities needed to succeed now have no obvious roots or antecedents in the classroom-based part of the total learning experience in undergraduate education.

3.Align learning experiences in the undergraduate years with the knowledge economy. High-impact learning experiences are the best model for change.

Very fortunately, if educators can accomplish number one, they have gone a long way toward accomplishing number three: use technology in teaching in the same all-engaging ways it is used in the knowledge economy.

What are the skills needed to work in the knowledge economy?

After working as a professor or college administrator for much of my life, when I made a life-change and started a new business--the professional association that I direct--I felt like (and still feel like) I have returned to graduate school. I am, once again, overwhelmed with how much I have to learn and how quickly I have to put into practice what I just learned. Having been a professor, an administrator, and now an active participant in the knowledge economy, I am painfully aware of the discrepancies between college preparation (what I used to do) and the realities of this economy (what I do now). That the traditional economy is declining so strikingly this year only adds painful urgency to the need for reform.

Here is what I see as some of the skills necessary to working in the knowledge economy:

1.Being an innovator in thought and action

2.Thinking like an entrepreneur

3.Communicating in writing in all mediums and forms with varying groups of people and a wide range of purposes

4.Communicating via speaking in all the mediums available to us today: telephones, Skype, conferencing systems, and even in face-to-face meetings or conferences or hallway conversations

5.Finding the right Web 2.0 tools to enable or improve a particular business need, understand the business model of the provider of the tools (viable?), and assess the cost and benefits including maintaining the Web site associated with the tools over time

6.Working cooperatively across distances in ways that benefit all

7.Identifying a core service, staying with it, and resisting the abundance of opportunities and side paths in this highly fluid knowledge economy

8.On the other hand, maintaining a reflective and integrative approach to new trends, new ideas, and new opportunities from anywhere in the world--what fits and what doesn’t fit with the core service?

9.Being able to research quickly and find what is useful within minutes, not hours or days. Knowing enough about many disciplines so you can settle on search terms to find the rights kinds of knowledge for your purpose

10. Staying nimble and ready to re-think all that you do

11. Staying attuned to our culture

12. Being as literate in Web 2.0 as in reading books

The essential difference in the job market graduates face this year, and next, and next is that they can’t enjoy the predictability that older generations did: getting a job, staying with the same job, moving up the ladder regularly, and then retiring. Careers are no longer paths but fields, fields of opportunity. The college experience can prepare students to work in the fields of opportunity by using the above list--or something like it--as the “super learning goals” that the institution’s learning objectives will enable.

The current push to accountability does not move education toward a realistic articulation with the nature of employment today; instead, the push to accountability tends more to cement the current anachronistic curriculum in place, newly protected against change by the seeming logic behind the structure of learning goals: create goals and make sure all students reach those goals. But, if those goals arise from the existing curriculum reflexively, still not accounting for the challenge of the new economy, we’ve only engaged in circular reasoning and moved not an inch toward better alignment with this new economy.

Higher education is at the center, the very nexus, of the technology vector and the economy vector, and is best positioned therefore to deal with the passing of American easy wealth and easy growth. A commercial asks “Is this the great recession or is this the recession that made us great?” Sic stat.

About the Author

Trent Batson is the president and CEO of AAEEBL (http://www.aaeebl.org), serving on behalf of the global electronic portfolio community. He was a tenured English professor before moving to information technology administration in the mid-1980s. Batson has been among the leaders in the field of educational technology for 25 years, the last 10 as an electronic portfolio expert and leader. He has worked at 7 universities but is now full-time president and CEO of AAEEBL. Batson’s ePortfolio: http://trentbatsoneportfolio.wordpress.com/ E-mail: trentbatson@mac.com

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