Can tra­di­tional univer­sity de­grees still pass the test?

The National - News - - OPINION - OLIVIER OULLIER Pro­fes­sor Olivier Oullier is the pres­i­dent of Emo­tiv, a neu­ro­sci­en­tist and a DJ

“A fter two or three years, your abil­ity to per­form at Google is com­pletely un­re­lated to how you per­formed when you were in school,” Las­zlo Bock told the New York Times, in a wide-rang­ing in­ter­view a few years ago. “You’re fun­da­men­tally a dif­fer­ent per­son. You learn and grow, you think about things dif­fer­ently.”

Back in 2013, Mr Bock was the tech gi­ant’s se­nior vice pres­i­dent for peo­ple op­er­a­tions. Un­der his lead­er­ship, Google con­ducted ex­ten­sive data anal­y­sis on the qual­i­fi­ca­tions and per­for­mance of its em­ploy­ees, which led him to con­clude that test scores were more or less worth­less as a hir­ing cri­te­rion.

With ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence al­ready trans­form­ing in­dus­tries such as bank­ing, health­care and trans­port, the dis­crep­ancy be­tween in­dus­try needs and aca­demic train­ing is grow­ing. But busi­nesses are tak­ing steps to adapt to this prob­lem. Google – along with high-pro­file global com­pa­nies such as Ap­ple, IBM, Star­bucks and the Bank of Amer­ica − has re­cently an­nounced that aca­demic de­grees are no longer manda­tory to ap­ply to some of its high-pro­file po­si­tions. Non-tra­di­tional vo­ca­tional train­ing, such as cod­ing boot camps, and prac­ti­cal in­dus­try or re­search ex­pe­ri­ence are now in­creas­ingly val­ued by em­ploy­ers.

One man who em­bod­ies this trend is Pas­cal Wein­berger. He heads the AI depart­ment at Tele­fon­ica Al­pha, the “in­no­va­tion fa­cil­ity” of Spain’s big­gest tele­coms op­er­a­tor, set up in 2016 to “ad­dress some of the big­gest prob­lems in so­ci­ety by con­ceiv­ing and de­liv­er­ing rad­i­cal so­lu­tions and break­through tech­nol­ogy”. His LinkedIn pro­file is filled with pres­ti­gious work and re­search ex­pe­ri­ence, yet aca­demic de­grees are nowhere to be found. When­ever I have met Mr Wein­berger, he has been pas­sion­ate and has a rare, holis­tic way of ap­proach­ing hu­man be­hav­iour, paired with a sys­temic ap­proach to prob­lem-solv­ing. He clearly did not ac­quire these skills in univer­sity lec­tures.

Cor­po­ra­tions are not alone in chal­leng­ing the rel­e­vance of higher ed­u­ca­tion. Ac­cord­ing to a sur­vey con­ducted by NBC and the Wall Street Jour­nal ear­lier this year, only 39 per cent of Amer­i­cans be­tween 18 and 34 years old now con­sider a four-year col­lege ed­u­ca­tion to be a worth­while in­vest­ment of money or time. This rep­re­sents a 17 per cent drop on fig­ures from four years ago.

So how can uni­ver­si­ties adapt to a job mar­ket that is chang­ing so rapidly that even the com­pa­nies look­ing for tal­ent are strug­gling to keep pace? It’s a ques­tion that is giv­ing a se­ri­ous col­lec­tive headache to deans and pro­fes­sors ev­ery­where.

Some in­sti­tu­tions, how­ever, are em­brac­ing change. Last week, the Mo­hammed bin Rashid School of Govern­ment in Dubai made pub­lic its de­ci­sion to fol­low a learn­ing-by-ex­pe­ri­ence strat­egy. The goal is for stu­dents to no longer face tra­di­tional ex­ams, but to be con­fronted with real-world prob­lems and then be eval­u­ated on their abil­ity to solve them. This ap­proach is closer to ex­ec­u­tive ed­u­ca­tion pro­grammes than a tra­di­tional univer­sity ap­proach. It is hoped it will fos­ter men­tal agility and adap­tive skills, and bet­ter pre­pare stu­dents for their pro­fes­sional lives.

Some be­lieve that such mea­sures should be im­ple­mented ear­lier in the ed­u­ca­tion process. Re­searchers from Hope Col­lege in Michi­gan in­ves­ti­gated the ef­fects of ex­pe­ri­ence learn­ing pro­grammes in mid­dle schools. They found that stu­dents in ex­pe­ri­en­tial pro­grammes en­joyed school more, learned to suc­cess­fully col­lab­o­rate with oth­ers and pro­gressed bet­ter in stan­dard­ised tests.

In this month’s edi­tion of the sci­en­tific jour­nal De­vel­op­ment,

Growth and Dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion, re­searchers from the univer­sity of Ni­igata in Ja­pan pub­lished an ar­ti­cle fo­cus­ing on ex­pe­ri­ence-de­pen­dent reg­u­la­tion in ju­ve­nile brain de­vel­op­ment. It un­der­scored the vi­tal role that en­vi­ron­men­tal stim­u­la­tion plays in shap­ing the pri­mary neu­ral net­works of chil­dren and sug­gested that the ear­lier stu­dents are ex­posed to ex­pe­ri­en­tial learn­ing, the bet­ter.

How­ever, new brain-imag­ing tech­nolo­gies have shown that ex­pe­ri­ence-de­pen­dent neu­ral plas­tic­ity − the abil­ity of our brains to change struc­turally and func­tion­ally − can be also ob­served in adults, which just goes to show that it is never too late to change the way we learn new skills.

There is much spec­u­la­tion as to what the world of work will look like in 20 years’, but the truth is that we sim­ply don’t know. That is why it is vi­tal for stu­dents to de­velop ag­ile, cre­ative minds and hands-on, prac­ti­cal skills. As the old say­ing goes, there’s noth­ing like learn­ing from ex­pe­ri­ence.

An­tonie Robert­son / The Na­tional

The Mo­hammed bin Rashid School of Govern­ment opts for ex­pe­ri­ence-based learn­ing

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