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The Future Of Education

What does a college degree give you? Back in the day – and I’m talking pre-liberalization India – you could become a doctor, lawyer, engineer, banker, teacher, or enter the coveted civil services. (The Indian education system we know today was invented by the British Raj to create the clerical staff they needed to run the imperial machine – nothing more.) 

15 years ago, a degree from an IIT, IIM, or an Ivy League school in the US meant that you had superior smarts that would make you an asset to any organization – and of course, giving you access to plum placements.

But multiple economic downturns, astronomical tuition, and massive student debt have the younger generation wondering whether it’s worth investing in a college education at all – especially since employers today place more importance on skills vs study. 

Education As We Know It

A current college education is straightforward: you go to college, clear exams, get a degree and you are sent out into the world with the basic know-how to land you a job in a sector that’s (hopefully) aligned with your course. 

But I’ve always felt that success comes more from what you learn on the job.

You only get a taste of how an industry functions when you are in the thick of things, executing projects on the ground.

And things on the ground? They change CONSTANTLY.

In 2019, the ILO Global Commission on the Future of Work stated, “Today’s skills will not match the jobs of tomorrow, and newly acquired skills may quickly become obsolete.” 

The education system is, unfortunately, not up to speed.

There is a lack of agility, an inability to understand what businesses need, and too much focus on theory, as opposed to practical skills that solve modern problems.

Employers today are choosing to nix college degrees as a hiring requirement, focusing instead on skills and adaptability.

Students, in turn, are choosing cheaper, faster alternatives to college like coding boot camps and hyper-specialized short courses.

College tuition is climbing, and all that’s left after 3-4 years of study is student debt and a job that may not have much regard for your degree.

Just like industries need to innovate to stay ahead of the curve, education, too, needs to innovate to meet the demands of the future. 

Disruptive Innovation for Education

Disruptive innovation has been a buzzword since Clayton Christensen coined it back in the 90s. Simply put, it is the way in which new entrants in the market can disrupt established businesses.

According to Christensen, disruptive innovation is the process in which a smaller company, usually with limited resources, is able to challenge an established business or incumbent by entering at the bottom of the market and continuing to move up-market – and eventually capture market share.

When we can innovate across supply chains, products and marketing, why can’t we do the same in education? The good news is, industry giants (like Google) have been quick to launch courses and certifications that help up-skill talent – and both parties benefit.

But – why are businesses providing these much-needed skills and not universities?

The problem is, most universities are confused about what to offer. With online learning, universities take existing knowledge, repurpose, repackage and distribute it digitally so it reaches a wider audience. Which is noble.

But if universities want to stay relevant, they need to recalibrate. 

The answer is not in making knowledge accessible and remote, but in making courses adaptable and responsive to the needs of the modern world.

There is a new educational economy that’s growing – something of an apprenticeship or guru-shishya model – where established industry experts are offering their skills and knowledge via specialized short courses that are hyper-specific to the sector they are serving. 

  • These courses are based on skills the experts have gained through trial and error, success and failure.  
  • And this knowledge gives the student an edge in their line of work. 
  • These courses are short, relevant, useful, and economical. 

These people are the disruptive innovators in the education space.

Lifelong Learning

Academics and institutes need to introspect and continually upgrade their syllabus to give students knowledge that is practical and future-proof. If universities are not relevant to the time and market, the system will contribute to disconnect, generate gaps, and eventually lead us to an educated but dysfunctional society. 

If done right, universities can play a key role beyond undergraduate and graduate study. By keeping their ears close to the ground, academics can meet professionals’ learning requirements at every stage of their career, through specialized short courses.

These courses will be a combination of research, expertise, and practical application for real-world industry scenarios.

It gives professionals the opportunity to grow and move up in a complex, hybrid workforce where roles evolve and change.

What will those roles be? We can’t tell yet. 

Yuval Noah Harari couldn’t have put it better: we need to reinvent ourselves and keep learning to stay ahead of the algorithms.

He says that there are very few jobs that will remain the same as technology advances.

As AI matures, it will take over jobs that were handled by humans: self-driving cars that replace drivers, and AI-powered diagnostics programs that replace doctors.

As these jobs gradually disappear, all kinds of new jobs – ones that we can’t fathom – will emerge. He calls it a “cascade of ever-bigger disruptions.”

So the way forward is to embrace lifelong learning to keep up with the unknown workplace demands of the future. And, our universities need to embrace that – or risk becoming obsolete.

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