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from Ray Schroeder, Senior Fellow at UPCEA

How AI and Associated Technologies Change the Role of Higher Ed

As artificial intelligence and associated technologies extend their influence in our society, the role of higher education must change. We can no longer prepare learners for static careers in unchanging fields.

We are in the midst of profound change in the nature of employment worldwide. Fueled most recently by the pandemic, the nature of work, including our tools and practices, is undergoing dramatic changes. The Great Resignation, in part, reflects an understanding that many jobs do not have a viable future and that they are not best utilizing the abilities of the employees.

Jobs are on the verge of being altered or replaced by artificial intelligence and AI-assisted programs. Long gone are the years in which colleges prepared students for 30 years in a single career where few changes took place in the job itself. Turnover is rampant. The median length of time that wage and salary workers had been with their current employer was just 4.1 years, as reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics in January 2020. Likely, that number has gone down further during the Great Resignation.

We are all familiar with the robotic revolution of prior decades in which assembly-line work positions were lost to robotic assembly lines. That shakeout took a toll on a skilled but less educated population. Human skills were no longer needed because “intelligent” robots could do the job faster, more consistently and at a lower cost to the business. Now, Brookings warns us that the most vulnerable jobs of the future are in better paid and better educated fields: “Our analysis shows that workers with graduate or professional degrees will be almost four times as exposed to AI as workers with just a high school degree. Holders of bachelor’s degrees will be the most exposed by education level, more than five times as exposed to AI than workers with just a high school degree.”

I understand that there is much more to be made of a college degree than merely a trade school preparing the student for work. However, in the current economy, it is abundantly clear that students seek jobs, career advancement and career potential far above all other forms of enrichment and perspective. Yet, as Jeff Selingo points out, “The world of work has changed, while colleges, along with employers, are living in a different era. It’s nearly impossible anymore for colleges to arm students with the vocational hard skills they’ll need to last more than a few years in almost any job after graduation. Most of college graduates’ 20s are spent moving from job to job to further their education and learn additional skills. And the paradox is that job hopping is the primary reason employers are reluctant to invest in workers in the first place.” That reluctance to invest in new workers is further fed by the advancement of less costly, more flexible and easily upgradable AI.

To a significant degree, the AI marketplace is responsive to shortfalls in the number of qualified workers. That is, where employers cannot find an adequate supply of humans to meet their needs, they will turn to AI. Boston Consulting Group sees the near-term future in this area is to engage government, companies and higher education:

To reduce the mismatch in skills, governments should update the education system. They should create more flexible institutions that can anticipate the future needs of companies and refocus on meta skills. Companies need to invest in corporate academies, training partnerships, and constant upskilling and reskilling of their existing workforces. They should also transform their HR functions and processes to cater to the shift in approach needed to hire and retain talent with the new skills in demand. Companies that make these investments and significant changes in their own processes stand to gain a substantial competitive advantage over those that stick with their current approach. Countries that leverage education to create attractive locations for companies will gain a competitive edge over their static neighbors.

Continuing and professional education is thriving both at universities and within the corporate environment. The rise of certificate programs is unprecedented. This is not taking place in a carefully orchestrated fashion. There is no semblance of an organized, concerted effort to identify emerging and future needs, assign specific standards across industries, and subsidize quality programs to meet the changing needs across the economy. Instead, there is more of a Wild West approach with individual universities and corporations creating their own entrepreneurial programs. In too few cases, states or corporate groups are trying to draft a road map to meet the learning needs in industries.

Meanwhile, artificial intelligence promises to transform 500 million white collar jobs in the next five years! The higher education–industry disconnect will take a huge toll on graduates in the workforce who have not been updated and upskilled for the emerging economy. This will further dilute the credibility and perceived value of degrees as they become increasingly outdated and irrelevant.

We need leadership within and across institutions to meet this challenge. A hodgepodge of credentials does not serve learners well. Clarity and specificity in outcomes as well as clear linkages to viable careers are needed to build effective paths of learning that meet the needs of today and tomorrow. Industry has already begun building its own education frameworks to meet its needs. Notably, the Google Career Certificate program has enrolled millions at an economical price point.

Who is leading the charge at your institution to respond to this massive shift in learning needs for our economy? Can you play a role in bringing coherence and meaningful alignment to inter-institutional/industrywide standards for certificate programs to meet the emerging new economy most effectively?

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

Ray Schroeder 2016 Summit for Online Leadership

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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