Dilshad Sheikh, Dean of the Faculty of Business at Arden University

The three key changes to higher education are not just digital 

Many traditional universities are playing catch-up, trying to ensure students get their 9 grands worth via Zoom. But being digitally adept is not all that is needed. Bringing lecturers with experience in industry, rather than academia, using live cases to solve real-time problems and alternative assessments will better shape the professionals of tomorrow, while keeping them in touch with the here and now when learning from home.

Education is changing, and has been disrupted by the pandemic in ways we don’t fully understand.

EdTech is driving a different type of learning experience to account for a new and evolving job market. This shift in the approach to learning goes beyond disengaging lectures on Zoom. It’s a fundamental overhaul in how we learn and how universities, which are the pinnacle in guiding their undergraduates, can help deliver well-equipped professionals for a changing jobs market.

Here, Dilshad Sheikh, Dean of the Faculty of Business at Arden University explores three key changes to higher education:

1. Being more receptive to change

The importance of being relevant and responsive to the present and the future days is a demand education institutions must meet. Home to innovation, universities have traditionally witnessed avid researchers turning outlandish hypotheses into standout ideas, while simultaneously being renowned for being slow at adopting trends themselves for their students’ benefit.

This is despite the fact that 85% of students think universities should be able to make changes to a course when undergraduates are studying it. The past year has forced longstanding universities that pride themselves on their history and red bricks to embrace current demands, and now many, if not most, higher education institutions offer online learning.

Digital offerings have jumped seven years of progress in a matter of months and with digital transformation accelerating at a faster rate, it is no surprise that more traditional, rigid entities have struggled with this rude, much-needed, awakening… universities included.

In fact, many employers have previously grown tired of waiting for universities to catch up.

Microsoft, Linux and other employers have previously teamed up with online education platforms to provide education that is not only much easier than brick-and-mortar programmes, but also more up to date and easier to distribute to vast numbers of students simultaneously.

Business leaders have expressed their doubt about students acquiring the skills they look for in employees before, furthering the importance of having courses that not only engage students and connect them to the real world, but also are relevant in today’s time.

Recent studies show that universities should provide learners with the skills and knowledge they need for a very different future. Having modules focussing on the impact of Covid-19 in the business sphere is much more useful to a student’s potential employer than them memorising the theoretical practices of responsible business, for example.

2. Being in tune with the real world

We are experiencing the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and the distinctions between technologies, physical, digital and biological spheres are getting blurrier by the day. Many students have digital skills, even if they are as basic as opening a Word document. As a result, more and more students are expecting their university to also widely adopt new digital technologies like virtual and augmented reality, artificial intelligence, or the Internet of Things (IoT) in order to keep them in touch with the real world.

When stuck in the four walls of their home, these technological advancements can pick up and place a student in situations they would not normally get the chance to be in until after they have graduated.

Studies have shown that even though students feel they learned more through traditional lectures, they actually learn more when taking part in classrooms that employed so-called active-learning strategies that are designed to get students to participate in the learning process. It produces better educational outcomes at virtually all levels, so we need not try to convince ourselves that solely lectures are the best learning option. 

From virtual law firms and mock disputes, to digital simulations that allow students to be the owner of a company for a day, these experiences will make the leaders of tomorrow feel like they aren’t missing out on real-life practices when stuck at home learning remotely. Universities need to look beyond essays and exams; assessing students on their digital capability, getting them to kick start their own social media campaign or find a novel solution for a present-day business problem will push students much more than a 10,000-word dissertation.

Another tradition-focussed elephant in the room comes with a stiff upper lip and pompousness: academics teaching lectures. Redbrick universities pride themselves on their lecturers being industry experts due to the years of research they have put into their niche field of study. These PhD professionals will have the answers to many questions as they have dedicated their career to the industry, but what they often lack is real-life experience. Industry professionals, however, tend to have more comprehensive knowledge of the inner workings of the professional world, including the markets, systems and processes, which will be invaluable for students. Bringing a unique value to the classroom, industry professionals provide fresh insights – something which can be difficult to come across anywhere else. It will give opportunities to connect students to the outside world, allowing them to network and grow professional relationships before they have even graduated.

3. Jobs of the future will define courses

As mentioned, the market wants universities to move beyond simple bachelor’s degrees that often focus more on theory than practice as their primary product. More agile, lower-priced, digital credentialed “packages of learning” are valued by employers — which is an essential cog in the constantly spinning digital economy. ‘Upskilling’ is not a business buzzword, it is vital to keep pace with technological advances and introducing assessments that mirror this demand is essential.

Let’s take a look at the skills that were valued by employers in 2015. The top three were: complex problem solving, coordinating with others and people management. In 2020, complex problem solving remained at the top, but the latter two changed to: critical thinking and creativity, whereas in 2015, creativity was a skill at the bottom of the list.

The World Economic Forum estimated that by 2022, the core skills required to perform most roles will, on average, change by 42%.

Their report states: “Increasingly, a career for life is an artefact of the past, and this traditional mindset of ‘learn, do, retire’ mentioned above can no longer provide a futureproof approach. As automation and work converge, skills gaps are set to change at a faster pace and at a greater volume—leading to both talent shortages and job redundancies”.

To remain relevant and employable, workers are faced with the need to re-evaluate and update their skillsets and educators face pressure to update the focus of their courses and offerings. Consequently, there is a pressing need for courses to relay the skills that individuals often acquire throughout their life course and educators need to start looking towards the future and work backwards.

Higher education institutes must ask: “What are the jobs of the future and how can our programmes prepare undergraduates for them?”

Gavin Williamson 100x100With thousands of students calling on Education Secretary Gavin Williamson to order tuition fee rebates for those on courses that have been affected by Covid-19, it is evident students are feeling a little ripped off.

Without face-to-face workshops and in-person interactions, students have been shortchanged into paying nine grand to view a simple PowerPoint slide that may precede a Zoom lecture struggling to captivate its audience thanks to weak WiFi connection.

Universities need to do better to ensure that the leaders of tomorrow can do more than just connect and listen blindly to a disengaging Zoom call. Being locked in their halls of residence makes the disparity between a student and an industry expert even bigger; undergraduates need to be well equipped for life outside graduation and it will take more than digital learning to achieve this.

Dilshad Sheikh, Dean of the Faculty of Business at Arden University

Dilshad is the only female Asian Dean of a Business School in the country, her most recent research interests have focused on the diversity in leadership and management across the Higher Education sector. She is a mentor for the 30% Club and continues to engage with audiences across a variety of sectors in my endeavours to encourage more females, especially from minority ethnic backgrounds, attaining senior leadership roles.

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