Universities must adapt, and train students to adapt

11/05/2013 5:28 PM

11/05/2013 6:13 PM

My father’s job, when I was a child, was operating a Linotype machine, a 19th-century German invention used to create printing-press type for newspapers, magazines and books. Proficient at operating a machine that Thomas Edison believed would revolutionize society, Dad was told he was set for life.

Linotype operator jobs are virtually nonexistent in today’s high-tech, electronic media world. The lesson of that reality sends an important message to society as a whole, but especially to higher education.

Today’s education needs to be more than how to perform a job. Education must teach people how to think, how to solve problems and how to adapt in a world that certainly will continue to change and evolve.

First, though, educational institutions themselves must adapt. Since so many institutions are deeply rooted in tradition, the challenge is real, but recent experience shows it can be done.

Over the last decade, the University of Kansas Medical Center has grown dramatically, expanding its School of Medicine class size to meet the urgent need for physicians in Kansas, and leading the region in biomedical research. Today, KU Medical Center is a community partner in exponentially significant ways, particularly through its National Cancer Institute designation.

It’s a privilege to bring my KU Medical Center experience to my new position, although the record of success at KU Edwards Campus is well known. Since 1993, the campus has contributed more than $500 million to the area economy, improved the professional and economic status of more than 8,000 graduates and employed 130 faculty and administrative staff.

Much of that success may be attributed to the Johnson County Education Research Triangle, which provides continuing public support not only to the KU Edwards Campus, but also to Kansas State University at the Kansas Bioscience Park in Olathe; and the KU Clinical Research Center in Fairway, which houses cancer clinical trials, Alzheimer’s research and other activities aimed at bringing new medications from the laboratory to patients more quickly.

Adaptability continues in colleges, as it must. In an era of online courses — especially massive open online courses, or MOOCs — traditional bricks-and-mortar schools with classrooms, credit hours and residence halls need to ask: Is the credit hour relevant, or is it an outmoded accountability tool? Do semesters make sense, or are they an artificial timing framework no longer suited to student needs?

We are taking steps today, such as educating adults who may not have time to travel to a classroom for a 7 p.m. lecture every Tuesday and Thursday. More important, we must design courses that prepare students not only for today’s jobs, but also for jobs and industries not yet created.

We must not train latter-day Linotype operators, whose livelihood may be threatened in a decade, or a lifetime. Rather, we must prepare students so they can readily adapt throughout their careers. After all, adaptability is at the very heart of human advancement itself.

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