Defining the Future of Learning and Work

How well are institutions of higher education preparing their graduates for the realities of work in the 21st century?

Let’s begin with a quick history lesson: In the 19th and 20th centuries, Americans experienced one of the most dynamic economic shifts in human history.

This economic earthquake started with the introduction of mechanization and mass production of goods in the mid-1800s. It continued for 15 decades, propelled by a continuous flow of new technologies that ultimately gave us today’s high standard of living.

New technology also drove a sea of change in how people earned their living. In 1910, roughly half of all workers in the United States were employed either on farms, as physical laborers or as private-household workers, such as maids, cooks and gardeners; just 5 percent worked in professional and technical roles. By 2000, those numbers had more than reversed: About 7 percent of jobholders worked on farms, in private households or as physical laborers; 75 percent worked in “white collar” jobs.

During the 150-year transition, whole categories of jobs disappeared—from those that had existed for centuries (including ice-cutters, farriers and typesetters) to those that came and went in the 20th century, such as elevator operators, telephone switchboard operators and VCR repair people. On the other hand, vast opportunities blossomed, especially for those who worked with information, ideas, services and technologies—including healthcare professionals, engineers and designers.

Today, we are poised on the cusp of another major, machine-driven shift—one that is redefining “work” for millions of people throughout the 21st century.

Consider these predictions for the next decade: By 2030, automation, artificial intelligence and machine learning may force 32 percent of the American workforce—that is, 54 million people—to find new jobs. Globally, an estimated 60 percent of current jobs involve a substantial subset of activities that could be taken over by “intelligent automation.” In all, at least 30 percent of the hours worked today could disappear or be transferred to jobs that do not yet exist. Going even further, a report by the Institute for the Future and Dell Technologies predicts that roughly 85 percent of the jobs that will exist in 2030 haven’t been invented yet. And those shifts have begun: 80 percent of U.S. CEOs say that artificial intelligence will significantly change the way their organizations do business over the next five years.

Bottom line: The next big transition in the world of work won’t take a leisurely 150 years to play out. It’s happening now—and fast.

The businesswoman in glasses standing near the display

There are two big differences between what previous generations experienced and what’s coming down the pike for us, says Dr. Stephen K. Klasko, president of Thomas Jefferson University and an ardent student of economic change and organizational innovation. The integration of intelligent machines into the workplace will occur over one or two decades, not a century. And the changes it spurs will be exacerbated by the breakdown of geographic and professional distinctions that has already begun.

“The borders between professions and disciplines are blurring, as are the separations between national labor markets,” Dr. Klasko explains. “Increasingly, competitors will come from anywhere. The best workers, products and ideas will win out, regardless of their origins and educational backgrounds. And regardless of whether those ‘workers’ are humans or machines.”

The quickly evolving nature of work in the 21st century has already put a premium on a set of skills that were undervalued in the 20th century workplace—a set dubbed “human skills.” A recent study of how U.S. employment skills evolved from 2004 to 2016 found that 56 percent of jobs required more high-level creativity, 47 percent required more complex reasoning, 36 percent required more social/emotional skills and 33 percent required more communication skills. In addition, virtually all professional jobs today also require digital fluency, a basic comfort and capacity with digitally based systems. This skill set enables employees to handle change and new challenges more effectively, to collaborate across cultures and professions, and to be more innovative in addressing opportunities and problems. Notably, they also enable people to partner with and augment intelligent machines, rather than be replaced by them.

Along with a need for strong human skills, the future of work will demand a new approach to learning. The Institute for the Future projects that by 2030, “The pace of change will be so rapid that people will learn ‘in-the-moment’ using new technologies such as augmented reality and virtual reality.” The Institute’s conclusion: “The ability to gain new knowledge will be more valuable than the knowledge itself.”

No wonder, then, that organizations across all sectors—commercial, not-for-profit and governmental—want to recruit people with strong human skills and the capacity for continuous learning. The problem is that there aren’t enough of them.

Which prompts this question: How well are institutions of higher education preparing their graduates for the realities of work in the 21st century?

Group of businessperson in front of the urban cityscape.

In general, not so well, argues future-of-work strategist Heather E. McGowan. She helps organizations evolve from their last-century incarnations into ones whose employees will enable them to succeed in a massively digital, global economy. (Full disclosure: McGowan also works with academic institutions and helped design Philadelphia University’s Nexus Learning approach, as well as architecting the core curriculum for the Kanbar College of Design, Engineering and Commerce. Now, post-merger, it is a critical part of the Jefferson academic experience.)

“These organizations are trying to prepare for the integration of digital technology and human knowledge work,” McGowan explains. “They are shifting from valuing static knowledge and expertise to valuing people who can work with dynamic information flows—creating new knowledge and new value in the midst of change.

“But most of U.S. higher education is stuck in 20th-century paradigms, where rote learning and good grades ensured good jobs,” McGowan laments. “Most colleges continue to ask people whose brains are still developing to make career-defining decisions—then channel those students into narrow learning tracks that provide today’s knowledge. What they are not doing is empowering those students to respond constructively to change and to obtain the knowledge they’ll need for all their tomorrows.

“Higher education must start helping students create a ‘knowledge foundation’ that includes both profession-specific expertise and the platform for future self-directed learning.” Such a foundation, McGowan says, should comprise capacities such as learning agility and adaptability; problem solving and judgment; creativity and divergent thinking; leadership, communication and collaboration; and social/emotional skills such as empathy and self-awareness. “We shouldn’t be taking students deep into technical training without creating the underlying ‘human operating system’ that prepares them for continuous learning in a rapidly changing environment.”

Why is that so important? “Those are exactly the kinds of skills that enable people to be successful in today’s work environment,” says Janice Maiden ’81, senior vice president of Systems Protection and Powertrain Human Resources for global automotive systems manufacturer Tenneco. “And they will be even more essential in years to come.

“Our company specifically recruits people who can work in a collaborative, team-based culture; who are confident in their own skills and comfortable with what others bring to the table; who like solving problems and using out-of-the-box thinking; and who are able to communicate their ideas effectively,” Maiden says. “Of course, we’re looking for strong profession-specific knowledge. But we need to see those core ‘human skills’—whether we’re recruiting for engineering or sales, finance or design, IT or HR. It’s those skills that enable recruits to bring us value right from the start.”

Business leaders around the world echo Maiden’s perspective. They want to see colleges and universities get much better at giving their graduates this mix of skills. But higher education changes slowly. Many institutions are only inching toward curriculums that integrate human skills and digital fluency with professional knowledge. They are tackling individual pieces of the puzzle, not taking a comprehensive approach.

Students working in a classroom.

In contrast, Jefferson has undertaken a comprehensive strategy to enable graduates to succeed in the evolving future of work. “Steve Klasko and I believe that our economy and society are at a major inflection point, and that universities must be aggressive in preparing students for both the near- and long-term implications,” says Dr. Mark L. Tykocinski, the University’s provost, executive vice president for academic affairs and the Anthony F. and Gertrude M. DePalma dean of Sidney Kimmel Medical College. “We are determined that Jefferson graduates be prepared to have long, fruitful careers—ready to ride the crest of the waves of change, for decades to come.”

The University’s strategy addresses four realities of the evolving workplace. First, that anything a machine can do better than a human, a machine will be employed to do. (It’s how industrialized, free market economies work.) Second, that the people we engage with professionally are increasingly diverse—geographically, culturally and intellectually. Third, that many of the challenges we face and objectives we pursue will be new and complex, and not subject to simple or well-worn solutions. Fourth, that adapting to the first three—and to continuing change in the world around us—requires that we become life-long learners able to curate our own ongoing education.

“Jefferson is addressing these realities, in part, by helping graduates bring to bear the abilities that people uniquely possess, which machines cannot replicate,” Dr. Tykocinski explains. “Put differently, we are making a distinction between knowledge—which is an assemblage of information—and wisdom, which is a uniquely human way of interpreting and applying information. To that end, we are teaching students—whether they are preparing to be engineers, designers, nurses or policymakers—to leverage their creativity, intuition, communication abilities and social awareness. And we are fostering their ability to teach themselves, to engage in life-long learning, and thus, be ready to embrace new technologies, environments and professional challenges.”

Key to life-long learning in the 21st century is a capacity called digital fluency: the ability to learn and operate effectively in a digitally based economy and work environment. “Digital fluency goes far beyond the ability to use the latest software program or piece of technology,” Dr. Tykocinski explains. “It is a fundamental understanding of the ‘thinking’ that drives the machines we use—an awareness of how they work and what they are capable of doing.”

Parallel to Jefferson’s integration of design thinking concepts into non-design academic programs—for example, bringing human-centered design skills into medical education—the University is working to give all students a level of digital fluency appropriate to their discipline and career goals. “In practical terms, digital fluency is contextual,” Dr. Tykocinski says. “You are fluent when you understand the digitally based information and processes that are necessary for success in your profession. And our goal is that every graduate will possess the intellectual tools needed to maintain digital fluency as self-directed learners.”

A group of nursing students are attending class together. They are seated at a long table in a classroom. The individuals are working in pairs on a project. The two women seated closest to the camera are being assisted by their female professor who is showing them something on a digital tablet.

Jefferson’s future-focused strategy is being woven into virtually every facet of the institution. If it has a cornerstone, however, it may be the Hallmarks Program for General Education, a unique undergraduate core curriculum for students in all four-year programs.

“The Hallmarks Core is a sequence of 14 courses that builds eight specific skills. We call them the ‘power skills,’” says Dr. Tom Schrand, professor of history and associate dean for general education, “because they individually and collectively empower our graduates to excel.”

These “power skills” were identified through a series of design-thinking exercises that brought faculty from across the University together to define what capabilities their students, regardless of major, would need to thrive in the 21st-century global economy. The curriculum features themes such as ethical reasoning, American diversity and global citizenship. “Spread over the undergraduate years, the Hallmarks Core courses build targeted skills in competencies such as empathy and initiative while contributing to a broader understanding of the world,” Dr. Schrand says.

A novel facet of the program is the Hallmarks Folio, personal e-portfolios that students create as they move through the program. “The Folio is a dynamic record of a student’s growing mastery of the learning goals for each skill,” Dr. Schrand notes. Because these skills were selected and defined by faculty from multiple programs, students can populate their Folios with relevant work from their majors as well as from the Hallmarks Core. The universality of these skills is key, according to Dr. Schrand. “When students approach the same skills from different disciplines, they begin to appreciate their relevance and leverage in a variety of professional and real-world contexts.”

The program gives each Jefferson graduate a competitive advantage with employers, Dr. Schrand believes, “because it both broadens students’ core knowledge and enhances their ability to keep learning and responding constructively to the constantly evolving challenges of the workplace. That combination is very attractive to employers, across sectors and professions.”

Students presenting projects

A new report from the Society for Human Resources Management confirmed organizations of all stripes are increasingly engaging international work teams; and, in building those teams, they prize individuals with global perspectives, comfort with cultural differences and strong communication abilities.

The Hallmarks’ undergraduate coursework on global perspectives is but one element of the University’s effort to graduate students ready to be global citizens and compete for jobs internationally. Those initiatives go far beyond the coursework offered in Philadelphia. During the past several years, Jefferson has created global centers in Italy, Israel, India and Japan, focusing on education, research and professional development in fields ranging from medicine to fashion. In 2018, it launched the world’s first dual medical degree—offering certification in both the U.S. and the European Union—and is pursuing similar agreements in architecture, design and other fields.

These efforts mark the beginning of a long-term initiative to introduce Jefferson students to the world—and introduce the world to Jefferson’s academic and research programs. “We have been creating an international coalition of academic institutions who are rethinking how professional education is organized, delivered and regulated,” Dr. Tykocinski explains. “In the process, we are helping our graduates become comfortable with other nations’ cultures and professional systems, and enabling them to practice their professions unconstrained by national licensure issues and other artificial barriers.”

The innovative approach and entrepreneurial spirit reflected in Jefferson’s global initiatives are, themselves, emblematic of a skill set that employers around the world increasingly seek: creativity, the ability to approach challenges in new ways, identify new opportunities and find solutions in unexpected places. “Intelligent machines will always have the advantage at crunching raw data to find answers,” Dr. Tykocinski notes. “But it takes humans to ask questions worth answering, and creativity is an essential spark for the best questions.”

The need for these kinds of skills applies not just to the traditionally creative professions—artists, designers and architects, for example—but to those ranging from business and policymaking to occupational therapy and biomedical research. The Health Design Lab is an example of the novel ways that Jefferson is bringing creativity and innovation—and the asking of great questions—into the core of its education programs.

The Lab has integrated design-thinking concepts and multidisciplinary partnerships into a four-year medical school course that nurtures future physicians’ ability to ask insightful questions and point out novel problems—and then engage in creative collaborations that lead to effective answers. In design-centered scholarly inquiry projects, students work with patients, designers, engineers and other professionals to identify and research specific medical-care challenges, propose and test solution concepts, create prototypes, and pitch their ideas to healthcare leaders and entrepreneurs.

“There are two principles underlying our scholarly inquiry in design,” explains Dr. Kristy Shine, assistant professor of emergency medicine and director of education/research for the Health Design Lab. “First, we want students to learn to use a human-centered approach, placing people’s needs and perspectives at the center of the problem-solving process rather than starting with a business proposition or market opportunity. Products and processes need to be technically feasible and financially viable, but if they are not desirable to the ‘end users’—the doctors and patients interacting with them—they may ultimately fail.

“Second, we want students to experience—and come to value—creativity and collaboration across fields, disciplines and professions. Real-world health challenges are complex and multifaceted. Few can be solved by a single individual with a narrow band of knowledge. Providing our future doctors with the skills to think outside of the box, seek partnerships and work effectively in teams with other experts, including patients, can lead to the development of better health care solutions.”

The scholarly inquiry in design is one facet of an institution-wide initiative to bringing creativity and innovation into every student’s educational experience. Indeed, the University is now implementing a two-year creativity-focused curriculum, which will be required for every student. “Creativity and innovation are fundamental skill sets that can be applied across professions, communities, environments and problems,” Dr. Klasko says. “With each passing year, more employers are looking for professionals with these skill sets, and we want our graduates to leverage those skills throughout their careers.”

Scenes from Park in a Truck

Enabling students to engage with real-world challenges is fundamental to Jefferson’s strategy on the future of work. It is the guiding idea for Nexus Learning, the pioneering and award-winning pedagogical approach the University initiated a decade ago and has continuously refined to reflect the changing workplace. The approach grows from the principle that higher education must be a mix of theoretical and practical, learning and doing, gathering knowledge—from the liberal arts to the sciences—then applying it through concrete skills. Curriculum-based activities are one way Jefferson students get exposure to real-world professional practice. Another way is through student participation in faculty-guided research; they are working on projects that range from basic bench research in biology and chemistry to the development of functional and “smart” fabrics to studies on new ways of creating and using light.

There are an array of competitions that spur students to tackle concrete challenges and present their solutions to practicing professionals and industry groups. Tenneco executive Jan Maiden—collaborating with Michael Leonard, academic dean of the School of Design and Engineering—created and fostered one of the longest-running of those competitions. “The Tenneco and Jefferson Innovation Competition is designed to encourage Jefferson students to collaborate in conceiving and prototyping innovative solutions to practical challenges that industry faces,” Maiden explains. “Over the years, it has boosted the careers of many young designers and engineers. And our company has hired many innovative and entrepreneurial-minded Jefferson graduates who went through the program.”

Indeed, Jefferson graduates are highly sought after by top companies and nonprofit organizations across the U.S. and around the world. Why? Ainsley Maloney, associate director of industrial relations for the University’s Marianne Able Career Services Center, offers one reason: “It is a practical result of Nexus Learning, which enables students to focus on real-world projects that are often brought to us by companies. In these projects, students conduct in-depth information gathering; conceive, develop and test solutions; and then formally present their recommendations to company representatives. As a result, students become skilled at analyzing problems, developing ways to address them and communicating the results.”

That cumulative experience comes through in job interviews—where Jefferson students are professional, poised and articulate; knowledgeable about their field; and passionate about identifying issues and pursuing solutions. “Hiring managers come away thinking, ‘Wow, this person is ready to jump into our day-to-day flow of work and make an immediate contribution,’” Maloney says.

Nexus Learning also has a built-in reality check that keeps Jefferson graduates on the leading edge, Maloney believes. “Directly and indirectly, employers keep us informed about the challenges they are facing and the kinds of knowledge and skills they need to see in their workforces,” she says. “That input helps ensure that our curriculum and teaching methods reflect the evolving realities of the workplace.”

Creativity and innovation are fundamental skill sets that can be applied across professions, communities, environments and problems.
—Dr. Stephen K. Klasko

Creating an educational experience that empowers students for success in a changing employment landscape is a never-ending process. At Jefferson, it means continuously fine-tuning academic programs to be sure they address each profession’s evolving requirements. It’s an institutional lifelong learning process paralleling the continuous learning that 21st-century workers must be ready to do throughout their careers.

For Jefferson’s faculty and academic leaders, it also involves peering over the horizon. “We are determined to create curricula that are game-changers, that bring unrivaled innovation and discovery to higher education, that prepare students for professional challenges that don’t exist now but will a decade on,” Dr. Tykocinski says.

Indeed, in many respects, Jefferson is built for a future that has yet to be defined—and it is committed to helping define that future. “Jefferson aspires to be the ‘solution place,’” Dr. Klasko says. “We will help move past old barriers and preconceptions to create entirely new ways of thinking.”

In other words, Jefferson—whose graduates helped drive the technical revolutions of the 19th and 20th centuries—continues reshaping higher education for the 21st century.

Thinking Digitally

“When we say ‘Digital Fluency,’ we are talking about a continuum of ways-of-thinking—and types of knowledge—about how digital machines function and what they can do for us,” explains Dr. Ronald Kander, dean of Kanbar College of Design, Engineering and Commerce. “But since all digital functions begin with human-originated ideas and are built around the ways that humans perceive and analyze information, gaining digital fluency can be viewed simply as understanding how machines leverage human thinking.” Thus, Dr. Kander says, digital fluency comprises the following kinds of thinking:

Algorithmic Thinking—Just as everything we humans do is based on algorithms (in other words: step-by-step approaches) that we have consciously or unconsciously internalized in our brains, algorithms are the basis for software applications. By learning how algorithms are created, we can better understand how applications are built, how they function and how best to interact with the technologies they drive.

Computational Thinking—This is the basis for computer-based problem solving across all disciplines, from the humanities to the sciences. It involves breaking down data or problems into manageable parts; observing patterns and trends in data; then identifying general principles that explain the patterns and trends.

Applied Analytic Thinking and Visual Thinking—These are digital methods used to apply the results of Algorithmic and Computational Thinking to address practical challenges and opportunities. They are used in many disciplines and professions, for purposes ranging from scientific and engineering models and simulations to business intelligence and decision support.

New and enhanced curricula addressing these ways-of-thinking-digitally are being introduced in a variety of Jefferson academic programs. These include a new undergraduate engineering track in applied computing (including modeling and simulation) and courses such as introduction to computing, systems thinking and business analytics. And, to build long-term capacity in these areas, academic leaders have proposed adding several new computation-focused faculty positions, to be spread among multiple schools and departments.

Photo of Dr. Marino
A.I. soon will reshape aspects of nurses’ already multifaceted roles, says Jefferson's Dr. Marie Marino.

Responding to Change

Dr. Marie Marino is a big fan of Hallmarks. One of her top priorities as dean of the Jefferson College of Nursing is fine-tuning the college’s academic programs to reflect the changing landscape of medicine and health care delivery. And Dr. Marino’s team is integrating key facets of the Hallmarks’ “power skills” and portfolio process into the traditional and accelerated BSN-completion programs. “We want our students to develop and trust their intuition, their creativity and problem-solving ability, and their capacity to anticipate and respond constructively to change,” she says. “Those skills—matched with a solid base of technical knowledge and broad, hands-on experience—will enable them to thrive in very dynamic environments.”

Over the next decade, A.I. will reshape aspects of nurses’ already multifaceted roles. “But nurses also must be ready to respond to other kinds of change,” Marino points out. For example, nurses are increasingly working outside of hospital acute-care settings. So the College has been giving students substantive experience in transitional care and community-based settings, such as rehabilitation centers, elderly care facilities and church-based clinics. It is also increasing curriculum that prepares nurses to lead interdisciplinary care-delivery teams. “Nurses need to understand how to lead, formally and informally,” Dr. Marino explains. “So we are emphasizing skills such as assertiveness, delegation, empowerment and advocacy—as well as written and oral communication.”

Gaining the Skills to Succeed

Nicholas Franchi ’21, a student in the law and society program, came to Jefferson with the goal of preparing for law school and a career in corporate law. His undergraduate experience has reinforced the plan for law school and given him a larger sense of the paths available in the multifaceted legal profession. It’s also helping him acquire the skills he’ll need to succeed.

“Last spring, I interned with the State Attorney General’s office, in its Bureau of Consumer Protection,” Franchi recalls. It was an eye-opening experience in many respects. “Going in, I didn’t know much about the work they did, and I learned a lot. But I was particularly struck by how much effort their staff put into dealing with the individuals who came to the Bureau for help. Their ‘people’ skills were the most important skills they used.”

Franchi came to college with pretty strong people skills, himself—based on a natural gregariousness, and honed through experience working as a golf caddie during summers and weekends. But his Hallmarks Program courses have expanded those skills and broadened his view of the world around him. “Our courses on global perspectives and human rights were really significant to me,” he explains. “I grew up in a small community and went to a small high school, so I was a little sheltered in the range of ideas I was exposed to. Today, though, I really understand why it’s so important to hear others’ ideas and opinions; to ask rational questions and discuss differing views in calm terms. I’ve also learned to evaluate my own ideas more critically and analytically.”

Franchi’s studies have helped him develop yet another set of skills that will be essential for success in a law career: “Hallmarks has enabled me to improve my writing. I can communicate thoughts more clearly, develop ideas in a way that readers can easily understand, and pull together information to make an effective argument. When I compare work from my freshman year with my writing now, the differences are very apparent.”

A team planting a tree for Park in a Truck
Professor Kim Douglas guides her students and the community in the development of Park in a Truck.

Emphasis on Collaboration

Beyond integrating creativity and innovation into every Jefferson student’s experience, the University is changing the way the “creative” professions approach their roles. “Today, we are training graphic designers to move beyond individual design solutions—and to strive instead to design objects as parts of larger, complicated systems. We do this by placing emphasis on research and process. This allows students to see communication products not as ends to themselves but as elements of broad strategies that address complex needs and create tangible value,” says Beth Shirrell, assistant professor and director of the graphic design communication program.

The program gives graduates the ability to both think and make critical decisions, balancing cutting edge technical skills—like developing virtual reality experiences or utilizing advanced data visualization techniques—with the human skills necessary to touch their audiences’ hearts and minds.

Another integral aspect of the educational experience is ensuring that students can connect with each other. “Our coursework emphasizes collaborations,” Shirrell explains, “because to succeed in the evolving workplace, graphic designers must be equipped to build connections across disciplines and benefit from other kinds of knowledge and skill.”

One recent course project—the 1889 Jefferson Center for Population Health collaboration—reflected many of the program’s most significant elements: It challenged teams of graphic design students to develop a multiple-component design system to help residents in western Pennsylvania with the prevention and management of type 2 diabetes. After connecting with third-year student pharmacists to better understand the disease, the design teams created a comprehensive array of solutions, including a mobile produce truck to empower residents to improve their quality of life through healthy eating habits, collaborating with local farmers and creating a sense of community.

Preparing designers to be multifaceted problem-solvers—not just creators of beautiful and functional products—motivates Kim Douglas, associate professor and the Anton Germinshuzen Stantec Term Chair in Landscape Architecture. She is guiding her students in the development of Park in a Truck, a series of small nature parks created in vacant lots in low-income neighborhoods (pictured above). “The project’s objective is to enable children to live close by a green space—and in the process, to create a verdant necklace running throughout the city’s most economically depressed communities,” Douglas explains.

Her students engage in classroom learning, field research, multifaceted problem-solving, deep interactions with neighborhood residents and, ultimately, the creation of designs that address an array of community needs. Through complex, real-world projects like Park in a Truck, Douglas’s students hone high-level technical skills, while developing an all-important human skill set.

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