Most of the world thinks of college as a bridge to a better future and, more specifically, a better career. We are willing to go into debt and put our life on pause for years with the promise that we will come out the other side with the skills necessary to both enter the workforce and thrive within it. However, the American Association of Colleges and Universities reported in 2021 that, while most employers view liberal education as essential for workforce readiness, fewer than 50% of employers are ‘very satisfied’ with graduates’ actual preparation for the workforce. They highlighted that the expectation is for higher education to prepare students not only with the technical expertise they will need, but also the ability to think for themselves and solve new problems.
When the world looks like a completely different place than it did a few years ago, we need to ensure that our ability to prepare students for it scales at the same rate. Therein lies the challenge: Are we doing enough to prepare the next generation of this country to take on a world where they will need both the social skills and the critical thinking ability to solve global issues that affect our very existence? If the answer is no, how can we begin to shift into the future of workforce readiness through tangible solutions that any classroom can adopt today?
Setting expectations for the future
It’s no secret to anyone that, when we talk about the future of the workforce, we typically mean it in terms of technology. Technological advancements like AI and machine learning are going to permeate every industry out there within the next decade, and students today need to be learning how to build a career in a world that will be mostly automated. Experts at Dell and the Institute of the Future predict that up to 85% of the jobs that today’s college students will have in 11 years haven’t been invented yet. So how do we prepare students for jobs that we don’t even know about yet? The answer is in the soft skills that a machine or robot will not be able to replicate. Whether someone decides to go into computer science or construction, they will need to have real-world skills that allow them to work productively with others in a constantly evolving world. This is no secret to the incoming generation—81% of students said they thought school should focus most closely on developing real-world skills, such as problem-solving and collaboration, rather than focusing so much on specific academic-subject-matter expertise. The best way to prepare students for an unknown future is to equip them with skills that will never go out of style.
Solutions we have now
The arbiters of this change are going to be those that students trust most—their teachers. However, to put this burden on a group that is already stressed and overworked is unfair without providing a thoughtful solution that also accounts for the instructor’s needs. The sweet spot is to find a solution that meets everyone where they already are so that the change feels as natural as possible, and is therefore easy to adopt. If technology is the future, then students need to be experiencing it in the classroom as early as possible. However, it needs to be implemented in a way that doesn’t add more work to the teacher’s plate and thus is purpose-built for the classroom.
While there are emerging ed-tech tools that are bringing these specific solutions to the classroom, social tools that are already on most students’ phones are also a great place to start. Researchers at the University of California found that teachers who utilize social tools like Snapchat were able to connect with their students faster than ever before. Students begin using these apps in middle or high school, so to meet them where they are allows the flow of conversation to happen instantaneously. Biology professor Kelly Thomasson remarked that all but one of her students had already been using Snapchat. “Our class was more connected socially because they could respond to the feed. . . . Everybody in the class always came to office hours and lab time,” Thomasson says. Starting with familiar modes of digital communication can make the transition to a tech-friendly classroom easier for both the student and instructor.
The social media boom of the last decade laid the groundwork for how communication as a whole has evolved in all areas of life, but especially in the workplace. Almost every single company today uses some sort of communication infrastructure like Slack or Microsoft Teams, with the purpose being to make digital communication as seamless and synchronous as possible. Similarly, students are already familiar with using parallel technologies like GroupMe and WhatsApp to communicate in their day to day life. However, within the classroom, email is the standard–even when we know we have far better options.
Some teachers, like Ryan Cordell, are already bridging the gap by building social tools into their instruction like Discord that students know and love. The general use of these types of technology will only grow as time passes, so we need to build digital literacy into the classroom as early as possible. Students will need to learn from an early age how to communicate effectively online in both a professional and social environment. A research study on using Facebook in the classroom published by the Canadian Center of Science and Education found that students “will take responsibility for their [posts on social tools used in the classroom] because they have a larger audience when they use social networks. This will empower them and their work and lead to self-directed learning.”
The same study also noted that it can be time-consuming or frustrating for instructors to find the correct technology to use, but that the benefits for both parties ultimately outweigh the time costs. Communication infrastructure that is built into the classroom and the campus as a whole can solve for a breadth of issues: Students learn how to collaborate effectively online, create solutions within a team setting, engage with others to build their network, and be digitally literate relative to today’s standards. If they will without a doubt be using these communication tools within any industry they enter, it is imperative that students be exposed to them as early as possible.
Setting them up for success
The current most prevalent education technologies like the LMS allow students to communicate primarily with their instructors, yet not one another, which can set them up for failure when it comes to effective workplace communication. Studies show that managers use about 45% of their time for communication in discussions with colleagues at their own hierarchical level, but only 10% to communicate with superiors.
Students need to become literate at in-group collaboration to understand how to work inside of a team. Not only does implementing modern collaboration tools give them real-life skills for the workforce, it also has compounding effects on their education itself. In these class group chats, students should be encouraged to ask and answer each other’s questions just like they would in a Slack chat for work, which then takes much of the burden off of the instructors to be omni-available. The goal here is to take students from passive learners to active knowledge creators for one another, very similar to what they will inevitably have to do within their careers.
We will soon reach a point where prospective students and their parents will search specifically for schools that provide modern communication infrastructure so that they can rest assured that the next generation will be ready for the workforce of the future. When these solutions are purpose-built for education and readily available to use today, it’s a no-brainer that they must be adopted swiftly across the entire nation. The future of our education system and our workforce as a whole depends on forward-thinking educators and administrators to be the trailblazers that usher in this necessary change.
Kavitta Ghai is CEO and cofounder of Nectir.