Education in the Second Machine Age

Opinion

We are in the early innings of a Second Machine Age—one relying on fewer people and more technology—yet we’re largely educating students for a bygone era. The (First) Machine Age, which is typically bracketed by the introduction of the automobile in the late 1880s and the invention of the transistor shortly after WWII, led to significant advancements in production and manufacturing. Machine Age advancements were enabled by choreographed human leverage, such as assembly lines (mass production, leading to consumerization) and steel-framed building construction (skyscrapers, leading to greater urban development).

Thanks to Moore’s law and cloud computing, the Second Machine Age will enable anyone with an Internet-connected device to become not only the next Steve Jobs, but the next Rockefeller or Carnegie. Yes, the income gap may be widening as recently argued by Thomas Piketty in his instant classic Capital in the Twenty-First Century, but the bounty is huge and growing. I think William Gibson said it best: “The future is already here—it’s just not very evenly distributed”.

Technology has made extraordinary and broad impacts on society. According to Mary Meeker, however, while those impacts have been huge on the consumer, businesses, and even the military, not so much in education.

Irrespective of whether you agree with Meeker’s estimates, education is now widely accessible thanks to the Internet and new business models: students can take MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) for free from Ivy League institutions, earn a college degree for as little as $2,500 per year through College for America, or a Master’s degree for as little as $6,600 through Udacity’s partnership with Georgia Tech.

The knowledge economy rewards those with a strong foundation in a cognitive core and the ability to learn and leverage new technologies—especially those that themselves leverage networks of people. As companies reduce the size of their full-time workforces, the ability to get leverage through technology and distributed labor becomes a competitive advantage.

Employers used to train their staffs, but with 70 percent of employees moving on after just two years, that expectation is diminishing. If employers aren’t training employees, and if universities aren’t training students for today’s workforce—as evidenced by employers’ cries about a “skills gap”— then who is? It is more than ever up each person to train himself or herself. Individuals need to become self-directed, lifelong learners in order to compete and win in this rapidly changing environment.

The education providers that will thrive are those closely aligned with industry, whose learning objectives are relevant to today’s workplace, and that provide authentic projects where students can apply what they learn in a real-world setting. Programs must still provide enough foundational theory so that students can build on their knowledge over time as new technologies and tools obsolete their initial training.

As the Internet’s impact on education and everything else accelerates, acquiring an education designed for the Second Machine Age is the only way not to be left behind as technology races ahead. Those education outcomes should focus on generative thinking, application, and communication to enable lifelong learners to be leaders in a global economy driven by skill-biased technical change.

Nick Ducoff currently serves as Northeastern University’s Vice President for New Ventures, incubating new business ideas to diversify revenue streams and advance a new model of higher education. Follow @nickducoff

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