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Increasingly, higher education is placed in the position of updating and upgrading the curriculum to assure that students are prepared for the careers of today -- not those of yesterday or those careers that will never materialize due to the impact of artificial intelligence, shifting societal needs and the changing economy of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). The advent of 4IR will bring the “blurring of boundaries between the physical, digital, and biological worlds. It’s a fusion of advances in artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, the Internet of Things (IoT), 3D printing, genetic engineering, quantum computing, and other technologies. It’s the collective force behind many products and services that are fast becoming indispensable to modern life.”

When you hear about AI and robotics, you might think of automated assembly lines and smart machines that take the jobs of blue-collar workers requiring less education. But 4IR is not about your grandfather’s AI. It is about algorithms taking on accounting, legal and managerial tasks. It is about displacing baccalaureate and graduate degree holders in the roles for which our curricula have been designed.

The key initial step in the process is to engage employers with educators to determine the skills and abilities that are needed today and in the next few years. LinkedIn’s 2020 list of skills in most demand includes these soft skills at the very top:

  • Creativity
  • Persuasion
  • Collaboration
  • Adaptability

And these hard skills at the very top:

  • Blockchain
  • Cloud computing
  • Analytical reasoning
  • Artificial intelligence

Of course, these are further refined, discipline by discipline as industries and fields move to require differing skills, abilities and credentials over time. A good practice is for departments to create employer advisory councils to assist in identifying the needs for graduates in each discipline. These councils should include the array of employers -- commercial, noncommercial, governmental and organizational -- that are representative of the field of study. In the case of each department, a list of required or desired knowledge, competencies, skills and credentials should be developed and revisited often. These should be incorporated into regularly updated learning outcomes for the degree.

Best practices are being developed for how to best create credentials that recognize and document the achievement of competency in a given area. The University Professional and Continuing Education Association (UPCEA) has just released the “Hallmarks of Excellence in Credential Innovation” that explores the emerging best practices and considerations for effective and efficient credentialing.

Employers have become increasingly impatient with the slow rollout of relevant credentials from universities that recognize the new competencies and abilities needed. Google recently announced a massive effort in creating an array of new career certificates. Deployed through Coursera, no college degree is required for career certificates in IT support, project management, data analytics, associate Android developer and user experience design. Google has lined up 130 major employers who promise to hire those who successfully complete one of the certifications in the program. The programs last between three and six months and cost only $240. Google is also offering 100,000 need-based scholarships.

Clearly, the pressure is on for universities to respond. Failure to adequately prepare students for the current job market will result in accelerating the steady decline in enrollments that we have seen over the past decade.

There are a range of university options now -- from informal or formal certificates; certifications, degrees and licenses to document achievement of knowledge; skills or competencies. Workcred has a useful chart of the differences among these categories. A Lumina grant enabled UPCEA, APLU, USU and Workcred to investigate the future of aligning and embedding industry credentials into baccalaureate degrees. This pathway provides a blueprint for the future. Further steps have been taken independently by universities that are utilizing blockchain technology to disseminate transcripts containing rich detail and documentation not available in the traditional paper document.

Yet much remains to be done if higher education, as a whole, is to engage in the development of an infrastructure aligned to industry needs. Experimentation must begin now, even as we are losing hundreds of thousands of prospective students to industry-initiated programs such as the Google career certificates. The process to pilot programs must be focused, easily assessed and open to modifications as it expands. A modest approach might follow these direct steps:

  1. Form an industry council at the academic departmental level
  2. With advice from the council identify the key skills, proficiencies or abilities desired in grads holding specific degrees
  3. Select among these competencies to add to the learning outcomes of the degree curriculum through required classes
  4. Award a badge to each student for each attribute when they are successfully assessed
  5. Promote support of the badges throughout the university and encourage students to use their badges in their social media and on their résumés
  6. Assess the success through surveys of students, graduates and employers

Who, at your university, is taking leadership in developing the documentation of relevant skills, proficiencies, knowledge and abilities among your students? Are you ensuring that your students are graduating with what is necessary for their career success in the emerging 4IR context of today and tomorrow, rather than the outdated, unnecessary and expired needs of the first two decades of this 21st century?

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