Technology has radically changed the role of universities

Technology has radically changed what types of cognitive skills are valued today. Prior to the Internet age, it was difficult and time-consuming to obtain information; you had to navigate libraries and other repositories to find material relevant to your needs. Information was more scarce, or at least accessing it was more difficult, so there was inherent value in storing it in your brain or in your notebook.

The Internet has changed all that. Information is no longer scarce. It is free, endless and available almost instantly. Now, there isn’t much value in storing it in your brain or in a filing cabinet. It’s more important to be able to synthesize, process and analyse information. Higher-level skills – such as critical thinking, problem solving, creativity, cross-disciplinary thinking, and communication – are the new cognitive currency in the Internet age.

According to a national survey of businesses and non-profit leaders conducted in the United States, employers are more interested in critical thinking and problem solving skills than a candidate’s major. Nearly all employers surveyed (93%) stated that “a demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems” is more important than an undergraduate’s major when evaluating new hires. Three-quarters of the employers surveyed said they want more emphasis on five key areas: critical thinking, complex problem solving, written and oral communication, and applied knowledge in real-world settings (AAC&U, 2013).

The implications for post-secondary education are profound. If universities are to add value and thrive in the future, they will need to move beyond the outdated model of content delivery and rote learning. Since content can be accessed much more efficiently and cheaply online, universities will need to look for other ways to position themselves in the marketplace, especially given the high price of college tuitions. To remain relevant in the Internet age, universities should help students develop the skills needed to make sense of all this readily available information. The role of universities should be to develop students as critical thinkers, innovators, effective communicators, and problem solvers.

Not only has technology created the impetus for change, but it is also part of the way forward. Technology can play an important role in transitioning the classroom from a means of content delivery to a space where students can learn and practice higher-level skills. In his book Teaching Naked: How Moving Technology Out of Your College Classroom Will Improve Student Learning, Jose Bowen argues that technology should be used to deliver content mostly outside of class, while class time should be used to develop higher-level skills.

With the use of technology, the options for introducing new material are considerably more diverse. Instructors no longer have to stick to one type of media, such as a single textbook or reading package. Technology allows content to be delivered in a wider variety of ways (text, videos, games, etc.) and gives students more options for accessing new information. And by moving content delivery out of the classroom, class time is freed up for more engaging, hands-on activities that help students cultivate advanced cognitive skills. Examples include class discussions, debates, case studies, interactive workshops, and other applied activities.

Like most educators, I want to do my best to help students learn and acquire these higher-level skills. It will take work to restructure my courses, but the fulfillment in knowing I am setting up students for future success will make it worth the effort.