September 29, 2019

Reimagining Higher Education: One Post-it Note at a Time

September 29, 2019

“You’re beginning your university experience at a complicated moment in history, when questions often don’t have clear answers,” Provost Ian Bickford said to the inaugural Fulbright University Vietnam class of 2023, “and these questions are increasingly global and entangled.” He did not exaggerate.

The whirlwinds of change – social, economic, technological, and environmental – will overwhelm our future workforce if we continue teaching the same subjects in the same ways. We need to reimagine higher education.

While unemployment in Vietnam is below 2% nationally, university graduates are falling behind. The Ministry of Education and Training reports that only 65.6% found a job after graduation in 2018, and only 40% in jobs relevant to their qualifications. This trend is not unique to Vietnam. In the region generally, and in some high-growth economies globally, the pool of unemployed graduates has risen to concerning levels.

The reasons are entangled, as automation in some fields compounds an oversupply of skilled labor. Jobs themselves are changing; a recent report by Dell indicates that 85% of jobs in 2030 have not been invented yet. Educational models of the past, based on the study of single disciplines, can no longer meet the needs of today’s employment market.

The reimagined university must prepare its students for the volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous (“VUCA”) world of the future. This world will include jobs that have not yet been created, technologies that have not yet been invented, and problems that have not yet been anticipated. 

What is the future curriculum?

The future curriculum requires going beyond limited knowledge and single skills. It requires the dynamic mobilization of knowledge, skills, attitudes, and values to meet the complex demands of a VUCA world. Highly competent students will need both broad and specialized knowledge.

This is why Fulbright’s curriculum is built on the American tradition of liberal arts and sciences, and why our flagship programs in computer science and engineering teach more than technical skills.

The best preparation for a changing world is a well-prepared mind. To that end, before choosing a major, Fulbright students complete a series of interdisciplinary core courses with topics spanning the arts, humanities, and engineering, as well as the social, natural, and computational sciences, with a special focus on Vietnam’s past, present, and future.

These core courses engender the capacity to think across the boundaries of disciplines and “connect the dots” between them, developing a flexible and resourceful mind. 

In our constantly changing world, the types of knowledge we acquire will also constantly evolve, requiring the ability to learn on one’s own. Specialized knowledge is no longer domain-specific, but transferable across domains and constantly updating.

Our majors are built with this in mind. Fulbright presently offers six major areas – Engineering, Social Sciences, Mathematics and Computer Science, Humanities, Natural Science, and Arts – and these majors allow students to blend their interests from different disciplines, developed through a focus on a specific topic or problem within the major area, and carried into learning experiences outside of the classroom.

This replicates the thinking process needed to approach the problems of a VUCA world which transcend disciplines and require self-generated learning. More importantly, no matter which major a student decides to take, he or she is still ready to thrive in a wide range of roles and positions in the society.

Whether they are interested in Economics or Vietnamese Studies, Artificial Intelligence or Art History, Fulbright students need to be inquisitive about the world, to be able to weigh the quality and objectivity of data presented to them, and to change their minds when confronted with contrary evidence.

All students at Fulbright, including those majoring in STEM fields, are asked to integrate their deep disciplinary study into a broader model of liberal education, preparing them to think critically and imaginatively about the world and to understand different viewpoints, different ways of solving problems, different methods and systems of knowledge.

Indeed, they learn by applying their knowledge in unknown and evolving circumstances, and in doing so they develop critical thinking, complex problem-solving skills, and creativity. The opportunities for Fulbright students to sharpen these skills are daily and limitless, including collaborative projects in their coursework, internships with partner organizations, and service learning in their communities. 

Educating the whole person

The development of knowledge and skills at Fulbright is informed by an intentional focus on positive attitudes and competencies such as civic engagement, lifelong learning, collaboration, and ethical reasoning. Additionally, students are supported by a community of dedicated and world-class faculty, embedded in a nourishing residential learning environment.

This is what it means to educate the whole person. As our students come to know important things, we want them also to be able to do important things, learn to empathize and work with others, all while living purposeful, fulfilling lives. 

We believe our model for higher education has a vital role to play in developing the knowledge, skills, attitudes, and values that will enable the next generations to contribute to and benefit from an inclusive and sustainable future.

Learning to form clear and deliberate goals, to work with others who may hold different perspectives, to seek out untapped opportunities, and to identify dynamic solutions to big problems will be essential in the emerging VUCA world.

Education needs to do more than prepare young people for the world of work; it needs to equip them to become active, responsible, and engaged citizens.

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