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We would be wise to take a moment to reflect on the ways in which higher education has adapted to radical change in society, technology and culture in the past 150 years or so. Those changes have been as dramatic, or nearly so, as the ones that we are encountering now. I believe that we can learn from those prior adaptations and adjustments as we prepare for the next few years.

The first industrial revolution (IR) rolled out much more slowly than we anticipate this fourth revolution will. With its roots in the agrarian culture of the colonial and early U.S. economy, the first IR was characterized in part by the flood of residents from farms to the cities. Generally, historians say the first industrial revolution was triggered by Englishman Samuel Slater, who brought “pirated” water-powered spinning mill technology to America in 1789 to industrialize the cotton textile industry at the turn of the nineteenth century. Yet, it took several other associated technologies to launch the industrial revolution on a wide scale. These involved strategies and organizational models to increase productivity, such as conducting parts of the process of textile, shoe and boot-making, and related industries from individual homes to centralized factories for the first time.

Two more major changes were needed to fully launch the first industrial revolution in America. They were an expanded credit system, “Alexander Hamilton’s Bank of the United States received a special national charter from the U.S. Congress in 1791.” The states also granted charters for private corporations to conduct major construction projects such as canals, bridges and road-building to move people and goods as needed for the rise of the first industrial revolution.

Just imagine the disruption among families with young adults leaving the small home farm to work in factories. The huge economic disruption of granting monopolistic privileges to banks and major construction companies that built the infrastructure was yet another major change. For higher education, this greatly expanded the interest and need for education for those who would leave the farm, where education needs were limited and focused, to higher education that could meet the rapidly expanding needs of the larger construction and textile companies as well as the burgeoning banking industry. No longer was family farming knowledge passed down through generations enough to fully meet the needs of youth. Before the Industrial Revolution, American colleges served those who would become ministers and civic leaders. This greatly expanded to serve those who would lead industry and business. With the first IR, such changes took place along with the growth of academic libraries to serve specialized interests. New fields such as engineering and business management were addressed through undergraduate and graduate programs for the first time in America.

Fast forward nearly a century to the start of the second industrial revolution that launched in 1870

“Advancements in manufacturing and production technology enabled the widespread adoption of technological systems such as telegraph and railroad networks, gas and water supply, and sewage systems, which had earlier been limited to a few select cities. The enormous expansion of rail and telegraph lines after 1870 allowed unprecedented movement of people and ideas, which culminated in a new wave of globalization. In the same time period, new technological systems were introduced, most significantly electrical power and telephones. The Second Industrial Revolution continued into the 20th century with early factory electrification and the production line; it ended at the beginning of World War I.”

These advancements followed the Civil War. They marked a period of rapid growth and rapid need for further education to advance the industries that grew quickly as America grew to a position of world leadership in technology, transportation, communication and production. Notably, the passage of the Land Grant acts of 1862 and 1890, also known as the Morrill Acts. The first act, passed while Abraham Lincoln was President and the country was in the Civil War, provided federal lands to generate funding opportunities:

“...without excluding other scientific and classical studies and including military tactic, to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts, in such manner as the legislatures of the States may respectively prescribe, in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life.”

This marked the opening of college studies to the general public, which was an important move away from exclusively the privileged class. The second Morrill Act extended the first act to the formerly Confederate states and “required each state to show that race was not an admissions criterion, or else to designate a separate land-grant institution for African Americans. Thus, the second Morrill Act facilitated segregated education, although it also provided higher educational opportunities for African Americans who otherwise would not have had them.”

Once again, imagine the radical changes at colleges that came about by this second industrial revolution. The expansion of colleges to prepare Americans for many more careers in the twentieth century, the opening of higher education to African Americans, and the rise in importance of formal higher education in business and industry.

It was the digital revolution that triggered the third industrial revolution that swept the country at the end of the twentieth century. In the 1980s, the advent of the public internet, personal computers, and the shift toward the information-based and service-oriented economies that launched the third industrial revolution. Communication media in many cases moved from analog formats such as vinyl records and tape recordings to downloadable digital files and compact discs. Online learning was launched to greatly extend the reach of campus-based programs. Now that format reaches many of our students.

However, developing the technology and pedagogy to successfully use online learning was no small feat. Overall, we saw a shift from slower, less precise analog formats to digital delivery systems for the information-based and service-oriented economies. In turn, these prompted proliferation of computer science and information technology programs. Greater emphasis on STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, math) emerged as a foundation for the developing knowledge economy of the 21st century. This significant shift in curricula and in delivery formats set the stage for what we face today, the fourth industrial revolution.

Driven by the advent of artificial intelligence, artificial agents, robotics and biotechnologies, this fourth revolution promises to bring yet another massive shift of jobs. The shift appears to be away from professions such as those in accounting, diagnostics, marketing, management, media and associated fields that developed and thrived following the prior industrial revolutions. This revolution is ongoing, with new technologies developing at an unprecedented rate. At this point in development, it is not possible to fully predict the careers and required skills that will emerge or those that will be taken over by artificial intelligence. Yet, even at this early point in the fourth industrial revolution, some of the important skills, abilities and practices for success are becoming apparent.

Nearly all analyses project that interpersonal and cross-discipline communication skills will be highly valued in the future. Other, previously called “soft skills,” that will most likely be valued are now identified as “power skills,” such as creativity, emotional intelligence (EQ), teamwork, critical thinking and related abilities. Perhaps the most important feature for education will be to meet the rapidly changing needs of the fourth industrial revolution society for nonstop lifelong learning to keep pace with the advances triggered by artificial intelligence. 

When we look in this historical context, the challenges that loom ahead for higher education do not seem much more daunting than those that were confronted in prior industrial revolutions. Jobs and careers will be lost; other careers and jobs will be created. Learning will remain a constant requirement for success. Once again, we will need to reinvent our structures, methods and modes of delivery to best meet the higher learning demands of our changing society. The time to begin is now!

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