November 29, 2018
Two years ago, Ashok Goel, a professor of computer science at Georgia Institute of Technology, wanted to introduce his students to a technology he knew they would be working with in future careers—artificial intelligence (AI).
Goel partnered with a large tech firm to employ an AI-enabled teaching assistant, dubbed Jill, in one of his online courses. Goel assigned Jill to grade assignments and answer students’ questions. She fooled almost all of the students into believing she was a flesh-and-blood TA.
As AI applications such as Jill become more advanced, they can guide students not just through assignments but challenging situations in future jobs, says Richard DeMillo, director of Georgia Tech’s Center for 21st Century Universities. And while he admits that this is “untrodden territory” in academia, it’s also in line with other experiments in higher education geared toward preparing college grads for a rapidly changing labor force—one in which AI and other technologies are changing the nature of work itself.
If tomorrow’s college grads are going to succeed in the era of automation and AI, many believe universities need to up their game to fit the changing needs of the marketplace. Nearly half of companies expect automation to reduce their workforces in the coming years, according to a World Economic Forum report, while more than half of all workers will require new training—or new jobs entirely—to thrive in the workplace.
AI isn’t the only catalyst of change, either. These trends are boosting the need for universities to make “proactive investments in developing a new surge of agile learners and skilled talent globally,” the report’s authors write. In the university—whether on campus, online or both—this “new surge of agile learners” is gaining momentum.
Here are just three ways that educators are preparing tomorrow’s college graduates to succeed in a rapidly changing job market.
Offering Continuous Degrees
Thousands of companies today are shifting away from conventional college recruiting and leaning into skills-based hiring. Technology has ratcheted up demand for a whole spectrum of specific skills that aren’t readily supplied by B.A. and B.S. degrees. An estimated 3.5 million cybersecurity jobs, for instance, will be unfilled by 2021, according to research from Cybersecurity Ventures. Some universities are responding by launching flexible master’s programs that are attracting a new class of advanced learners.
When Georgia Tech opened its online master’s program in computer science in 2014, DeMillo assumed the program would attract students from selective institutions. Instead, it drew a new type of student—engineers with families, living in remote areas and with nowhere to go to learn the skills they needed to advance their careers.
In California’s Central Valley, for instance, IT manufacturing companies like HP require their higher-level engineers to have a skillset they can only gain from an advanced degree. Before the Georgia Tech program, those engineers were stalling out partway through their careers.
According to research from Josh Goodman, associate professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, Georgia Tech’s program alone widened the national market for graduate education in computer science by 15%. “We found people coming out of the woodwork,” says DeMillo.
Other universities are also enabling career development through flexible degree programs. Northeastern University, through its lifelong education platform, offers undergraduates and alums easy access to graduate degrees, boot camps and certificate programs in cities across North America, as well as online. University of Pennsylvania, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Columbia University also now offer “micro” credential programs, which are series of online courses that function as both gateways into full master’s programs and boosts up the professional ladder.
The popularity of these online options—MIT’s MicroMasters programs received 1.3 million sign-ups within nine months of opening—might seem to signal the fadeout of the physical campus, but DeMillo envisions a balance between the two. “A third of [online master’s] students decide to get on an airplane to get their degree on the stage,” he says. “There’s something actually collegiate about the experience.”
To that end, he imagines building small Georgia Tech campuses in 10 major metropolitan areas in the U.S. These would serve 80% of the school’s online master’s students, giving them a dependable place to network, collaborate, attend recruiting events and deepen relationships with classmates and professors, which DeMillo knows the students want.
Partnering With Companies To Shape Curricula
Corporations are also entering the classroom to teach students about the working world and shape curricula so they’re better suited for jobs upon graduation.
American Express, for example, partners with Year Up, a national nonprofit that puts disadvantaged young adults through six months of technical coursework at a local community college. For the second six months, the students complete an internship at American Express or another partner company.
Pedro Huerta enrolled in Year Up in 2015 after stumbling into recruiters on his way to work at the movie theater in a mall in Mesa, Ariz. After the first six months, which included assignments based on the actual problems one might encounter at a company like American Express, Huerta interned at the credit card company and now works there full-time. He is also, with the company’s financial support, completing his bachelor’s degree in applied computing at ASU.
Another example: At 750 universities including Brigham Young University, University of Southern California and University of Indiana, accounting and analytics professors have free access to lecture notes, assignments and full curricula, designed by Ernst & Young, that they can incorporate into their own lessons. The material teaches students how to analyze, visualize and tell stories with data—a prized skillset in EY’s golden halls, and the working world more generally.
“That [skillset] increasingly is needed, no matter what role you’re doing here,” says Larry Nash, EY’s director of U.S. recruiting.
Greg Coticchia, director of Carnegie Mellon’s first-of-its-kind master’s in product management, says that partnerships between companies and universities are creating “tangible, real-life teaching experiences.” For their final project, students in the program hear from corporate product teams about real problems, and then help solve them. Recent visitors were Boeing and Home Depot.
“The student recommendations go a long way,” Coticchia says. They benefit not just the companies, who often apply them, but also the students, who gain valuable experience solving problems for a potential employer.
And it doesn’t hurt that the Boeings and Home Depots bring recruiters along as well. The final project, says Coticchia, is “part of us helping students build the relationships so they can get a job in their field of choice.”
Forward-looking companies recognize that a student’s future success in the AI-centric workplace will require a blend of soft and technical skills. That’s why many are removing the barriers between traditionally discrete departments—English and Computer Science, for example—so that students with technical backgrounds can convincingly explain the value of their work and anticipate the inevitable social impact of technologies like AI.
One school investing in this multidisciplinary approach is MIT, which announced that it would open a new computing college in 2019, backed by $1 billion in funding. University President L. Rafael Reif says its purpose will be to educate students in departments like biology, linguistics, politics and history in modern computing techniques, so that they can apply them to their field—and, when they enter the workforce, their jobs.
Melissa Nobles, dean of MIT’s School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, welcomed the news. “Computation is changing many of our disciplines,” she told WGBH.
Similarly, at Georgia Tech, the departmental “stovepipes don’t run too deep,” says DeMillo; collaboration between departments is common and encouraged.
Richard Utz, chair of Georgia Tech’s School of Literature, Media and Communication, holds up the computational media degree as an example. One student applied computing to her passion in digital photography, and also minored in marketing. The multidisciplinary skillset, he says, opens her up to a wide spectrum of in-demand jobs. “That’s the kind of person a company wants to hire,” says Utz, so that’s the kind of environment universities need to create. The melding of departments may also help diversify the tech talent pool, says Nicki Washington, a professor of computer science at Winthrop University and lead writer for South Carolina’s K–12 CS standards. Computer scientists “tend very much to be in our own world,” she says. The MIT Initiative, with its unprecedented scale, may help reverse that trend.
But interdepartmental collaboration is a still long way from the “joyous multidisciplinarity” Utz imagines possible. “We need to experiment much more than we currently do,” he says, “and that’s hard within the current structures.”