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To architecture students, President Aoun underscores shifts in education toward being personalized, robot-proof

President Joseph E. Aoun and Professor George Thrush, have a Q&A session during an architecture class held in Blackman Auditorium on Monday. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

During a presentation to an architecture class on Monday, Northeastern President Joseph E. Aoun discussed everything from how higher education has changed in the past decade to the vision that brought the soon-to-be-completed Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Complex to life.

The class, “Understanding Design,” led by George Thrush, professor and founding director of the School of Architecture, focuses on preparing students to integrate design-oriented thinking in their everyday lives. During a Q&A in Blackman Auditorium, Thrush asked Aoun how he does the same. Although there may not appear to be much overlap, Aoun, in response, highlighted the myriad ways the innovative thinking required of architectural design permeates the many facets of running a university.

Here are some of the highlights from the conversation.

George Thrush: This course has evolved into one that is about teaching students who might not be majoring in design, the benefits of design thinking and how that can help them solve problems. What I hope that we can talk about today are two issues that I know are very close to your heart, and I think you have employed some of these techniques implicitly or explicitly.  

The first is innovating in higher education, which is a huge topic. And the other is your role as the client for the new Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Complex.

So you’ve been here 10 years now. In higher education, which has been such a changing playing field, what would you say has changed the most in the past 10 years?

President Joseph E. Aoun & Professor George Thrush

President Aoun [Addressing the students]: What has changed the most in higher education is you. That’s the first and most important aspect of the change, because your expectations are different. You are the digital generation; you want things now and you want them anytime and anywhere. And higher education has yet to adapt. And that’s an aspect that we are now going to build: personalized education. You’re going to see an enormous shift from the teacher-centered environment to a learner-centered environment.

Personalization of higher education is not new to Northeastern. Co-op is the ultimate form of personalized education because you are there, you are looking in your co-op environment—whether it’s for-profit, whether it’s not-for-profit, whether it’s a startup, whether it’s in Shanghai, or Cape Town, or Singapore, or London—you are looking at the world and you are looking at yourself, trying to understand what you like, what you don’t like, what you’re good at, what you have to work on; and that is personalized education.

No one is driving co-op but you. When we started looking at personalization, we knew that we already had a great asset, which is co-op and experiential education. So now the next evolution is going to focus more and more on providing you with opportunities to have a personalized education not only when you are here, but also for life. You may ask, “Why do I need it? Why do I need to have access to learning for life?” And that’s something we’re going to discuss.

But to go back to professor Thrush’s question: You are different from your predecessors in your expectations, in what you do and how you do it, and how you learn. Yet, higher education is not talking about personalization. It is still talking about providing the classical, curriculum-based approach. 

Thrush: In the 25, 26 years I’ve been here, the transformation of Northeastern has been absolutely unbelievable in every respect: experientially, physically as well. We are now expanding—we now have four regional graduate campuses [in Silicon Valley, Toronto, Charlotte and Seattle]. How do we navigate the space between the accessibility, let’s say of online courses that allow you to do it as a dairy farmer in Vermont, with the need for this kind of community connection?

Aoun: Look, people are social beings. We all are. If you look at the courses that are purely online, the graduation rates are very low. It’s around 6 percent. People who are on their own drop out. We need to communicate; we need to interact. We need to talk to each other; we need to learn from each other. We need to look at the person in the eye and understand her body language. Is she bored? Is she excited? Is she interested? Is she passionate? Does this person stay always in the back in every classroom in order to [be on social media]? We need this connection constantly, physically and virtually.

The campus is essential not only in giving you these connections—it’s giving you a way of learning about others, who are not you.

Let me give you an example. When we started globalizing Northeastern, the first thing we did is bring more international students because international education starts at home. No one is completely global. I’ve lived on three continents, I’ve traveled all over the world, and I don’t consider myself fully global because there are places you know and places you don’t.

International education starts at home for everybody. When you are in the same community—whether you’re born in Vermont or in San Francisco, or in Dubai, or in Cape Town, or in Shanghai—you are meeting and getting comfortable with people who are different from you, and you are learning from that. Then it becomes matter of fact that the next step is to go on a Dialogue of Civilizations or another global experiential learning program.

What has changed the most in higher education is you. You are different from your predecessors in your expectations, in what you do and how you do it, and how you learn.
—President Joseph E. Aoun

We couldn’t have become a global university if we didn’t have a global mix of people. Now, if you’re asking, “Why do we need a global mix?” it’s because whether you work in Boston, or in Chicago, or in London, or in Nairobi, you are going to be impacted by global forces. And you have to understand them. It also gives you the cultural agility you need.

How many of you remember the Ice Bucket Challenge? In other countries, for instance in India, some people were appalled. Why were they appalled? They were experiencing a drought and it was a waste of water. So what did they do? Instead, they gave away rice. So you see, you have to understand at all levels—whether you’re doing social entrepreneurship, whether you’re traveling—you need to understand where people are coming from. You have to always calibrate that in the same way that you try to understand other cultures, and that puts you in a great situation.

So, going back to your question, the notion of community is important, the notion of a diverse community is important, the notion of an inclusive community is important, and the notion of a global community is important, and that’s what a campus gives. We don’t live in isolation. If you think you live in isolation, you’re going to discover that you are missing a lot.

Thrush: You know, the analogy between the physical and the global is one that I recognize. I have a startup company called Building Conversation—so I’ve learned many things about that world, which is so different from higher education. There are a couple concepts in my work there that are very related to this course, one of them being the concept of ‘fail fast.’ I’m curious to know how you think about an idea like that in higher education.

Aoun: Let’s start with the first change that you are going to face—and you are the generation that’s going to face it, and the generations after you will face it even more: We expect that because of robots and because of intelligent systems, nearly half of the jobs that we know—it’s around 45 percent—will disappear in the next 15 to 20 years.

And if you think that it’s only because of self-driving cars, think again. It’s going to be more than that. It’s going to be white-collar jobs—lawyers, architects, engineers. There will be a real impact on all of us. Therefore, you cannot afford to consider that you’re educated once and for all in your life.

So, what you are building now is a robot-proof life. And what we need to do with you is to build a robot-proof education. So what does that mean? It’s easier said than done.

Being robot-proof, you have to focus on what makes human beings unique: this wild creativity, this innovation, this entrepreneurship, this ability to work with other people.
—President Aoun

In a robot-proof education, we have to focus on what humans do that robots cannot do: think creatively, work with others, think about ethics. For instance, suppose a scenario where a self-driving car can either hit three people and hurt the passengers, or save the passengers but hit 10 people. What is it going to do? Who’s going to program that? Who’s going to decide? You.

Creative thinking and innovation, entrepreneurship, critical thinking, thinking in a divergent way, ethics—that’s the purview of the human being. But that’s not enough, so education has to provide you with the opportunity to be robot-proof. How many of you code? The next generation will come to universities already knowing how to code. Data analytics: how many know about Big Data? That’s going to be something that you need to understand in the same way you understand math. That doesn’t guarantee that you’ll be robot-proof, but it gives you the opportunity to interact and understand what is happening with your computers.

In addition, I have news for you: If you think you are robot-proof once and for all, think again. We always have to reposition ourselves. Why? Because robots and intelligent systems will get better and do more.

So that’s why we’ve created those campuses you mentioned. We are now in Seattle, in Silicon Valley, in Charlotte, and in Toronto—and I’ll tell you that we’re going to be in Europe and we’re going to be in Asia. Why? Because you need to always be robot-proofing your lifelong journey and expanding our global university system responds to the increasing demand for lifelong learning.

Being robot-proof, you have to focus on what makes human beings unique: this wild creativity, this innovation, this entrepreneurship, this ability to work with other people.

Take, for example, engineering. I’ve met many engineers in my life. The engineers I interact most with are those who make it into leadership positions. Why do you think that they become leaders? Do you think it’s because they are good engineers? That’s not enough. They are good with people. They can understand people. They can move people. They can inspire people, because when others see problems, they see opportunities. That’s entrepreneurship.

Thrush: Let’s switch gears and talk about the Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Complex and your role as the client. The reason I want to talk about it is not just because I like cool architecture, which I do, but because it seems to me a very clear example of how different stakeholders would have defined the problem very differently.

If you had asked the treasurer, they would have said we have this much need and this much cost per researcher. If you’d asked Facilities, they would have come up with something else. If you’d asked the researchers themselves, they might have come up with something else. Can you tell us a little bit about what you talked about with the architects? Because you seem like the ideal client to me, someone who understands that architecture is not mere building. What were your ambitions for this thing from the start?

Aoun: We’re going to open this great new science and engineering complex. Already we have other universities coming here to visit it. Why? First, look at campuses at the macro level: You have campuses that are monotonic in their design, for instance all their buildings are Italian Romanesque. There’s nothing wrong with that, they tend to be in a bucolic environment. Northeastern is an urban environment. You have West Village, International Village, and East Village, so what we wanted is to reflect the fact that we are daring, to reflect that we are interested in new material, in new architecture.

We started working together [with Boston-based architecture firm Payette] to look at the science and engineering complex as a statement. You saw the architecture, we pushed to make it a statement—a statement about design, a statement about innovation, a statement about being part of Columbus Avenue and opening Columbus Avenue to the community, too.

Then, when we started looking at the inside, we wanted the users—the students, the faculty—to be bumping into each other as opposed being confined to their rooms. All the labs are on one side and all the offices are on the other side, so, when you walk from one to the other you have to interact with others. We made it completely open. The science and engineering complex is a magnificent symbol of who we are, and that’s essential.

Editor’s note: This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.