On any given day, in college classrooms across the globe, a unique group of millennial students is putting to the test the true effectiveness of universities responsible for producing the next generation of world leaders. But their expectations are unlike those of their predecessors —these students are technologically savvy, socially engaged and forward-thinking individuals who continuously seek new and innovative opportunities to grow and be challenged. As a result, those of us responsible for their academic success face our own challenge —to create innovative and cutting-edge programs and initiatives that engage millennials while exposing them to in-demand skills and abilities for the modern workforce.
Whether it’s through the integration of technology to facilitate learning, the implementation of innovative methods such as flipped classrooms or an inspirational lesson in art and culture, we must figure out how best to reach these students where they are. The future of higher education, and that of our global economy, is dependent on the ability of colleges and universities around the world to produce a competitive workforce prepared to succeed in the global economy.
Most students sitting in college classrooms today have never envisioned life without technology. Devices they hold in the palm of their hands and store in their pockets connect them to the world at incredible speeds, and obtaining information is as easy as clicking a touchscreen. In the 21st century global knowledge economy, technology has redefined how people communicate and do business, and on our university campuses, it’s turned conventional teaching and learning methods upside down.
Gone is the centuries-old pedagogy of 50-minute lectures and exams to prove proficiency. Lectures are now available on podcasts and streaming platforms. Modern-day courses must go beyond the physical boundaries of a classroom and offer students face-to-face contact with leaders, business owners and community stakeholders. Project-based learning and partnerships with companies that lead to paid internships and even employment offers, along with apprenticeships that expose students early-on to the realities of a job, are just a few of the ways colleges can engage students and ensure their success.
In addition to learning the practical skills of a trade or profession, millennial students are eager to be more than just employees. They want to be change makers at their workplaces, helping to develop processes and policies that benefit not only the companies where they work but the communities where they live. It is only at college and university campuses where students are exposed to crucial soft skills —critical and analytical thinking, effective communication, leadership, group effectiveness and others— that help employees contribute to the success and well-being of their companies.
Only at the college level, for example, is a sociology student able to collaborate with a professor to analyze society’s most pressing issues and come up with ways to remediate them. And only through a college study-abroad program can a student understand the traditions and values of a community halfway across the world. One study shows that more than 60 percent of employers agreed that soft skills were the most important factor considered in an employee’s performance evaluation.
Therefore, it’s our duty as educators to ensure students gain these skills in our classrooms before they become part of the workforce.
Along with creating innovative curricula, academic leaders must foster the passion for life-long learning and create a new generation of students who are continuously returning to the classroom to make themselves more competitive professionally and more productive members of their community. For decades, certain professions —doctor, accountants, engineers, attorneys and others— have spent an inordinate amount of time attending workshops or certification classes to ensure they are up to date with the latest developments in their fields. This should be the norm for all career paths. Limiting a student’s learning experience to the technical skills and requirements of a particular field or trade was sufficient over the last two centuries, but it’s simply not enough these days.
As professors and academic leaders navigate these new teaching and learning methods, the importance of a strong liberal arts education must never be ignored. The liberal arts are a fundamental component of a student’s overall path toward success, by offering students an appreciation for their surroundings and the ability to embrace diversity and individuality. Through a liberal arts curriculum, we train our future workforce to be well-rounded and forward-thinking, analytical thinkers and effective problem solvers. Employers seek employees who have an appreciation for how broad and multicultural the world can be, and these aptitudes are only acquired through exposure to courses and hands-of experiences offered in a liberal arts academic platform.
If colleges and universities want to remain key influencers in the development of the world’s future leaders, we must be willing to take on the challenge set forth by our millennial students. Their success, and the future of our global economy, depends on our commitment to innovation.