Lifelong learning, personalized education key to higher ed’s future

President Joseph E. Aoun speaks with Shirley Leung of The Boston Globe during the Across Boundaries Conference at Hynes Convention Center in Boston on Feb. 3, 2017. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern

In 10 years, according to Northeastern President Joseph E. Aoun, higher education will need to be much more nimble and personalized to meet students’ individual needs. But colleges and universities mustn’t only focus on the typical 18- to 22-year-old underclassman. Rather, they must embrace the notion of lifelong learning—that people of any age, and throughout their professional careers, will need new skills and competencies to evolve with the times.

What’s more, Aoun said, the traditional arrangement of students spending four years at one college might look quite different for some. “Students may start in Shanghai and do a year there, then go to London and spend another year there, and then spend two years” at another location, Aoun said, when asked how higher education will look a decade from now. “And they may not do it with the same institution. We are seeing signs of that.”

Aoun discussed disruptions in and the future of higher education on Friday afternoon with Boston Globe columnist Shirley Leung during the LearnLaunch Across Boundaries Conference. The conference, held in Boston and co-sponsored by the LearnLaunch Institute and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, brought together the edtech community interested in driving innovation to transform learning and increase academic achievement using digital technologies.

For higher education, Aoun said, lifelong learning means nurturing two groups of people: those short on experience but long on time, and those long on experience and short on time.

Northeastern President Joseph E. Aoun speaks with Boston Globe columnist Shirley Leung on Friday. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern

During their discussion, the topic turned to robot-proof education. Aoun pointed to a recent McKinsey and Company estimate that some 45 percent of jobs we know of today will be replaced by automation. And it’s not just drivers who may be replaced by driverless cars—everyone from lawyers, to accountants, to craftsmen, to executives will feel the impact. Aoun underscored that this reality represents a “wake-up call” for higher education, which must move rapidly to build what he called a robot-proof education that embraces lifelong learning and is nimble enough to equip people will the skills, experience, and knowledge needed to succeed in this changing landscape.

“We are in a period of disruption, therefore it’s a period of opportunities,” he said.

Northeastern, he said, is already moving in this direction. Through the university’s global experiential education model, students explore the world and gain real-world work experience—opportunities through which students gain cultural agility and a global perspective on the world. Furthermore, Northeastern has launched a network of campuses across North America offering a range of education opportunities, from graduate degree programs tailored to the industry needs in various regions, to boot camps designed to equip professionals with in-demand data analytics skills.

“Value is essential,” Aoun said, reflecting the changes ahead for higher education over the next decade.

The conversion also turned to President Donald Trump’s order temporarily banning refugees and immigrants from seven majority Muslim countries. On Jan. 28, Aoun and Northeastern’s senior leadership team delivered a message to the university community, declaring “We, the leadership of the university, stand with you and will pursue every means available to safeguard each of you—students, faculty, and staff.” On Friday, Northeastern jointly filed an amicus brief in opposition to the executive order, joining seven other Massachusetts-based colleges and universities in the brief filed with the U.S. District Court. And on Sunday, Aoun wrote a message to the university community reaffirming Northeastern’s core values and “bedrock belief that diversity makes our community stronger.”

Aoun, who himself has lived and studied on three continents, lauded Leung for her column earlier Friday, titled “It’s immigrants who make Boston a world-class city.” He said Trump’s order is already having a “chilling effect,” and said that he has been in touch with students who are affected as well as their parents.

Aoun said America has the best university system in the world. “We cannot close ourselves,” he said.