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from Ray Schroeder, Senior Fellow at UPCEA

Aligning the Curriculum to Reality in AI-Accelerated Times

Curricula are reassessed as rarely as every five years. AI demands we do a deep review right now and repeat it often!

Is your curriculum relevant today?  Will it still be relevant at the end of the decade when many of today’s entering students complete that curriculum?  A degree takes an average of five to six years to complete.  Mariah Stewart, writing in Insight into Diversity writes “Additional data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (NSCRC) shows that 60 percent of students who initially enrolled in bachelor’s degree programs in 2012 had yet to graduate by 2018. And while the statistics may vary by source and year, a vast body of research finds that most of America’s undergraduates can expect to spend a minimum of five academic years in school.” Are students coming into your programs with curricula that will almost certainly be outdated by the time they leave?

The new workforce environment is rapidly changing and increasingly impacted by generative AI. New skills are needed. Those with old skills are asked to upskill or leave. The impact is disproportionately spread across white collar jobs held by college graduates. Many working professionals across all industries are reevaluating the future of their career. Those considering leaving to explore the job market, are, in many instances asking “Should I Quit Or Upskill?” According to a Pew Research study, 63% of employees who quit their jobs reported that the main factor that influenced their decision was the inability to grow professionally at their company.  

Claire Cain Miller and Courtney Cox report in the New York Times: “The American workers who have had their careers upended by automation in recent decades have largely been less educated, especially men working in manufacturing. But the new kind of automation — artificial intelligence systems called large language models, like ChatGPT and Google’s Bard — is changing that. These tools can rapidly process and synthesize information and generate new content. The jobs most exposed to automation now are office jobs, those that require more cognitive skills, creativity and high levels of education. The workers affected are likelier to be highly paid, and slightly likelier to be women, a variety of research has found.” In fact, Miller and Cox found that OpenAI, the founder of Chat-GPT, estimates that fully 75% of jobs held by baccalaureate degree holders are most exposed to AI, while fewer than 20% of high school diploma holders are expected to be impacted.  In a Chronicle of Higher Education and University Innovation Alliance Webinar the disconnect is posed: “Of first-year college students, 85% say their main priority upon graduation is to get a good job, yet 72% of recent college grads are struggling to find entry-level work.”   Workforce management software firm Celayix reports that “The majority of all turnover– 52%, occurs in the first year of employment. In fact, it actually peaks right at the 12-month mark at 27%.”  

Certainly, a college education is far more than job training.  Yet, undeniably, career preparation is one of the important expectations of college students.  Clearly, we are falling far short of meeting those expectations with nearly three-quarters of graduates feeling ill-prepared to launch their careers and more than half of employees depart in the first year. So, we need to perform a reality check on our curriculum. We need to take the pulse of the industries for which we are preparing our students. Our goal must be to discover what knowledge and skills are needed today and what skills and knowledge are most likely to be required over time. The first step would seem to be to touch base with the HR departments of employers in our field. Professional associations may also be a good source of current hiring priorities and trends in relevant fields. We need to know employers’ current needs and expectations for incoming employees. As best it can be articulated in this rapidly-changing environment, we need their vision of trends for the coming few years. 

These need to be compiled and cross-checked by departments and colleges within the university. They must be validated and timestamped to ensure that we revisit them within a year because technology is changing the workplace so rapidly. We then must begin re-configuring our learning outcomes across our courses and curriculum to meet the corporate, agency, and business needs in our society so that our students will quality for employment. Course by course and program by program, we need to ensure that our outcomes are timely and reflect the growing role of generative AI in the workplace as well as the changing employment patterns for those entering and advancing in the field.

Regional accreditation of institutions, of course, is a critical consideration as we consider significant changes in curriculum. Notifications and consultations may be necessary to assure that institutional accreditation is not affected by such changes. In some departmental and college cases, “specialized ” or “programmatic ” accreditation is relevant. Some national associations set learning outcomes recommendations as well. It is important that we press all levels of accrediting bodies to be flexible to support the employment expectations and the emerging trends in workforce credentials. These are of the highest priority for our students. 

In many cases, it is the professional and continuing education department that may be able to provide a solution to the disconnect between student expectations for meaningful employment and the reality of incomplete preparation for the workplace, resulting in lower placement rates and greater first and second year departures from jobs. Professional development certificate programs can be created to be taken by current students who can avail themselves of the kind of supplementary learning that is specific to the workforce employment success. Such programs may include realistic expectation development, e-portfolio documentation of generative AI skills such as prompt engineering, and related topics.  

In whatever way the institution addresses this disconnect, whether it be through in-house certificates, capstone courses, an array of modules embedded in classes across the curriculum to meet the identified learning outcomes, or a combination of these and other strategies, it is important that we better prepare our students for the rapidly-evolving workplace skills and expectations.  


This article was originally published in Inside Higher Ed’s Transforming Teaching and Learning blog. 

A man (Ray Schroeder) is dressed in a suit with a blue tie and wearing glasses.

Ray Schroeder is Professor Emeritus, Associate Vice Chancellor for Online Learning at the University of Illinois Springfield (UIS) and Senior Fellow at UPCEA. Each year, Ray publishes and presents nationally on emerging topics in online and technology-enhanced learning. Ray’s social media publications daily reach more than 12,000 professionals. He is the inaugural recipient of the A. Frank Mayadas Online Leadership Award, recipient of the University of Illinois Distinguished Service Award, the United States Distance Learning Association Hall of Fame Award, and the American Journal of Distance Education/University of Wisconsin Wedemeyer Excellence in Distance Education Award 2016.

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