Some are more equal than others: technology, education and inequality

Does technology cause inequality? Perhaps surprisingly, in our age of increased access to information, open platforms and ability to self-educate, there are rumblings that inequality is being driven by technology. Writing recently at the World Economic Forum, Kaushik Basu,Chief Economist at The World Bank argues that ‘the only countries recording high rates of annual GDP growth are emerging economies, including Vietnam (6.5%), India, China, Bangladesh, and Rwanda (around 7%), and Ethiopia (over 9%).’ Basu then goes on to postulate that, despite the growth of labour-saving technology (‘global sales of industrial robots… reached 225,000 in 2014, up 27% year on year),’ we are now seeing ‘disparate performance,’ created by technology. ‘High- and middle-income countries will come under strain, as their workers compete for jobs in the globalized labor market. Their income disparities will tend to rise, as will the frequency and intensity of political conflict.’

This trend is likely to be maintained, Basu believes. ‘As the march of technology continues, these strains will eventually spread to the entire world, exacerbating global inequality – already intolerably high – as workers’ earnings diminish. As this happens, the challenge will be to ensure that all income growth does not end up with those who own the machines and the shares.’

Similarly, Rolf Brynjolfsson has attributed the rise of inequality to technology. ‘There’s globalization, there are institutional changes, cultural changes, but I think most economists would agree that the biggest chunk of it is due to technology,’ he says in Business Insider. ‘And that’s because of what economists call skill-biased technical change — favoring skilled workers versus less-skilled workers.’

Brynjolfsson’s concern is primarily the way robots are squeezing out lower-paid jobs. Despite admitting that productivity has slightly grown in the last decade, ‘central to Brynjolfsson’s argument is the idea that innovation is rapidly accelerating as trends in computing and networking advance at an exponential rate,’ writes Joe Wiesenthal. While the GDP pie is increasing, ‘not everyone is benefiting,’ and Brynjolfsson lays this problem squarely with technology.

‘The biggest factor is that the technology-driven economy greatly favors a small group of successful individuals by amplifying their talent and luck,’ Brynjolfsson observes. These individuals, Brynjolfsson argues, reach stratospheric levels of income because successful ideas can be widely experienced and distributed. We don’t have lots of regional Facebooks, tailored to communities, countries or even continents. We have one Facebook, and the competition doesn’t stand a chance. This ‘Google-isation’ of our commodities is, for Brynjolfsson, an explanation for why very few people are earning huge amounts of money. ‘Why use a search engine that is almost as good as Google?’ as MIT Editor David Rotman puts it.

And for Brynjolfsson, what is the common factor? It’s that these super-fast, super-rich entrepreneurs all make their money via technology. This money does not trickle down to employees; it stays locked in the hands of a new technology elite.


Alternative viewpoints

Certainly, inequality is rising globally. And when it comes to higher education, the differences between haves and have-nots are becoming acute. Some 42% of young people now cannot afford to go to university, and 59% of graduates are unemployed. Yet, we would argue that this has not come about because of technology. Correlation is not causation – these unfortunate figures are part of a much wider platform of political infrastructure and global recession. The huge cuts in higher education funding worldwide have increased inequality far more than technology has.

It doesn’t take long to find figures critical of Basu or Brynjolfsson’s stance. Colin Gordon, professor of history at the University of Iowa, says ‘the notion that inequality is generated by rapid technological change and skill shortages is not sustained by the recent American experience. If demand for certain workers or certain skills were reflected in wages, we would expect to see wage gains where that demand was highest and wage stagnation where it was weakest.’ For Gordon, this is not the case. ‘Since 1969 labor’s share of income has fallen most rapidly in those sectors where union presence withered, not where computers displaced labor.’

Gordon point outs that ‘across our last two business cycles, income concentrated not in sectors or regions where skills were most in demand but where speculative bubbles (dot-com, housing, finance) bloomed and burst. During our most recent recession and recovery, the notion of a “skills shortage” was belied by the fact that job openings and available workers were distributed fairly evenly across the economy, and that skilled workers saw no “bidding up” of their wages or increase in their work hours. Indeed, most of the growth in wage inequality across the last generation can be found within occupations, and not in their relative share of the labor market.’

Gordon argues that ‘whatever causal importance we assign to technological change, it is hard to see it as a credible account of the different trajectories of inequality across countries. Technological change is a challenge faced by all national economies, and the secular decline in labor’s share of national income is common to most advanced economies. And yet on key measures of inequality, differences across national settings (and especially the outlying status of the United States) remain profound.’ He concludes that ‘in both 1985 and 2007, the United States leads the pack in both educational attainment and inequality.’

Technology is a tool – and it’s how we choose to use that tool that counts. Blaming technology is a handy technique for political elites; it means they can claim inequality is not politically driven or that political decisions could not reduce it. Globally, real GDP growth has increased from just under 3% (trend) in 1980 to just over 4% (trend) in 2015 (estimated figure; source IMF). Meanwhile, poverty headcount rate has dropped dramatically, from 37.1% in 1990 to 12.7% in 2012.  (Source: World Bank.) So wealth across the world is growing; but it it’s growing at a far greater pace for the very rich than it is for everyone else.

If technology is not to blame, what is? Economist Thomas Piketty argues that the gap between rich and wealth is now far more extreme than could have been imagined just a few decades ago. In the US, the richest 1% of the population now owns over one third of the country’s accumulated wealth. 15% is owned by the top 0.1%. Recessions slow down but do not alter this trend – ‘inequality has only gotten worse since the last recession ended,’ writes David Rotman. ‘The top 1 percent captured 95 percent of income growth from 2009 to 2012, if capital gains are included.’

What are we to make of this? ‘The disparity in the portion of income earned from work—what economists call labor income—is particularly striking,’ says Rotman. Wage inequality in the US is ‘probably higher than in any other society at any time in the past, anywhere in the world,’ says Piketty. ‘In the aftermath of the recession, much of the recovery went to the very rich,’ says Rotman. ‘Meanwhile those with low levels of education are falling behind.’

For Piketty, much of the problem lies with salaries paid to ‘supermanagers’. Rotman’s article points out that according to Piketty’s figures, ‘about 70 percent of the top 0.1 percent of earners are corporate executives.’ Usually, rising inequality is explained by the race between demand and supply of high skills. ‘I think that this is an important part of the overall explanation,’ Piketty says, ‘but this is not all. In order to explain why rising inequality has been so strong at the very top in the U.S., one needs more than a skill-based explanation.’ The answer is to found in ‘pay-setting institutions and corporate governance,’ and Piketty concludes, ‘above a certain level, it is very hard to find in the data any link between pay and performance.’ Again – the problem is political, not technological.

In the UK and to an extent France the problem is slightly different; ‘accumulated wealth, much of it inherited, is returning to relative levels not seen since before the First World War,’ according to Rotman. ‘Privately held wealth in some European countries is now about 500 to 600 percent of annual national income, a level approaching that of the early 1900s.’

For Piketty, this is ‘a radical departure from how we have thought about progress.’ Inequality is supposed to reduce as countries become more technologically developed. ‘Many of us suppose that our talents, skills, training, and acumen will allow us to prosper; it is what economists like to call “human capital.” ’ But – this is not happening.


Creating connections

It’s at this point that the importance for higher education becomes apparent. ‘Though income growth among the top 1 percent is an important phenomenon,’ writes David Rotman, quoting his colleague David Autor, a MIT economist, ‘the disparity in skills and education among the other 99 percent is “a big deal, a much bigger deal.” The gap between median earnings for people with a high school diploma and those with a college degree was $17,411 for men and $12,887 for women in 1979; by 2012 it had risen to $34,969 and $23,280. Education, Autor says, “is the most powerful thing you can do to affect lifetime earnings.” ’

Rather than driving inequality, technology drives connectivity. From a higher education perspective, it enables people to learn anywhere, reduces access costs, reduces the costs project work and real-time modelling, enables people to stay in touch cost-free and aids collaboration.

So where from here? What we as providers need to do is to find ways of creating greater access to learning, within this changed environment. And technology is the best way to do that – as we’ll see for several reasons.

Providers do have to take some of the rap for the disconnect between what they think makes a fit-for-purpose graduate, compared with what employers think. McKinsey’s recent Education for Employment survey found that 74% of providers think graduates leave university prepared for an entry-level position. But ask employers, and the figure you get is just 35%. Nor are graduates themselves under any illusions, with 38% answering positively to the same question.

With rising inequality in mind, MIT economist Damon Acemoglu argues how essential it is for education to come to the forefront as traditional low-skill jobs become increasingly automated. ‘I think most people are not sufficiently informed about the sort of skills that they will require,’ he says. ‘There isn’t quite enough of an understanding that most U.S. workers who don’t have college degrees are not going to be able to get good-paying manufacturing jobs.’ For Acemoglu, ‘those types of bread-and-butter jobs of previous decades have gone; now those tasks are being performed by robots and computers.’ Instead, there is an ‘explosion’ of demand in the service sector; ‘in middle- and low-skill services, for example, in health care, clerical occupations or customer service.’ Acemoglu’s belief is that ‘for the most part, U.S. workers, especially U.S. males, haven’t really made the transition to performing them.’ And this is where up-skilling – via education – becomes both paramount and urgent. ‘These are jobs that workers with high school or two-year college degrees can perform.’

The importance for HE is also highlighted in a new report published by the World Bank Group’s Trade and Competitiveness Global Practice. Technology, Growth and Inequality by Ivan Rossignol outlines a way for governments to promote the benefits of technology whilst protecting the economic income of citizens. Essentially, the answers are to focus energies on accelerating some areas and containing others:



  • Education
  • Skills
  • Healthcare
  • Connectivity and trade
  • Pace of reform



  • Regulate new sectors
  • Protect trade and investment barriers
  • Protect social benefits


This is, let’s keep emphasising, a political framework. It will not happen by goodwill, good intentions and hope – it needs to be driven by governments. Where it’s sadly unlikely to fulfil its potential is that principles such as protecting social benefits and increasing healthcare provision are seen as left-wing principles, and dominant economies tend to be run by neoliberal, right-wing governments. However, we can at least lay these principles on the table, and offer them for consideration.

And what can be done is to improve things as best we can within our resources – which is to focus on giving students of all backgrounds the best chances they can get, and focus efforts on removing price barriers for them wherever possible.

A way to drive this is to emphasise that happiness and welfare are important and fundamental. They are not secondary to economies; they underpin economies. They are hard to measure – and as importance is always skewed to that which can be measured, suffer as a result.

Technology can help economies, prosperity and social wellbeing, but it has to be driven forward by real people. To do this, we need more virtuous entrepreneurs. At ELU, we try to create social capital by actively reducing the skills gap, increasing digital learning wherever possible, using asset-light campuses, focused on competency-based learning and branding EU-wide, to remove associations with elitism. Our ethos is to encourage personal freedoms and create a focus on jobs and empowerment, funnelling students to a job at the end of the process. Judicious and disruptive use of technology is a key part of this.

Consider the Legatum Prosperity Index – which attempts to resolve the ‘hard to measure’ issue by arguing that ‘national success is about more than just wealth.’ Moving beyond GDP and similarly narrow measurements of prosperity, the Index identifies successful countries and regions ‘against a broad set of metrics covering areas such as health, education, opportunity, social capital, personal freedom and more.’ In other words, it uses subjective as well as objective data – ‘both wealth and wellbeing.’ It includes factors such as democratic governance, entrepreneurial opportunity and social cohesion, all of which do not register in terms of GDP.

For example, in the UK, areas with relatively low GDP can have very high life satisfaction and overall prosperity scores – Devon, West & South of Northern Ireland and Dorset, for example – whereas London region Wandsworth emerges as number 1 for GDP per capita, but is way down the life satisfaction index at number 132 (of 170).

If nothing else, such figures demonstrate that living in areas of high GDP has no correlation with personal satisfaction and happiness. Rather than chasing GDP, we should be examining what improves people’s quality of life – and education is a key part of this.

If there is doubt that social wellbeing is important for economic development, consider the model below. Published by the Legatum Institute, it argues that the more social wellbeing flourishes, the more economic prosperity does too. In other words, social wellbeing and personal empowerment is a fundamental part of economic prosperity – not a result of economic prosperity.


[See image on page 2 of this link]. Source: Legatum Institute, Prosperity and its Distribution: Measuring Progress Towards a Prosperous World for All.


Is university a luxury club?

In today’s knowledge economy with data, knowledge and insights available at the click of a button, the traditional university – brick walls, strict entry criteria, a homogenous culture and self-perpetuating ecosystem – would never have been invented. This is not to say that traditional universities are no longer fit for purpose. But it does say that there is plenty of room for other, non-traditional learning providers to come to the fore, offer something different and enable those students who for financial, geographical, cultural or other reasons are unable to join the traditional university model.

Previous articles have discussed how technology has enabled the rise of blended learning, bootcamps and nanodegrees. Learning and transformation is the important thing, not being part of an elitist club. ELU wants to contribute to the levelling of the playing field for people who have the abilities, talent and potential for university but are excluded (or feel they are excluded) by traditional suppliers.

Consider the German model of ‘dual’ Vocational Education and Training. In essence, this system offers apprenticeships in the workplace combined with a ‘vocational school’, offering classroom-based education. ‘Perhaps the most striking feature of this system, for those unfamiliar with it, is the engagement of businesses (and employers in general) in the conception and implementation of dual apprenticeships,’ says the Bertelsmann Stiftung report Cooperation in action:  the dual vocational training system in Germany. In practice, this means that ‘co-operation between employers, vocational schools, chambers, governmental bodies and labour unions is at the heart.’ The dual system ‘seeks to provide the labour market with the skilled workforce it requires and to equip young apprentices with market-relevant skills for their future professional lives. Given that it is employers who are the ultimate users of skills, it is eminently sensible to involve them in both the conception and the implementation of dual training programmes.’

Recently in the news is Andela, a company that assesses tens of thousands of tech applicants from across Africa and then selects the top 1% of talent. As well as match-making high-achieving individuals with companies, the model is creating social prosperity too – enabling talent that might otherwise not have access to good jobs, to reach large corporates and build a successful career. The company’s innovative model has now been recognised by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who along with Priscilla Chan has shown confidence in Andela’s potential by investing $24 million in it.

There are several ways to define the non-traditional university, for students who want to achieve their potential but feel they won’t be accepted on the classical model.


  • Rethink the role of academics – the learning experience is shaped to the ultimate workplace, not the campus.
  • Equality becomes part of the university brand. Many classical models present themselves to the world as exclusive and best-in-class. Whilst the quality of the teaching should be peerless, the university itself should not be advertised as elitist.
  • Help less privileged students – financially, socially and culturally.
  • Be a connection hotspot. University is about learning, incubating talent, and facilitating growth. It is not a static, self-perpetuating ecosystem where responsibilities stop the moment the student graduates.
  • Focus on the freelancer economy. Jobs are no longer for life. Help students thrive in the new flexible contract world.
  • A lifelong learning approach. Continuous professional development is the key to success in this new world. Help students adopt this mentality, rather than sustaining the sense that learning stops when you graduate.
  • Empower students to become entrepreneurs – build that philosophy as part of their armoury.


Technology is not going to solve inequality, because that can only be done by political will; regulation and taxation with voter support. In MIT Technology Review, David Rotman writes, ‘Since the 1950s, economics has been dominated by the idea—notably formulated by Simon Kuznets, a Harvard economist and Nobel laureate—that inequality diminishes as countries become more technologically developed and more people are able to take advantage of the resulting opportunities. Many of us suppose that our talents, skills, training, and acumen will allow us to prosper; it is what economists like to call “human capital.” ’ Quoted in the article, Thomas Piketty states dolefully that the hope that technology will lead to ‘the triumph of human capital over financial capital and real estate, capable managers over fat cat stockholders, and skill over nepotism’ is ‘largely illusory.’

No one would deny that there’s considerable work to be done. But let’s move away from blaming technology for inequality and see where the real perpetuating and widening of inequality lies – with political decision-making that protects the interests of a very small elite. Recent scandals such as the Panama Papers show how such elites are able to drain economic sources whilst avoiding contributing to the host countries where they pay staff as little as they can get away with. If that can be stopped, inequality will reduce as a consequence. Technology, meanwhile, rather than being scapegoated, should be embraced.



Kaushik Basu comments:

Colin Gordon comments:

Daron Acemoglu on inequality:

Stats on tech and inequality:

MIT Technology review quotes (Brynjolfsson, Steve Jurvetson and Thomas Piketty):

Further Brynjolfsson quotes:

Further Brynjolfsson:

Legatum Prosperity Index:

Fundación Innovación Bankinter  model:


Andela financing:

Dual vocational system in Germany:

World Bank and IMF growth figures and Ivan Rossignol material:

Giffgaff – could it be a role model for universities?

How can universities distinguish themselves in today’s marketplace? And how can they appeal to finance-conscious students, whilst ensuring they offer a comprehensive and high-quality education experience?


Increasingly, universities are looking to collaborative, co-operative and innovative approaches. But can universities learn a thing or two from unusual models created by young companies and start-ups? Recently, mobile virtual network operator Giffgaff found itself the third top trending subject online, after climate change and the global economy. The company, set up in 2009, has created a real buzz for its innovative service. But could a university be run along the lines that Giffgaff has explored?


Giffgaff uses a community model in its approach to customer service. There are no customer service phone lines. Instead, the firm uses online message boards and problems are solved by other users. As payment, these informal IT support teams are rewarded ‘payback points’, which they can exchange for cash using PayPal. If there are specific issues that can’t be dealt with, or which involve confidential account information, they’re handled by ‘agents’ – Giffgaff employees.


The result for the company is huge cost savings in terms of call centres – not just salaries, but also real estate, heating and lighting, phone calls, etc. Comparably, BT has some 20 call centres in the UK alone, with a similar number in India. That’s a huge number of employees.


It works for a digital start-up. But could it work for a university? What if lecturers only lectured; administrative duties were stripped to a minimum and instead, online communities helped with the student support that has traditionally been the role of the teaching staff? It makes sense on the one hand, because lecturers are well-paid and there is the argument that they should not be spending time on areas that are not their specialism. On the other hand, the student journey is a sensitive one and needs to be handled carefully; is it fair to say that a key part of student support is to get one-to-one time from their tutor?


The result could be a pared-down approach to fees – a no-frills model, where minimal support and a reduced student experience is accepted as the price of significantly reduced fees. But could this work, and would it be popular?


Making the connections

In practice, a collaborative university is likely to look somewhat different.

Ryan Craig, author of College Disrupted, outlines what ‘Career Services 2.0’ might look like. It’s likely to be data-focused on the one hand, and connectivity- focused on the other. ‘Career Services 2.0 can advocate for university-wide ePortfolios or skills passports or digital badging, Craig says, ‘providing additional competency data that employers can utilize not only to determine which graduating seniors might be good candidates, but which sophomores and juniors might be good candidates for virtual internships or other engagement.’


Secondly, Career Services 2.0 would ‘engage schools and departments to galvanize a culture of employment focus and connectivity, for example through the aforementioned online departmental career networks, or – more promising – by facilitating the establishment of structured pathways to employment.’


It’s in this second area, connectivity focus, that our comparison with Giffgaff might come into its own. The key is for university providers to think differently about how to connect students with the workplace. The existing model – give students an education, then expect them to somehow find the right career straightaway when they leave – is no longer fit for purpose. Indeed, we could argue that it’s never been fit for purpose; it has just always been the default, with neither university nor business seeing it, until now, as ‘their job’.


These things can be changed, so why is it not happening?

‘When we think about how dramatically the world of work has changed, it is remarkable that the methods utilized to prepare students to enter it have remained static,’ says Andy Chan in Roadmap for Transforming the College-To-Career Experience.


There are lots of highly-skilled graduates out there, but they might not be aware of the companies that are looking for them. How many job applications can a graduate reasonably fill in on leaving university? We all know how long such forms can take to fill in; and to maximise the chances of getting the job, they need to be tailored to the company the applicant is trying to get noticed by. Often, job applicants have to fill in templates supplied by the employer which mean you can’t cut and paste – you have to manually enter information into different boxes.


All this is extremely time-consuming. It’s inefficient and frustrating for the applicant, and it means companies are missing out on potential as a result. There’s hard evidence that this problem is real. Nicholas Wyman, CEO of the Institute of Workplace Skills and Innovation wrote last year that ‘as 2015 begins, 9 million Americans are unemployed. Youth unemployment hovers at 15%.’ But at the same time, ‘4.8 million jobs are unfilled because employers lack the skilled workers they need. This gap between jobs and the skilled talent needed to fill them isn’t going away any time soon. 63% of CEOs globally are worried that a lack of skilled workers will continue to threaten the growth of their businesses.’  Clearly, something needs to change.


For Wyman, ‘people without jobs and jobs without people’ is a problem that ‘won’t be solved by one sector alone.’ Short-term fixes won’t work, he argues, and the way forward has to be ‘the creation of innovative partnerships between educators, policy makers, and industry leaders.’ Fortunately, ‘there is growing momentum’ for this. ‘The future of workforce development in the US hinges on collaboration between the companies that will hire the next generation of workers, and those charged with educating them.’ Wyman points out that while companies need skilled workers, educators need more understanding of what skills are required by business, both general and specific. ‘The good news is, collaboration between policy makers, educators, and industry is growing.’


Wyman outlines four key qualities that innovative collaborations and partnerships demonstrate to ‘change the game for students and job seekers at any stage of life, creating clear pathways to a promising career and a stable economic future.’ These qualities also ‘bolster local economies and strengthen local communities’:


  1. Have a shared vision. ‘Partners need to share the same goal and commitment to solving a shared problem.’ It’s in collaborators’ interests to ensure that graduates are equipped for work in today’s fast-moving environment. But to achieve this, ‘partners need to really listen to one another, and determine what each brings to the table. What unique resources can they each contribute to further that shared vision and how, specifically, will they do so?’
  2. Be flexible. ‘Not only do successful partners share a common goal, they also know how to meet each other halfway,’ Wyman argues. ‘Educators need to be willing to adapt curriculum and training programs to meet the changing realities of the world of work.’ Additionally, ‘business leaders have to learn to be flexible and adaptive in their approaches to training and mentorship.’
  3. Start before university. ‘Offering students the opportunity to get a taste of vocational and real-world skills early in their educational journey only results in a more engaged, and motivated workforce.’ Wyman quotes the example of a school in South Carolina where high school students can study robotics, machine technology and industrial electronics with industry professionals coming into the school to help them. Not only that, but as a result, ‘international talent recruiters who want to invest in promising students’ post-secondary education’ are also present at the school. This aligning of study with ultimate career is invaluable and as the example shows, cannot start too early.
  4. Stay up to date. ‘A hallmark of successful skills training models throughout the world is ongoing efforts between educators, employers, and industry groups to stay on top of the newest technologies and trends.’ The South Carolina region referred to above has a Business-Education Alliance, where ‘local business leaders and managers meet regularly with the district’s teachers, guidance counselors, and school superintendents to collaborate and share information.’


Taking the initiative

Graduates are taking the situation into their own hands too, by using social networking sites like LinkedIn to provide a ready-made shop window for their skills and experience. Learning how to get this right can be invaluable; if you have a strong profile, are well-connected and have recommendations, you will get alerts to specific job adverts that you might be well-suited for. You might even get headhunted. The algorithms involved here are used in ways that are still relatively crude; but the canny student can take by advantage of it by thinking strategically and using LinkedIn’s community model to narrow their focus on jobs that they standing a good chance of getting.

Collaborative models are only going to increase as the gap between unemployed people looking for work and businesses looking for workers continues to be a problem. Technology can help crunch this; and the sophisticated student will find their own new ways to get jobs. But schools, universities, governments and businesses could all find that by working together more, the benefits add up for national economies, the university sector and businesses as a whole.


Main sources







What does a full-stack university look like?

A generation ago, we learned in a very different way. A school teacher might ask – ‘how far is Neptune from Earth?’ Answering this simple question involved something of a journey – not as far as from Earth to Neptune, perhaps, but it might seem like that to an eight-year-old child.

First you had to go to the library – either in town, or at school. Then you had to work out where the books on astronomy would be. Having assembled a collection of books, you’d plough through looking for information about Neptune. Some of the books might cover the planets in detail, but not have information about distances. Some might have charts and maps, but finding that elusive statistic might take the best part of the morning. Eventually, and with a sense of discovery and excitement entirely unknown to today’s students, you’d spot the jackpot and victoriously write it down – somewhere between 4.3 and 4.55 billion kilometres, because both planets are always on the move.

Today, of course, we’re only one click away from a piece of information like that. The journey from Earth to Neptune is much, much shorter than it used to be, and far better illustrated too. But the point of this is that the way we learn has evolved as a result. When older generations went looking, they’d find out all sorts of other things along the way – how many moons Jupiter has; how gravity works; how long Saturn’s year is; what the atmosphere’s like on Mars. It also helps you question assumptions – the false assumption being, that there’s a straightforward answer to the question.

Today’s learners simply don’t experience this process. They can find the information they need quickly, and can learn voraciously and widely, but they don’t develop depth of knowledge from incidental research.

This kind of wide but shallow knowledge is a problem. In today’s highly competitive world, we need the very opposite kind of knowledge to succeed – we need deep, but not wide. And this is at the heart of the ‘full-stack’ concept. In programming, a full-stack developer is someone who can complete tasks at any level of the particular technical stack they work in. In practice, this means being able to work with the hardware, what systems you need, how to code in the required languages, how to keep databases live and accurate, and how to project manage and handle external clients. Consequently, the programmer is likely to have deep, but not wide, knowledge – with core competencies in the area of the stack where they operate most.


The other end of the telescope

What might a full-stack university look like? The key is to remember that deep not wide is replacing the broad scope that traditional providers still think is fit for purpose. Classical providers might offer rich, absorbing education experiences, but the focus is still more on the experience than the career to come. A full-stack approach to education looks rather different. Mike Fishbein, who originated the term ‘full-stack education’ argues that such a provider ‘might not look like a school at all. It could look like an employer, a lender, a school, and/or a recruiter all rolled into one.’ For Fishbein, a full-stack provider might do three particular things to distinguish itself from other universities, whilst benefiting the student and the employer enormously.


  1. Hiring.Instead of spending… money on recruiters and still providing training on top of what candidates have already learned, why not skip the recruiter [and] educate someone from scratch. The cost savings in terms of lower wages and/or recruiting fees could outweigh the cost of training. The employee would benefit because they don’t have to pay for college and aren’t crippled by the corresponding student loan debt.’
  2. Recruiting. More alignment between what the student is studying, and what the employer wants to see. ‘If employers don’t value [the credential the student gets], the education is nearly worthless.’
  3. Lending. The full-stack uni could get favourable rates to lend to students on a non-profit basis. ‘Schools could lend to their students with their massive endowments. Employers could waive tuition fees altogether.’


We would argue that, building on this, there are three principal elements to a full-stack university.

  1. Diversity of learning objectives. Talent is accredited differently. Rather than the ‘academic first, job second’ approach, we would make practical learning from professional experiences the most important element. In practice, this means bringing people from the workplace, into the classroom. A key component of this is becoming a reflective practitioner – someone who always enquires about their own practices and has a critically reflective mind. For Ryan Craig, author of College Disrupted, this means to ‘develop and deliver specific high-quality educational experiences that produce graduates with capabilities that specific employers desperately want.’
  2. Ease of finance. Rather than seeing the student’s financial issues as their own affair, we would like to see more constructive involvement from the provider. (This could be offering lending, as Fishbein suggests.) It means providers must ask themselves the question, are we making it as easy as we can for students to study? What is the ROI for the student? Can the student break even on their investment in two years, five years, ten years?
  3. Connecting graduates with employers professionally. This is at the heart of the full stack university principle. Enhanced linkages between what students are learning, and what employers want. Again, the shift of focus in syllabus terms is practically aided by professional intervention. Mentoring, coaching, internships, visiting lecturers from business and action learning projects all contribute powerfully to this.


The key take-out from this is that university should be about the career, not the process. Or to summarise the thinking of Ryan Craig and Mike Fishbein, the purpose of a university is not just to get a good education. The purpose is to get a job. Craig argues that universities need to ask themselves three searching questions, that can be placed within the three categories above:

  • Learning objectives: ‘Are the educational experiences we’re offering sufficiently differentiated and specific to address unmet labor market demand from specific employers?’
  • Connecting graduates with employers: ‘Are employers involved in educational experiences midstream? And are we doing all we can to package, present and connect students to employers once they’ve completed?’
  • Ease of finance: ‘Are we helping students solve for financing, including pursuing a range of business models beyond the default (private-pay, out-of-pocket tuition)?’


Notes of caution

There’s a caveat to the full-stack approach, which providers need to be aware of. In Tech Crunch, Anshu Sharma, a partner at Storm Ventures, writes about ‘stack fallacy’ – ‘the mistaken belief that it is trivial to build the layer above yours.’ For example, ‘Apple continues to successfully integrate vertically down  — building chips, programming languages, etc., but again has found it very hard to go up the stack and build those simple apps — things like photo sharing apps and maps.’ For Sharma, stack fallacy ‘is a result of human nature  – we (over) value what we know.’ He adds, ‘the bottleneck for success often is not knowledge of the tools, but lack of understanding of the customer needs.’

This explains why major companies ‘keep falling’ for stack fallacy. In fact, ‘in a surprising way, it is far easier to innovate down the stack than up the stack. The reason for this is that you are yourself a natural customer of the lower layers. Apple knew what it wanted from an ideal future microprocessor. It did not have the skills necessary to build it, but the customer needs were well understood. Technical skills can be bought/acquired, whereas it is very hard to buy a deep understanding of market needs.’

Ryan Craig agrees with Sharma’s analysis and asserts that universities ignore it at their peril. ‘Colleges and universities are hearing plenty of scary stories of unemployed and underemployed recent graduates with tens (and sometimes hundreds) of thousands of dollars or student loan debt,’ Craig says. ‘Not surprisingly, connecting graduates to jobs and the critical importance of the first job to future earnings has never had a higher profile at cabinet and trustee levels. We’re even starting to see some universities follow the example of coding bootcamps with job guarantees.’


From ‘education provider’ to ‘job aligner’

So, what’s to be done? And in practice, what can a university do differently to offer more of a ‘full-stack’ approach? Let’s consider five powerful options that some innovative universities are currently offering. This list isn’t prescriptive or comprehensive, but it’s a starting point for the kind of thinking we think could make a big difference in the future – shifting the focus from education provider to job aligner.

  1. Offer a ‘nanodegree’ equivalent

Udacity is the main success story so far with stackable, evidence-based credentials. Udacity currently offers ‘eight tech-centric nanodegrees in web development, data analysis, full stack development, mobile development, and tech entrepreneurialism, according to George Lorenzo, writing in Fast Company. ‘These rigorous, project-based, career-focused nanodegree courses, with plenty of video instruction and highly specialized assessments, have been co-developed with such companies as AT&T, Google, Facebook, Cloudera, and mongoDB.’

It’s likely that other providers will be able to take a leaf out of Udacity’s book and offer similar flexible courses in the future. ‘Combined, nanodegree courses currently enroll about 10,000 students,’ says Lorenzo. ‘After officially launching its first nanodegree in October 2014 with a $35 million investment infusion, around 1,000 students have completed nanodegrees.’ And at least 150 students ‘have been directly assisted by Udacity with finding meaningful work.’

Lorenzo quotes Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun, who in talking about the company’s business partnerships says, ‘What we basically get from these companies is accreditation.’ Arguing that the validation of nanodegrees comes from the ultimate employer, not the provider, Thrun says, ‘if they say we are more than happy to hire these people, that we trust Udacity, then the entire machine works out for us and the students.’ In other words, Udacity is gradually accumulating proof of our thesis that the aim of an education provider is not to give you an education; it’s to get you that job.

Nanodegrees answer the finance question too. Udacity is ‘now offering a 50% refund to students who complete a nanodegree within 12 months. This means that last year’s $200 per month rate for these courses has been cut down to only $100 per month.’ How is this achievable, and is it sustainable? Thrun’s answer is to outsource. ‘Beyond the company’s relatively small team of core employees located at Mountain View and San Francisco,’ Lorenzo comments, ‘Udacity has hired several hundred remote independent contractors from around the world who are highly qualified program reviewers, mentors, and content developers.’


2. Nurture your entrepreneurial talent

The survival rate for new companies makes for sobering reading. New research shows that in the UK, there were 246,000 business failures in 2014, of which some 99% would have been SMEs. How to improve this? Teach entrepreneurship. Make students aware of the pitfalls, and show them what they need to create a successful start-up. Concentrate on developing a USP. Look for ‘blue space’ in the marketplace. Check what the competition’s doing, and make your company different. Don’t try to be the cheapest. If you’re product-focused, don’t neglect service.

As Katy Tynan points out in EdTech Times, ‘between 1985 and 2008, the number of entrepreneurship courses in U.S. colleges and universities increased from 250 to over 5,000, and that number has continued to grow.’ Tynan quotes figures that estimate nearly half a million students are now taking courses in entrepreneurship in the US. ‘Colleges are making a concerted effort to convince these budding business owners that rather than dropping out they should stay in school and launch their ventures from inside the supportive ecosystem of their alma mater,’ she says.

For Tynan, providers are taking different approaches to the problem, whilst agreeing that losing their ‘best and brightest’ to startups is an issue. ‘For some schools, the answer lies in direct investment into startups by students. In 2009, Stanford students launched StartX, a nonprofit accelerator program for students and alumni. In 2013, the University began directly investing in StartX and in the companies it launched.’

Another option is simply to integrate entrepreneurship into the curriculum. ‘MIT incorporates business plan challenges, pitch days, mentorship, and other elements of the startup process into its Entrepreneurship and Innovation track during the MBA program,’ Tynan adds.


3. Be flexible

Traditional education might be seen as a matrix helping you (or not helping you) towards a job. The full-stack university is more like a funnel. If you need a particular credit, the ultimate full-stack university might enable you to get that credit. If you need a certificate from a coding boot-camp, let’s look at getting you that certificate. If an internship or a spell at a particular company is what you need, let’s see how that can fit into the holidays. Increasingly, students, providers and companies will work together in future to ensure that the graduate is aligned to what the recruiter wants.



4. Develop soft skills

Being good at work isn’t just about what grade you got. It’s also about being able to work effectively in a team; negotiation skills; understanding how your role fits in with wider corporate objectives; social skills; empathy; creativity; and other character traits that aren’t measured in an exam or in a dissertation. Such skills are about successful interaction with others – with the aim being to become interdependent; not working in silos as the culture of traditional learning in universities (solo working in libraries, for example) might seem to promote.

These skills can be taught, but are often largely or entirely ignored at university. Education providers who want to create a USP can develop this component as an important element of the student’s time. Research from Google indicates that ‘psychological safety’ is one of the foundation factors in the company’s best teams. ‘The safer team members feel with one another, the more likely they are to admit mistakes, to partner, and to take on new roles,’ says Laszlo Bock, Vice President of People Operations at Google Inc.

We would argue that the ideal university creates the ideal person – homo universalis. University is about nurturing, shaping and positively influencing students as individuals. That’s not just about academic learning – it’s about improving self-esteem, improving relationships with peers, and about creating psychological confidence. These elements impact hugely on how the individual develops their later career. All of this is about developing, enhancing and maximising the individual’s potential. It’s about, in effect, the value of being human. Consider the Southern African philosophy ubuntu, which we might define as, ‘I am because you are’. Embedding this principle of shared humanity is what university should ultimately be about.


5. Recognise that validation is changing

Globally, companies are no longer seeking employees based purely on how good a degree they have. They are more interested in how suitable the candidate will be for the job. Gregory Ferenstein writes in Forbes Magazine how Google is increasingly ignoring traditional signifiers of good quality job candidates. Google ‘doesn’t care much about Ivy League credentials or a sterling college transcript,’ says Ferenstein, again quoting Laszlo Bock. ‘It’s one of the flaws in how we assess people,’ Bock says. ‘We assume that if you went to Harvard, Stanford or MIT that you are smart. We assume that if you got good grades you will do well at work.’ But as Bock explains, these assumptions are inadequate at best and simply wrong at worst. ‘There is no relationship between where you went to school and how you did five, 10, 15 years into your career. So, we stopped looking at it.’

Bock makes the alarming – but potentially exciting for new providers – assertion that ‘college degrees and grades… don’t indicate whether employees can perform well in the real world.’ And significantly, he adds that ‘Google is skirting around traditional universities in the process of pursuing an expanding educational business agenda. If others follow Google’s lead, it could portend big changes for the future of higher education.’ As a result, it’s more vital than ever for education providers to move away from the classical education approach and move towards the full-stack concept.


Business failures stat: House of Commons Library Briefing Paper number 06152: Business statistics. 7 December 2015. 

When education meets the corporation

Globally, there is a disconnect between students and jobs. According to McKinsey’s recent Education to Employment report, around the world ‘75 million young people are unemployed, but businesses can’t find enough skilled workers to fill job vacancies.’ Meanwhile, businesses frequently complain that they don’t get the calibre of graduates they need to fill the roles they have, particularly in STEM subjects.


Why has this situation come about – particularly considering that fees for universities have increased at eye-watering speeds over the past few years? And what can universities do about it, to better match their students with the jobs that businesses want to fill?


First, let’s consider some context. The McKinsey report reveals some fairly dramatic figures.


  • Half of young people are not sure that their post-secondary education has improved their chances of finding a job.
  • Almost 40% of employers say a lack of skills is the main reason for entry-level vacancies.


Against this figures, let’s look at some equally startling statistics about how much is invested in our young people’s education. At the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University, Anthony P. Carnevale and Nicole Smith reveal that in the US,


  • Approximately $1.5 trillion or 11% of GDP is spent on human capital or skills development each year.
  • Elementary and secondary education takes the largest share of this: $608 billion (41% of spending).
  • Together, formal and informal training by employers represents $454 billion (30% of spending): $313 billion on informal training and $141 billion on formal training.
  • $380 billion is spent on higher education, which primarily consists of formal education programs at colleges and universities.


Some $380 billion is spent on higher education – and yet employers can’t find the right graduates for their jobs? Something is amiss somewhere along the line.


The McKinsey work points to several fault lines that it believes are causing this problem. A broad summary of its view would be:


  • Workplaces, educational institutions and students are operating in ‘parallel universes’. Fewer than 50% of young people and employers believe that new graduates are adequately prepared for entry-level positions. But 72% of education providers believe new graduates are ready to work. A similar disconnect appears when asked why students fail to finish courses – 39% of education providers state drop-out rates are because courses are too difficult, but only 9% of students agree, citing affordability as the main reason.
  • Education-to-employment is an obstacle-strewn road. Getting the enrolment means overcoming issues of cost and ensuring you’ve chosen the right course. Once underway, there are issues with building skills – 60% say that on-the-job training and hands-on learning are the most effective instructional techniques, but fewer than 30% are enrolled in curricula that prioritise such techniques. Finally, there is finding the job at the end – a quarter do not make a smooth transition to work, as their first jobs are unrelated to their field of study and they want to change positions quickly. In emerging markets, this number rose to as much as 40%.
  • The current education-to-employment system fails for ‘most’ employers and young people. The McKinsey research reveals that only 31% of employers get the talent they require.


How we reached this situation

Part of the problem has been the way the competencies that society needs has shifted so quickly from production-based to information-based skills. As Carnevale and Smith at Georgetown put it, ‘In the past, employers viewed workers with solid occupational-specific skills as sufficient for success on the job. But as workers are increasingly called upon to make decisions at the point of production or point of sale and display good interpersonal skills when working in teams or with customers, the confidence that engenders success in these areas springs from a positive sense of self-worth or self-esteem.’


In consequence, traditional universities are suffering an assault on several sides from MOOCs, vocational training and for tech educations, coding bootcamps. There is a risk that if traditional universities don’t adjust to today’s fast-changing circumstances, they may find themselves gradually but inexorably being squeezed out by providers that are more flexible about how students learn, tailor themselves to students’ needs, can offer more guarantees of jobs at the end of the process, and come out cheaper overall. When students are being increasingly under pressure from galloping tuition fees, price becomes much more of a stalling factor than it used to be – it can be the difference between committing to a course, and not going at all.


Whilst alternative approaches to education are not going to make the walls of our oldest universities tumble down just yet, there is a slight sense of inevitability about the way technology is making distance learning ever more enticing to cash-strapped students. If you get the job at the end of the day, who needs to spend three or four expensive years in a cloistered bubble? Ryan Craig, Managing Director at University Ventures, argues that this point is pertinent to the future of tertiary education. The question Craig poses is – ‘how to use technology to develop and deliver shorter, less expensive, 100% digital (and therefore accessible) postsecondary programs that lead to credentials that employers will recognize and value.’ The answer to the question, if there is one, ‘will be critical to the future of colleges and universities.’


Look at the gradual success of disruptive providers like Udacity, which offers ‘nanodegrees’. Starting out as a MOOC, Udacity has developed nanodegrees ‘in partnership with leading technology companies (“built by industry”),’ Craig explains. ‘The thinking [is] that Google’s involvement in the Android Developer Nanodegree improves the curriculum; the Google brand doesn’t hurt either. Udacity has done the same with iOS (Apple), Tech Entrepreneur (Google) and its other programs (by a committee of leading technology lights).’


Udacity is slowly but surely making progress. ‘A New York Times profile of Udacity on September 17 [2015] revealed that Udacity has 10,000 students enrolled in Nanodegrees – a number growing by 30% every month.’ If, as Craig points out, ‘10,000 students are paying $200 per month, that’s annual revenue of over $20M – perhaps enough for profitability.’


The aim of such courses is to be ‘shorter, cheaper and more accessible’ and create ‘credentials – badges – that employers will recognize and value as an alternative to the existing, expensive and constantly derided degree-industrial complex. To this end, both companies are trying hard to link their content to employers. Udacity’s Nanodegrees carry with them the names of the world’s most famous technology companies – where traditional universities rely on their long-established brands, Udacity piggybacks today’s tech giants to boost its brand for it.


Universities at least need to address these side-swipes from badge-based providers. Consider a few more damning figures from McKinsey:


  • A third of employers say they never communicate with education providers.
  • Of those that do, fewer than half say it proves effective.
  • More than a third of education providers say they are unable to estimate the job-placement rates of their graduates.
  • Fewer than 50% of graduates state they had a good understanding of what disciplines lead to professions with job openings and good wage levels when they chose their course.


A final criticism of traditional degrees comes from Google itself. Degree grades are, believe it or not, ‘worthless as a criteria for hiring,’ according to Google’s Senior VP of People Operations. If this is the view of our leading tech company, which is now busily partnering itself with badge-based providers like Udacity and Coursera, surely traditional education has to sit up and take notice.


Looking for the solutions

So, what’s to be done? If universities in the form we understand them are going to survive, then surely the key point is simple to say, but hard to do in practice. It’s essentially for learning organisations, businesses and students all to engage with each other more.


The McKinsey research suggests several desirable outcomes – all from the top-line points of universities, businesses and students needing to communicate with other more effectively, collaborate more and stop seeing university education as a linear process where the ‘job offer’ only comes at the very end.


In essence, the way forward can be described as follows:


  • Have new incentives and structures. Stakeholders need better data to make informed choices and manage performance. Give data to students and parents about career and training options.
  • Offer more workplace data. Information about what happens to students after they graduate is not routinely offered by learning organisations – it could and should be. What are the job placement rates? How long does it take students to get to an average salary role? What proportion of graduates reach high salary roles?
  • Connect more effectively with business. Transformative solutions involve multiple providers and employers working within a particular in industry or function. These collaborations solve the skill gap at a sector level; by splitting costs among multiple stakeholders (educators, employers, and trainees), investment is reduced for all.
  • Take a high-level view of education. In practice, this might mean creating the role of a ‘system integrator’, who works with education providers and employers to develop skill solutions, gather data and identify and disseminate positive examples. The integrator can be defined by sector, region, or target population.


To this we could add: encourage students and parents to self-inform more. The internet is full of information, but it can be hard to track down helpful information. Instead of allowing our students to go to learning organisations largely in ignorance of job expectations and in the dark about what their futures might be, help them to think more strategically about their careers from an early age. That will help them choose their course in an informed way, plan their student years more effectively and have an eye on what they want their key outcomes to be when they graduate.


The conclusion from the McKinsey work is that successful programmes do things differently. They ‘step into each other’s worlds’. Employers might help to design curricula. They might offer their employees and faculty, and they might let students spend as much as half their time on job sites. They might then get them hiring guarantees. The best programmes work with their students early and intensely. They avoid the linear obstacle-path of enrolment, skill-building and job offer by treating the education-to-employment journey as a ‘continuum’ in which some employers even commit to hire youth before they are enrolled in a programme to build their skills.


And finally, to adapt the structures of traditional business education to a more fully-aligned model. Get students to spend more time trailing employees in organisations. Integrate internships as part of the degree, not an add-on or something for graduates to organise for themselves once they leave university. Have more in-university training, as well as academic education. Have more lectures from organisation employees during the course of the degree – current doers, not people who used to be doers or who watch others doing.


In short, make education less passive. Make it the platform from which graduates can step seamlessly into their first role – not a launching pad that requires a leap of faith that can seem daunting and hard to attain for many of today’s students. It’s achievable, but not easy. But today’s students will, increasingly, demand and deserve it.






Millennials: why are they different?

The current generation of college graduates have very different expectations and hopes from their predecessors. Those expectations are attached not only to their education provider but also their eventual employer. And yet, both employers and universities often respond to today’s students with out-dated models – treating them in much the same as the generation before them, and expecting the same behaviour and results in return.


This is a mistake. To maximise performance from millennials, it’s vital for organisations and universities to speak to them in their language, package experiences for them in ways they relate to and identify with, and create an environment that will resonate with them.


So how can prospective employers and education providers do this? Let’s start by looking at some background. They key difference for today’s graduates is their digital native status. Millennials born after 1990 – the ‘Generation Z’ that comprises our current crop of graduates – have enjoyed an unprecedented level of technology as they’ve grown up that sets them apart from their predecessors. Generation Z cannot imagine life without the internet or mobile phones, and they have less willingness to accept social injustice. A 2012 Net Impact survey discovered that 88% of millennials see a positive culture as vital to their career and 86% stated that they needed to find their work interesting. Other research has indicated that more than 50% of millennials say they would take a pay cut to find work that better fits their values, and 90% want to use their talents for the greater good.


Writing in Fast Company, Paula Davis-Laack quotes a recent report from the International Consortium for Executive Development Research (ICEDR) which suggests there are five key principles for getting the most from your millennials’ mindsets. They are:


  • Know me. Invest the time to understand the student as a person and what interests them both inside and outside of work.
  • Challenge me. The student wants to have continued opportunities to learn and grow.
  • Connect me. Relationships are important – the student wants to interact and collaborate with a wide network of people.
  • Inspire me. Students want a sense of meaning from their work.
  • Unleash me. Students want to take ‘good risks’ and have autonomy over their time and projects.


These five points have been written with a focus on female millennials. But as Davis-Laack goes on persuasively to point out, they chime rather neatly with suggestions from two other experts. She points to ‘centered leadership’, which consists of these five dimensions:


  • Meaning
  • Framing (adapting to change and building self-awareness)
  • Energising (tapping into the our natural energy reserves and rhythms)
  • Connecting (interacting and collaborating with a wide network of people)
  • Engaging (taking good risks and using your voice).


And these five are not too far away from the PERMA model of well-being, developed by Martin Seligman:


  • Positive emotions
  • Engagement
  • Relationships
  • Meaning
  • Achievement


Davis-Laack’s point then, is that meeting the needs and expectations of millennials is not as complex or as alien for older generations to understand as might have been supposed. All these models chime with each other – and an underlying principle of all three is emotional resonance. The above lists are not about targets, or climbing pyramid hierarchies. They are about personal development and learning outcomes.


If we were to examine these lists more closely from a management point of view, we might want to see more emphasis on skills-based learning and a focus on aptitude. If we add these points the mix, there is a valuable lesson to be learnt in how to respond to millennials – and how to get them to respond to you.


A different mindset

Millennials have little interest in a job for life (a sea-change from the baby boomer generation’s worldview); have high ethical and responsible concerns when choosing the company they want to work for; and want their work environments to be attractive, comfortable and stimulating. Perhaps with this last point in mind, millennials are most attracted by tech companies, with Google, Apple and Facebook very clear winners when millennials are asked which companies they would like to work for.


In aggregated research from the Brookings Institution, Goldman Sachs and Nielsen, published in GSV Tomorrow, Google gained 19.7% of the ‘where do you want to work’ vote, Apple achieved 12.7% and Facebook 8.9%. In other words, over 40% of millennials want to work for a leading tech company. It’s not until you get to the fourth-rated choice, the State Department, that a non-tech organisation appears, with 7.9%.


According to figures quoted in Forbes Magazine, 62% of millennials believe they can make a difference in their local communities and some 40% even believe they can literally change the world. Millennials are not willing to play the game and climb the corporate ladder as past generations. They are doers, and they expect companies to change in line with them. If they don’t, they are not afraid to jump ship and take risks.


Erika Janovich, Marketing Co-ordinator for the StressCrete Group, spent time working with millennials when she went back to college as a mature student. Writing in The Evolllution, Janovich presents five conclusions about the values that millennials place highest faith in.


  • Confidence in your convictions
  • Technologically savvy
  • Engagement is important in learning
  • You can be a ‘me first’ team player
  • Flexibility is the new secure


Let’s consider these in turn. ‘They spoke back to teachers without any concerns for retribution,’ Janovich says, contrasting this with her own upbringing where ‘I had to express [my opinions] in a way that was still respectful of my elders. There were times I admired their sheer guts for speaking their minds and fighting for what they wanted.’


Perhaps the key distinction of the millennial generation, ‘their knowledge of technology was incredible. Any time I ran into technological issues, all I had to do was ask any of my younger classmates. They were happy to share their knowledge, and often looked at me with confusion wondering how I survived my teens without a computer.’


Time and again, engagement emerges as a vital quality to get the best out of millennials. ‘I’ll never forget the term coined by one of the baby boomer professors: “Educainment”.’ Students needed to be continuously entertained and stimulated in class. ‘If not, they’d find what they needed on their laptops or phones. Teachers fought to make the information more exciting and attempted to relate the lessons to students’ lives.’


Millennials are less willing to suppress their emotions in the workplace. ‘They were more “touchy feely” than my generation… My classmates wanted to be the best, but not at the expense of others,’ Janovich says.


An interesting job, a sense that they are doing something good for wider society and a stimulating place to work are the values millennials place most emphasis on. Janovich’s assessment is that ‘they wanted flexible working hours, a fun work environment and an enlightening experience. When they were done with the experience, they would move on to a new one… they made me see that work-life balance should be a major consideration.’


Breaking the myths

And yet, not all millennials meet the stereotypes. Research by KPMG (itself a company with nearly 60% of its workforce composed of millennials) in association with Brad Harrington, executive director of Boston College Center for Work & Family, garnered evidence that bucks some of these trends. Interviewing 1,100 millennials, Harrington found that ‘60% said they plan to stay in their jobs to advance, versus 25% who want to get ahead by moving from employer to employer.’ Harrington agrees that there is no ‘job for life’ – ‘fewer organizations offer lifetime job arrangements… and the world has moved away from the idea of long-term job security. But… at a rate of two to one, millennials prefer to stay, and that was surprising.’


Harrington’s figures also agree that millennials feel strongly about work-life balance. ‘The majority felt that their lives outside of work were much more important to their sense of identity than their careers. Few – approximately 20% – were willing to pursue these goals at the expense of their personal lives.’


The KPMG/Harrington research did not find, as expected, that socially conscious attitudes figure highly in millennials’ set of values. ‘ “How much I am helping others” and “contribution to society” were among the lowest ranked items in importance of career success measures for the millennials surveyed,’ writes Stephanie Vozza, quoting the survey in Fast Company.


And although the millennials were as comfortable with technology as expected, this doesn’t make them people-averse. ‘When we asked how they found their most recent position, instead of saying “social media” like we expected, the number one answer was that they were referred by a friend, relative, or another connection,’ Harrington is quoted as saying. ‘They are using the tried-and-true method of networking.’


There are lessons here for both millennials themselves and for the companies recruiting them. One of the consequences of growing older is that you know your own mind more – or, to put it less kindly, you become more set in your ways. One of the joys of youth is that you are still open to new ideas, your opinions are still forming and your view of the world is not set in stone. A fallout from this, when interviewing millennials about what they expect from university and work, is that their opinions are still in a state of flux. That makes it harder for people writing about millennials to come to hard and fast conclusions about them.


Looking to the future

What, then, do learning institutions need to do differently? The first lesson is to understand the millennial mindset, and this primarily involves understanding the principle of co-opting. Millennials are not materialistic, and they share rather than accumulate. UK newspaper The Guardian recently reported that average material consumption fell from 15 tonnes in 2001 to just over 10 tonnes in 2013; a huge reduction. In the same article, climate change author Chris Goodall, added that people now spend more on services than physical goods.’ Millennials are less interested in possessing; rather than store thousands of emails, they use Snapchat and delete instantly. Instead of hoarding photos, books, CDs and DVDs like their predecessors, everything is accessed online and there is little sense of possession in the traditional sense of the word.


This change has caused a psyche shift as well. They co-create businesses together. They buy houses together. This co-operative shift makes the education dynamic suddenly very different. Classes where students team up are more likely to generate innovative thinking than individual study. Problem-solving can be done more quickly in groups rather than separately. So the insight is, enable students to work together more. Enable them to spark ideas off each other, to come to new conclusions and reach new insights. Let them learn together and the results can be surprisingly effective.


Embracing the technology, rather than resisting it, is also essential. Philippe Caignon, a 3M National Teaching Fellow, argues that digital learning can innovate and enrich teaching, and is an addition rather than a replacement for classical teaching methods. ‘Digital learning is the means through which professors can enhance their teaching strategies and adapt their pedagogy to the ever-changing needs of their students,’ he says. Quoted alongside Caignon in How to teach millennials? Embrace technology by Sara DuBreuil is Dr. Nancy Acemian, a professor in the Department of Computer Software and Engineering Department at Concordia University. ‘It is a win-win situation,’ she says. ‘Profs have more fun in class, students have more fun and are more engaged with the course content, which is the first step in learning.’


What we can be sure of is that if you respond to millennials in the language they understand – enable them to work with the technology they are familiar with, and treat them responsibly, they will enhance the organisation and hopefully won’t jump ship at the first opportunity. Millennials will make up 75% of the working population by 2025. It’s their world now, and it’s the older generation who need to adapt to them; not the other way round.






The opportunities for virtual reality



Does virtual reality have a place in the classroom, or is it a distraction – a gimmick to lure students with exciting technology, rather than traditional learning?

The answers might surprise you. But first, let’s consider some background context about virtual reality (VR). Essentially, VR consists of computer-generated images that appear on a headset. As well as sound and images, it can create sensory experiences too – with hand controllers in place, wearers can touch digital objects, move them around and influence their digital environment.


Whilst the obvious audience for VR is gaming and immersive entertainment, the opportunities for business are huge too. Writing in TechCrunch, Sean Jacobsohn outlines the likely first beneficiaries for VR technology – among them medicine, manufacturing, engineering, real estate and, most usefully for our purposes, education.


Transformative results in several fields are already being experienced. ‘Just last month,’ Jacobsohn writes, ‘a group of surgeons in Miami was able to perform open heart surgery on a four-month-old baby thanks to VR imaging software and a Google Cardboard Viewer.’ In factories, VR is being used ‘to optimize product engineering, design, manufacturing and operations,’ with Ford using it to ‘design new vehicles, develop autonomous vehicle technologies and collaborate with teammates across the globe.’ And in real estate, ‘brokers and developers are using virtual reality tours to speed up leasing and sales.’


The uses of VR in education

In the classroom, there are several key benefits that VR can bring. The first is how it enhances learning by creating immersive experiences. ‘Much of this early foray into VR­-based learning has centered on the hard sciences — biology, anatomy, geology and astronomy — as the curricular focus and learning opportunities are notably enriched through interaction with dimensional objects, animals and environments,’ Elizabeth Reede, co-founder of WoofbertVR, explains. And ‘in other areas of education, many classes have used VR tools to collaboratively construct architectural models, recreations of historic or natural sites and other spatial renderings.’


It’s well-known that we learn more effectively if we experience things visually. So VR is not a gimmick; rather, it is an enhancing tool that can benefit education in almost limitless ways. ‘This global distribution of VR content and access will undoubtedly influence a pedagogical shift as these new technologies allow a literature teacher in Chicago to “take” her students to Verona to look at the setting for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, or a teacher in the Bronx to “bring” her Ancient Civilizations class to the ancient Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza,’ as Reede evocatively puts it.


Second is the way VR can teach students to work collaboratively. Writing in Singularity Hub, Jason Ganz takes this idea a step further. ‘The idea of VR education truly becomes useful when you combine VR with another disruptive technology – project-based learning (PBL). PBL is a teaching methodology which focuses students on large, long-term projects to solve real world problems.’ Ganz offers the example of tasking students with designing a sustainable building. They are graded on architectural design prowess and engineering feasibility as well as the sustainability element of the project.


What VR can do, that a classically taught project can’t do, is that it’s able to calculate, for example, the energy usage of the building. Learning by trial and error becomes enjoyable, rather than laborious, because you can keep re-working the building until it is right. That way, the student learns things that he or she wouldn’t otherwise learn. You can discover innovations by experimenting. You get to understand how the mechanics of being on site work, without having to leave the classroom. In effect, you’re getting a work placement experience, without having to leave the lecture hall.


VR could thus address the problem of students not being ‘adequately prepared for the jobs that exist in the modern, information economy,’ Ganz says. In his view, with classical education ‘students are being prepared for a world that doesn’t exist any more.’ Instead, by creating a culture of education that allows students ‘to work together to foster innovation, we will actively be creating citizens who are prepared for the challenges of the modern world.’


Consider how some universities are already using VR in this way. Writing in EdTech, Dave Doucette points to Virginia Tech, which is now using VR to ‘help researchers visualize Big Data in new and innovative ways.’ The modelling capabilities of VR have been exploited by ‘a team from the institution’s geography department [which] combined atmospheric and ground data to recreate the sights and sounds of the EF-5 tornado that ravaged Oklahoma in May 2013.’ And at the University of Maryland, similar data analysis and manipulation has been performed ‘inside the Augmentarium, a space on the main campus at College Park that combines projection displays, augmented reality visors and more.’ Here, the intention is to help generate new insights into astronomy, biology and atmospheric and oceanic studies.


Not only can VR enhance the classroom experience, lead to innovation and give students real-world experiences, it can significantly improve learning at a distance. Currently, it’s often assumed that whilst distance learning can be an excellent adjunct to classroom-based education, students will always learn better when they are in a room with a lecturer. With VR, that distinction between being in a classroom versus being in your home office becomes more blurred. As Peter Diamindis puts it in Singularity Hub, ‘Why go to conferences, school, or travel for business if you can have richer, deeper experiences from the comfort of your living room?’


Optimising the possibilities

What about the future? And what do business schools need to do differently, once they have looked at investing in HR?


Getting students to work collaboratively leads to a probable eventual outcome – social VR. We need ‘collaborative virtual reality communities which connect people from around the world and allow them to work together on real world problems,’ says Jason Ganz. ‘Social virtual reality is going to be an absolute game changer for collaboration,’ he says, arguing that it will make students feel like they are actually in the room with another person. ‘Very soon,’ Ganz believes, ‘we’ll start to see virtual reality seminars, meetup groups and hackerspaces.’


Quoted in The Near Future of VR and AR: What You Need to Know on Singularity Hub, Philip Rosedale, CEO of High Fidelity outlines several changes that he believes will influence take-up of VR over the next three years or so. Briefly, they are:


  • Screen resolution will match visual brain input. ‘There will be a moment when we can’t tell the difference between reality and virtual/augmented reality (at least with our eyes),’ Rosedale says.
  • Eye tracking will add presence and control. ‘Once you put screens next to somebody’s face, you can also watch their eyes moving.’ This means that in a VR meeting, ‘you’ll be able to make eye contact with people. It also means you can control your computer. You’ll be able to use your eye as a mouse.’
  • Face-tracking creates real appearances, not just avatars. Hardware near a face can measure and track that face. ‘This means we’ll be able to animate you at a distance, talking to somebody else with a perfect representation of your facial movements.’ Your avatar in the meeting will ‘move and express itself emotionally like you do.’
  • More benefits for distance learning. ‘If you can buy your kid a $600 virtual reality headset, and they can study five times as fast as anybody else, and they don’t have to be in a particular neighborhood or near a school to do it, they are just going to adopt these things. They are that much better.’
  • Screens will become obsolete. Future devices ‘will allow you to view a virtual TV anywhere, on any wall, or a mobile phone screen on the palm of your hand, or the air in front of you,’ which means that there will be no need to carry ‘clunky glass devices in your pockets’ or even have a TV on the wall any longer.


    None of the above are sci-fi possibilities or future dreams. They are all within reach; the technology is there, and the advances are in all cases happening already in prototype or not far away. Sums in excess of $5 billion have been invested in both VR and AR (augmented reality – which we’ll look at in another article) over the past two years by every major technology company, including Google, Microsoft, HTC and Samsung. It’s not a fad or a gimmick – it’s here to stay, and it’s worthwhile for universities to develop a strategy now about when, and to what extent, they will invest in the technology.


Technology boot camps – do they work?

The tech sector is one of the fastest-growing industries globally – and with this increasing market comes the need for more jobs. In the US, demand for computer specialists is expected to have increased by over three quarters of a million jobs in the decade up to the end of 2018, according to figures from the Bureau of Labor. ‘New com­puter specialist jobs will rise in almost every industry,’ says David Clinefelter, Chief Academic Officer at the Learning House in The Evolllution, and ‘roughly half will be located in the computer systems de­sign industry, which is expected to employ more than one in four computer specialists in 2018.’


But where will all these highly trained computer specialists come from? And in such a fast-changing marketplace, how will computer science graduates stay up to speed for these new roles? A criticism sometimes made of traditional degrees is that students ‘don’t always get the hands-on experience they need to land their first jobs,’ writes Tara García Mathewson in Education Dive. That’s compounded by the fast-changing nature of tech jobs – what worked a year ago doesn’t work now, and what worked five years ago is ancient history. Because of the nature of the role is so quick to change – people always want the latest technology – there’s a perceived skills gap.


In response, ‘several coding boot camps have incorporated project experience into their programs,’ says Mathewson. These include Free Code Camp, which places students with not-for-profit organisations that have vacancies for programmers.


‘Traditional computer science programs have not been able to keep pace with the demand,’ agrees Clinefelter. ‘The combination of highly motivated students in an immersive environment with veteran practitioners as faculty, coupled with a competency-based curriculum focused on entry-level knowledge, in an industry with a shortage of talent results in an ideal learning environment.’


On the way up

Boot camps are a rapidly increasing market. In North America there are more than 300 camps across 51 cities in the US and Canada. According to Course Report, which compares different coding schools for prospective students, the market is expected to have grown by almost 250% in 2015, to an estimated 16,056 graduates – an increase from 6,740 the previous year. All this from a flat base just a few years ago.


What happens in these immersive programmes, which can involve studying up to 10 hours a day, or longer? ‘Generally… students spend six to 15 weeks with small groups of peers learning web development skills’ says Michelle R Weise, Executive Director of Sandbox ColLABorative, Southern New Hampshire University, in a separate article in The Evolllution. Costs vary, but will usually be ‘between $10k and $20k.’


Impressive figures 

What about job placement rates? The Software Guild claims a 95% placement rate within 90 days of graduation. Most will present job attainment rates from somewhere between 63% and 99%, according to Weise. These are better odds, as she points out, ‘than the 57% placement rate of law-school graduates’ that the American Bar Association quotes. Alice Truong in Fast Company refers to Hack Reactor, which looks for candidates who have some coding experience, boot camps them in San Francisco and then promises a 98% job placement rate within three months of graduating, with an average subsequent salary of $110,000.


However, these figures are perhaps not quite as straightforward as they might first appear. Many boot camp graduates will already have completed a first degree, and some will have coding experience already, as the Hack Reactor example makes clear. In these cases it’s not a substitute for university; it’s a top-up experience that talented workers use to hone their skills and knowledge. Fast Company, quoting the founder of Course Report Adam Lovallo, points out that ‘the goal is to find whether these coding programs are just taking in people that are already employed and highly qualified and helping them change careers, or if they are taking in people and producing graduates that really substantially increase their earning potential.’


In other words, are the figures indicative of great success by the boot camps, or are they essentially highly-qualified people who would be likely to get jobs anyway? There’s no way of disentangling that from the stats, but it’s worth bearing in mind when reading figures of close to 100% placements.


What can’t be denied is that the major players in the tech industry like the look of boot camp grads. Apple, Facebook, Google and Twitter are all known to hire straight out of boot camps. Politically, too, an awareness of their value is rapidly increasing. As Michelle R Weise says, ‘the Obama Administration has been particularly enthusiastic about boot camps. In fact, the federal government seems to be fully aware of the burgeoning of alternative learning pathways that lead to middle- and high-skills jobs in demand today.’ Examples of these programmes include Udacity, which offers ‘nanodegrees’, edX which runs ‘Xseries’, and Coursera’s ‘Specializations’.


Such partnership models are likely to increase, as businesses and universities try to close the gaps between what traditional education models offer, and what workplaces actively need.


Matching workplace needs with learning outcomes

So could coding boot camps eventually replace traditional computer science degrees? It seems an unlikely question, but one which is being asked in some quarters. At present, boot camps are still seen as a poorer relation to university; but if the key purpose of university is to get a job, and boot camps can provide them, how vital is the traditional schooling model?


Online boot camp Bloc, for example, offers a course that can be taken part-time over a period of 72 weeks and includes computer science fundamentals ‘that top engineering companies continue to look for in employees,’ according to Tara García Mathewson. Mathewson quotes Bloc’s CEO Clint Schmidt who ‘says it’s a common refrain from employers — that computer science fundamentals are important and that they teach students how to think about software and how to use it to solve complex problems.’


Significantly, Bloc offers a job placement guarantee. ‘Graduates are eligible for a complete reimbursement of the $24,000 tuition if they don’t find a job within four months that offers at least $60,000 per year,’ Mathewson writes. ‘We’re designing this software engineering track to meet the very acute need in the market,’ Schmidt is quoted as saying, ‘but without requiring students to spend four years and a couple hundred thousand dollars in tuition to do it.’


Funding issues 

As tuition costs at traditional institutions have risen, prospective students are more aware than ever of the need to ensure their investment in their education pays off at the other end. ‘Coding boot camps are providing a tempting alternative to a two- or four-year program, especially when they offer such job guarantees,’ Mathewson writes. She goes on to mention the Viking Code School and the App Academy, which operate on a ‘free’ model similar to the way student loans work – collecting tuition fees further down the line by taking a proportion of the graduate’s salary once they are in the workforce. Both Bloc and Code Fellows, Mathewson points out, ‘offer a refund to students who don’t find jobs using the skills they acquired through the program.’


Then there’s Flatiron, which offers a 12- to 15-week program for $15,000 and places students into jobs ‘99% of the time with median starting salaries of $74k,’ according to Michelle R Weise. ‘Students who may not even have a bachelor’s degree are landing jobs at places like the New York Times, Etsy, Goldman Sachs and Google,’ she adds.


Even so, one of the factors slowing down the growth of boot camps as a viable alternative to traditional universities is funding. To date, they have not qualified for federal funding in the US in the way that classical study centres do. This situation, however, is rapidly changing. EQUIP – Educational Quality Through Innovative Partnerships – is an Obama-led initiative designed to help some non-traditional educational providers, such as boot camps, access federal money.


‘What this experiment does is waive the rules (for a small number of test sites) where schools are limited from using more than 50% of content or instruction from another entity,’ says Joshua Kim in Inside Higher Ed. The aim is win-win for students, enabling them to use non-traditional learning establishments, helping them get the tailored education they need, and achieving the hands-on skills that employers want – without breaking the bank.


A mix of skills

It’s not time to start sounding the death knell for traditional models just yet. The advice to potential students is to choose your course carefully and decide if a boot camp on its own is really going to be enough, or whether your career prospects are best served by a mix of university and boot camp top-up. Certainly, be cautious about online-only courses. A mix of face-to-face learning and online components is the optimum way to get the best education at the best price. And whilst boot camps work well for tech – we are talking specifically about coding – nothing compares with the wider benefits of being in a university scenario; having time to absorb and apply the information you learn, the social benefits of mixing with peers, and the distillation of theoretical knowledge to accompany the practical.


As Rob Gonzalez in The Crunch points out, ‘the field is constantly evolving and changing — with more things to learn and discover every year than you could learn in a lifetime.’ Universities might have their work cut out a little more to compete with boot camps, but the wider picture is still of vital importance.