Millennials: the straw that will stir higher education’s next disruption

As originally published in EdNews Daily on December 1st, 2016. 

The conversation regarding higher education has never been more heated. Costs for students and parents continue to rise, while downturns in the economy threaten many smaller colleges’ financial viability, prompting questions about their continued relevance and how they can best thrive in the 21st century.

At the same time, a number of factors suggest that perhaps college is not as tied to success as society has traditionally assumed. Famous billionaire college dropouts like Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, and the late Steve Jobs are prominent examples of successes who never completed undergraduate degrees.

Peter Thiel’s initiative, the Thiel Fellowship, underscores this growing perception. The internet mogul gives $100,000 to any college-aged individual who agrees to drop out of school in pursuit of more innovative work endeavors.

And students are changing. Today’s Millennials have different educational needs from those of previous generations. Beyond coursework, students swim in a flux of data, buffeted by phone calls, text messages, Facebook updates, Twitter tweets, news crawls, and other sources. Their attention is also captured by an intense entertainment milieu of movies, TV, video games, comics, and the internet (with more students in the grip of internet addiction, even to mostly text-based sites such as Reddit).

But Millennials are also savvier, in some ways, than those who preceded them. They’re comfortable gathering information and using it to look ahead to their potential careers with a combination of concern, excitement — even entitlement.

Given this mix of factors, what new models of education should the conversation converge on? One idea that may not be that controversial, but which needs to be shored up and practiced more across North America, is integration with real world experience, particularly in the information technology sector.

In some ways, this is nothing new. Internship and work-study programs have a long history and are common at many institutions. Oberlin College, for example, with its motto of “Learning and Labor,” requires students during each month-long “winter term” to pursue growth opportunities outside the traditional classroom, such as internships, research, or other projects.

To match the changing, unpredictable nature of today’s economy and digital landscape, these programs should aim for flexibility and innovative paradigms. One example of this is the newest trend of “digital badges.” These are online representations of an earned skill, often through taking small credit courses aimed toward working and non-degree-seeking individuals. Another is the rise of the MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) or online instructional platforms like edX, Coursera, or Udacity.

But the pace of change in the early 21st century — led largely by the internet sector — is blazing fast and impinges to such a degree on all aspects of life. So programs that integrate real world and college learning need to become less a peripheral feature of the curriculum and more a central one, both at the undergraduate and graduate school levels.

At my university, Ryerson University in Toronto, our 34,000 students pursue learning in one of the great technologically innovative cities of North America and are well aware of the exciting opportunities internet technology provides motivated, bright students. Because of this, six years ago, Ryerson commissioned a new program, the Digital Media Zone, located in downtown Toronto. The DMZ is an example of innovative initiatives that transform 21st century education into a model that best serves the needs and interests of Millennials.

The DMZ is a tech incubator and a shared workspace that facilitates the development of technology startups for both students and members of the tech community. In 2015, it was named the No. 1 university-based business incubator in North America by UBI Global.

In my own work, particularly with my graduate research students and my interactions with the DMZ, I’ve taken to thinking in terms of what I call “the paradox:” trying to combine the startup world with the traditional paradigm of high-impact academic research. While both domains have their virtues, combining them effectively into one unified framework can sometimes be challenging because of outmoded policies at many colleges and universities.

This conundrum inspired me to launch a program — literally called “The Paradox” — to allow graduate students and early-career professors to pursue both interests instead of having to choose. The initiative allows Ryerson University’s young researchers and professors to take their strong, discovery-based research, turn it into a startup, and receive credit for doing so. The intention of this initiative is that these young researchers can choose one of two interest streams: discovery to publication or discovery to commercialization. The Paradox recognizes both options, allowing participants to remain at their posts while bringing the efforts of their research into focus.

For example, if students or newly hired professors decide to dive into a new startup enterprise, is there a path by which they can remain enrolled, drawing upon — and adding to — the resources of the institution? Or must they take a leave of absence? This is a vital issue. Although we may make much of college dropout successes, remember this: The biggest Internet Age success of all — Google — was started within a graduate program, as a Ph.D. research project at Stanford.

With institutional support, initiatives like the DMZ tend to spin off other projects, creating a virtuous snowball. At Ryerson, we now also have the Launch Zone, a “creative collision space” to encourage collaboration or information gathering for students interested in startups. It hosts workshops, one-on-one consultations, and mixers that bring students and businesses together.

That virtuous snowball can extend even further, presenting opportunities for exciting new models to emerge in higher education. For instance, as much as virtual spaces (remember Myspace?) are important to Millennials, there is no substitute for in-person interaction. With that in mind, we should be thinking more than ever of creating buildings that mix students and faculty across disciplines, creating opportunities for cross-pollination of ideas and interaction.

Even longstanding models of faculty appointments, like tenure, can be extended or enhanced with new, flexible models that promote greater engagement, enrichment of mid- or later-career faculty, and much greater interaction with the technology, government, and business sectors.

Much like the incredible success of the open-source model for software, the coming wave of new models for teaching and mentoring Millennials will be guided by principles of openness, collaboration, transparency, and innovation. That may pertain to issues of crediting experiential work outside the classroom.

It may inform changing intellectual property policies for universities that sponsor students who launch profitable startups, encouraging innovation by students. Or it will affect higher education in ways that we cannot even predict from the vantage of 2016.

However, it turns out, I expect an exciting challenge ahead, one that calls upon our imagination, optimism, and traditional spirit of community engagement: all the strengths that made academia a jewel of intellectual life, but now more aligned with the interconnected digital future that is changing our world before our eyes.

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