Higher Ed Institutions Must Keep Up With Ever-Changing Technologies

05/26/2010 10:47 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

New technologies and innovations constantly improve the way we communicate, work, and live our lives in the 21st Century. Every few months, we read about the latest and greatest cell phone or hybrid vehicle that will hit the market - and consumers wait in line for days (for phones) or even weeks (for cars) to buy them. Every week, new apps for our cell phones and software updates for our computers become available and we can't wait to download them because they make our digital lives more efficient and productive.

This is the same mentality America's higher education institutions must have when it comes to preparing students for today's workforce. Universities need to constantly upgrade curriculums and course offerings to reflect what is happening in the real world. If that doesn't happen, everyone loses - students who graduate unprepared for the workplace, and businesses that are stuck with a pool of unqualified workers.

In short, higher education, while remaining true to the values of academia, must be prepared to change to keep up with a world that is changing more quickly than ever. In less than a generation -- we have seen entire new sectors of our economy created. We need a highly educated workforce if America is going to compete for and win the jobs of the 21st Century -- clean energy jobs need people trained in the earth sciences; web-based jobs need people who understand graphic arts and web-design; the bio-tech industry needs people who understand science and technology.

There are three key areas higher education institutions need to focus on to ensure their learning environment is relevant to the workplace.

First, classrooms must have the most cutting edge technologies - the very same technologies that businesses are using to be successful. Just like consumers wouldn't want to throw away their iPhone and revert to their big, clunky cell phone from the 90's, students shouldn't be entering the workforce unable to work with the technologies necessary to get the job done in the real world today.

Second, professors must be proficient in these technologies so that they can effectively teach students the skills they need for the high-tech jobs they seek. The most qualified people to teach students are professionals who work in these fields, the people who spend their days mastering the very same technologies they teach. Today, more than ever, there must be a direct connection between the classroom and the world beyond the classroom.

Third, the curriculum must be a rigorous one that requires students to tangibly demonstrate that they have mastered the technologies and skills needed to succeed before they graduate. Here at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco -- our students are held to very high standards before receiving a degree. We believe the degree needs to stand for the fact that a graduate of ours is prepared to go into the workforce and hit the ground running. Every student of ours graduates with a portfolio of work that demonstrates their mastery. For example, if the student is studying new media/web design, the student needs to design a web site, produce videos and prove his or her ability to use Flash. For video game design, their portfolio shows character creation, 3D figure modeling, sound and production.

At the Academy of Art University, our course descriptions are constantly changing. For example, what we offered our students in the "Game Design" major two years ago is no longer relevant to the realities of today's marketplace. Two years ago, students were creating 3D art in the traditional Maya and 3DStudioMax software, but using only the Unreal Development Kit (UDK) as the rendering game engine. But today, we not only have industry standard Maya and 3DS, but we have added Zbrush and newer game engine technology like Unity, Cryengine the updated Unreal and Flash with ActionScript 3 as well as pre-production and prototype production environments.

The key for higher education institutions is being relevant. A few weeks ago, the Los Angeles Times published a story, "ABC News Sees a Digital Future," about how "digital journalism could transform the future of network news." In the report, ABC News correspondent Dan Harris talked about a recent story he did in Congo, where it was just him and his producer - no camera operator, no sound technician and no other production support. It was up to the two of them to produce the entire story.

That is why a communications course today cannot look like one from 3 years ago. Students interested in communications will need to be required to learn how to write, report, edit, host and produce their own stories - as well as produce an interactive component to enhance their reports online. If students are not acquiring these skills, they are not going to be qualified for the media jobs of the 21st Century. Equally as important, Universities need professors who are masters of these technologies leading students in the classroom.

It is going to be a constant challenge for large universities to keep up with today's ever-changing innovations, but it is one that has to be met. Higher Ed institutions cannot prepare students for the jobs that businesses need to fill if they are not constantly adapting curriculums, upgrading classrooms and hiring the most experienced faculty members in their fields. Today's students need to experience real-world projects so that they develop the critical thinking and creative skills they will need to solve real world problems upon entering the workforce. It is up to America's higher education system to provide those learning experiences. The business community and students are counting on it - and our country's economic future is riding on it.