SOU can help shape the future of learning

At my annual State of the University Address a few weeks ago, I suggested to the campus that Southern Oregon University can become our state’s University for the Future.

It’s an idea that has developed over the past year as SOU created a strategic plan to serve as our road map. As we defined the vision, mission and values that will guide us and become our identity, becoming Oregon’s University for the Future became a viable and tangible concept.

The word has spread. I was invited to lead a session on “The Future of Learning” at the Oregon Leadership Summit in Portland this past week. The summit — an annual showcase attended by public- and private-sector leaders from throughout the state — focused on the question, “Is Oregon Future-Ready?”

We had better be. The summit reinforced the notion that those who fail to embrace the future and its vast opportunities will risk being left behind. There was also this cautionary note: The future is approaching at an exponential rate; technology is expected to advance as far in the next 10 years as it did in the previous 30.

It’s worth noting that my session at the summit was not called “The Future of Education.” The focus instead is on learning, and specifically the learner. As we approach the future, learners must be aware that they will need to add skills and understanding throughout their lives to keep pace with changes around them. Human knowledge is no longer encyclopedic; it cannot be confined to 29 volumes. It grows and evolves daily, and is essentially immeasurable.

Most have heard in the past few months about how social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter can be used to shape our thoughts and influence our actions. Our graduates should head into their careers with an understanding of the technology that is all around them. What mathematics and engineering are behind threshold-level forms of artificial intelligence, such as Siri and Alexa? Will a basic knowledge of computer coding soon be an essential skill for all of us?

At universities of the future, we must also prepare to nurture the skills that are uniquely human and will continue to set us apart from the technology we produce. Creativity can be developed in each of us; it is the source of new ideas and entrepreneurial thought. Communication will continue to be a vital skill, but learners of the future must be able to express themselves in writing, speech, visual presentations and various online forms. Cultural understanding enables us to appreciate differences and function in a global environment. Perhaps most important as we enter the future, we need to recognize that ethical decision-making is a human skill, and must be developed to encourage principled choices, individually and collectively.

Our education system was developed in conjunction with the Industrial Age. It’s organized around precise blocks of time, emphasizes rule compliance and is based on the concept that knowledge flows from teacher to student. Will the future be better served if content knowledge is secondary and we instead focus on a demonstrated mastery of learning in areas such as cultural agility, systems thinking, creativity and ethical decision-making? Should we shift to teaching new things, and also to teaching differently? How can we best help learners to manage an infinite volume of information, and use it to create and innovate?

Amazon knows us well enough to suggest our next purchase; its technology personalizes interactions with each of us. Our system of education has worked well for particular types of learners, but has failed to reach others and left them undereducated. We need to personalize learning, and rethink how we assess success. We need to embrace adaptive learning technology that redirects struggling learners to the resources they need, and we must support the professionals who guide students’ development.

Southern Oregon University has looked bravely into the future of learning and charted new directions that will ensure our learners will be prepared for an ever-evolving future. We look forward to achieving that future through collaboration with the citizens and employers of the Rogue Valley. Working together, we can ensure that our region will be future-ready.

—  Linda Schott is president of Southern Oregon University.

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