A call to action issued June 12 by the Business-Higher Education Forum (BHEF) urges educators and policy makers to create a presidential commission to redesign post-secondary education in efforts to better prepare students for 21st-century careers—and technology must be a key component of this new design, the forum said.

Besides establishing a high-level commission, the forum also recommends fostering lifelong learning skills and individualized learning, establishing regional innovation centers for the redesign of education, and providing more funding for technology infrastructure.

The group’s call to action, entitled “Building a Nation of Learners: The Need for Changes in Teaching and Learning to Meet Global Challenges,” proposes concrete steps to fulfill the shortage of skilled workers facing the nation in an increasingly knowledge-based economy.

“With the pending retirement of the baby boom generation and the continued expansion of jobs requiring college-level learning, higher-education institutions must devise bold new approaches to teaching and learning,” said Molly Broad, president of the University of North Carolina and co-chair of BHEF’s working group on learning and technology.

The call to action also comes at the same time that Congress is crafting the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.

“It’s the right time to be bringing up these thoughts,” said John Bailey, director of educational technology for the U.S. Department of Education (ED), in a telephone interview with eSchool News. “A Nation of Learners” is one of many policy papers ED is considering.

“The real call here is for higher-education institutions to change themselves,” Bailey said.

In its report, BHEF identifies five key changes needed to redesign education to produce graduates prepared for the 21st century:

  • Instill lifelong learning skills and attributes—leadership, teamwork, problem solving, time management, self-management, adaptability, analytical thinking, global consciousness, and communication;
  • Create challenging, motivating, and relevant content;
  • Encourage individualized and interactive learning;
  • Increase access and opportunities to education; and
  • Adapt learning objectives to job-related skills.

“Even if employees are equipped for today’s jobs, they need to be ready to learn, relearn and, in some cases, unlearn to respond to the changing workplace,” said Sean C. Rush, IBM’s global general manager of education and co-chair of BHEF’s working group on learning and technology.

The presidential commission, dubbed “The Nation of Learners Commission,” would include members of Congress, the private sector, education, state and local government, and representatives from the Departments of Commerce, Labor, Education, and other relevant agencies.

Its goal would be to develop new leadership and vision regarding higher-education strategies. “This high-level commission can enable the country to meet the needs of a new generation of learners, unlock each student’s learning potential, and ensure America’s competitive future,” the report said.

Before the end of 2004, the new commission would present to the president a strategic plan for reaching these educational goals and quantify the investment needed to reach them.

The new regional innovation centers for the re-engineering of learning would develop and disseminate best practices, help with the redesign of education, and underscore the role of technology in education.

The report emphasizes that education redesign cannot be accomplished without technology. “When all the elements of redesigned education are compared to those solutions that use information technology (IT) and those that do not, the important role of IT becomes obvious,” the report says.

“Following the invention of the personal computer, it took 15 years of investment in technology infrastructure to enable companies to fundamentally redesign the way business was done. Similarly, the right technological infrastructure is necessary before broad change and efficiency gains can occur in education.”

BHEF says the nation’s investment in higher-education technology infrastructure lags behind its K-12 investments. “BHEF believes that, at a minimum, the same level of investment should be made in higher education,” the report said. The report cites Market Data Retrieval statistics that say more than a third of post-secondary classrooms lack internet access and 25 percent of post-secondary schools are cutting their computing budgets.

To fill the funding gap, the report proposes creating a new federal Learning and Networking (LAN) Grant Program to help universities, colleges, and community colleges pay for the costs of education redesign and technology infrastructure.

The report also cites a handful of institutions where education redesign already is under way, including Virginia Tech, the University of Illinois, and Georgetown University.

“When institutions find ways to increase access and flexibility to programs, individualize learning, and take other steps toward the redesign of education, students can not only complete career specific requirements but also attain the flexible lifelong learning skills they need to remain competitive in the workplace,” the report says.

“To meet these goals by 2010, federal leaders must rise to this challenge, refocusing existing education and training efforts and creating the new policies, priorities, and programs that will transform the United States into a nation of learners,” it concludes.


Business-Higher Education Forum