Future-Proofing Education

Business students must master three distinct literacies to thrive in the digital world.
Future-Proofing Education

BUSINESS LEADERS STRIVING to build long-term success should think about “what’s not going to change in the next 10 years,” Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos recently recommended. This is also sound advice for business school deans. Building a strategy around predictable elements helps focus efforts and investments; it also allows organizations to reap potentially rich dividends.

We can predict with reasonable certainty that certain breakthrough technologies—including artificial intelligence, augmented and virtual reality, blockchain, and the Internet of Things (IoT)—will continue to change the way we live, learn, produce, and consume content. As these technologies are interwoven into every job, they will change how employees and enterprises work across all industries. In particular, they have the potential to transform sectors that involve a substantial share of knowledge work. These advanced technologies will seamlessly integrate the analog and the digital worlds as they usher in the age of digital convergence.

Business schools must prepare future leaders for this emerging reality. At Northeastern University’s D’Amore-McKim School of Business, we believe three distinct “literacies” will be essential:

Technology literacy. Business leaders must understand the technology if they’re going to manage it. Matt Sigelman, CEO of analytics company Burning Glass, recently told me that a marketing major’s salary increases from US$76,000 to $101,000 when he or she has skills in the programming language SQL.

Analytics literacy. More than a year ago, Forbes magazine estimated that 2.5 quintillion bytes of data are created each day, and this pace is only accelerating with the growth of IoT. Data is now recognized as operational currency, so a facility with analytics will be a crucial competency for all firms.

Human-centered literacies. Creativity, entrepreneurial thinking, critical reasoning, and ethical thinking are among the abilities that make people different from machines—and that give humans skills that machines can’t match in the workplace. In his book Robot-Proof, Northeastern’s president Joseph Aoun argues that colleges and universities must help the next generation of workers develop these skills as a way to ensure that they continue to stay employable.

Advanced tech will integrate the analog and digital worlds and usher in the age of digital convergence.

At our school, we call this unique combination of technology, data, and human literacies humanics. Leaders who want to be successful in the future will need to master each one.

But while we prepare our students for digital convergence, we also must ready our business schools for the transformation. I believe digital convergence has the potential to create five paradigm shifts in the way higher education operates:

We will acknowledge our dual role as content creators and content curators. To give our learners the best possible educational experiences, we will need to meld relevant content from many sources. While it’s important that our faculty generate new knowledge through their own research, it’s equally important that they read and disseminate the knowledge created by our corporate partners. But even as we include outside material in our classrooms, we can emphasize our unique internal strengths, such as our ability to engage deeply with students in synchronous settings.

We will rely on humanics to develop well-rounded students. Focusing too much on technology literacy could lead to what author Evgeny Morozov calls technology solutionism. In a September 9, 2013, article on PublicBooks.org, he defines this term as a tendency for people to develop the limited view that all their problems can be solved through technology alone. Of course, data points are critical, but they should never be viewed as cold, technical facts, but rather as representations of people. In the blog post “Data Humanism, the Revolution Will Be Visualized,” Giorgia Lupi describes how to design thoughtful visualizations that “connect numbers to what they really stand for: knowledge, behaviors, people.” The more data we generate, the more data humanism we will need to make insights meaningful.

We will realize we cannot exist in silos. Humanics education obviously requires interdisciplinary experiences, so business schools will have opportunities to become the connective tissue across the university. At D’Amore- McKim, we attempt to do just that with our new “MBA x” program concept. With MBA x, students can develop multifaceted perspectives by blending their business studies with other areas of expertise, such as artificial intelligence or experiential design. We’re also fully embracing combined undergraduate majors and interdisciplinary degree programs by allowing students to explore different academic fields—for example, math and finance or accounting and data science. By connecting students across a diverse array of knowledge, we set them on a path to solving the grand challenges of our times, driving significant impact, and living more rewarding lives.

We will promote lifelong learning as mandatory. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average worker stays at his or her job for 4.2 years. But this longevity is greatly reduced for workers between the ages of 25 and 34, whose median tenure is 2.8 years. This means that they could have 15 to 20 jobs over the course of their working lives! These facts, coupled with current and impending technological change, make it clear that lifelong learning will become a key product line for business schools. We should be in the business of education, not just the business of degrees. One way we are meeting this need at D’Amore-McKim is by offering a range of educational products of varying lengths. This includes noncredit modules that, over time, learners can stack together to earn certificates and degrees.

We will make employers the cornerstone of our strategy. U.S. student debt is currently estimated to total $1.52 trillion, and the average student debt is about $38,000. To make education more accessible and affordable, business schools can put more focus on work-centered pathways. Employers can help us shape curricula, provide a pipeline of prospective students, enrich our learners with opportunities for cooperative education and experiential projects, and volunteer as subject matter experts that help marry classroom rigor with practical relevance. This collaborative strategy also offers pragmatic benefits to schools. A 2019 Strada-Gallup education survey points out that onethird of adults without college degrees are likely to enroll in courses offered by their employers.

In the era of digital convergence, business education will become a playground of unbounded opportunity where digital platforms will meld with physical locations to create new markets and new possibilities. If we play by the new rules, this may very well be the golden age for higher education in business.

Raj Echambadi - Future Proofing EducationRaj Echambadi is the Dunton Family Dean of the D’Amore-McKim School of Business at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts.

This article originally appeared in
BizEd's January/February 2020 issue. Please send questions, comments, or letters to the editor to [email protected].

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