Harvard University’s 60-Year Curriculum Initiative

Today’s students will change careers many times over the course of their five or six decades of a working life. So how can universities develop a model that will launch students into a multi-faceted, six-decade career that probably involves technology that doesn’t exist yet?

Dr. Chris Dede, Wirth Professor of Learning Technologies in the Graduate School of Education at Harvard University, joined the Enrollment Growth University podcast to talk about developing a curriculum that can serve students for the next 60 years of their career.

Is the Current University Curriculum Model Short-Sighted?

People in mid-adolescence start to consider what their careers will be. Many of those people, however, will continue to work for 50 or 60 years. Who knows at 15 what they will want to do at 65?

“What we’re doing now is not thinking about (higher education) as a pipeline,” Chris told us, “but instead, maybe 95% of educational effort is going into preparing people for their first job. If you’ve got a lot of money, you can take on a second career by coming back and getting a graduate degree to prepare you for that.” 

That model is not going to work well in the fourth industrial revolution, though, when adults will be looking probably at three to five careers, with multiple jobs in each career, and some of those careers don’t exist yet.

Harvard’s 60-Year Curriculum Initiative

Harvard’s Dean of Continuing Education, Hunt Lambert, and a number of people in workforce development and public policy are all contributing to a book on the 60-year curriculum. The book will present their aspirational vision of having this pipeline and lots of support for students so that they stay employable and have meaningful work throughout that six-decade period. 

We already have possible models to start thinking about this. Georgia Tech, for example, has a concept called lifetime education. If you’re an alumnus of Georgia Tech, then you have continuing support throughout your career for employability and for keeping your skills updated. 

Other universities, including Harvard, are thinking along similar lines, but that only works for their alumni. The larger challenge for the 60-year curriculum is to ask how you can support everybody. Consider for example auto workers who were laid off who are never going to go back to be auto workers. How do we as a society build capacity for them? 

A Future Vision for the University Model

“A four-year degree is much too large a grain size,” Chris said, “when we start thinking about continuing employability and rapid shifts in skills in the fourth industrial revolution.”

The traditional 18-to-22-year-old cohort that enters universities is shrinking, which raises concerns about university longevity. But workforce capacity building isn’t shrinking; it’s expanding. And workforce capacity development isn’t going to be a matter of degrees. It’s going to be a matter of the university providing some kind of services. People are looking at different kinds of credentials or certificates now. These might be stackable so that you can do small, incremental things that add up to something larger. 

“There’ll need to be competency based measures of some kind that might take the form of certificates,” Chris said, “or they might take the form of sort of performance assessments that people would do. But they’d be ways that employers could understand what skills people were actually bringing.”

How to Adapt Existing Four-Year Programs

When preparing students for the first degree and career, many institutions act as if that will be their only career. These colleges don’t emphasize flexibility, creativity, entrepreneurial skills, and tenacity, which are what people need to handle high degrees of uncertainty. 

“We have so many technologies that are simultaneously advancing and converging that the workplace is going to be very fluid,” Chris told us. “Tom Peters, who wrote a book called Thriving On Chaos, points out that, if you’re well prepared, chaos can actually be an opportunity as well as a challenge. We don’t tend to think of the first career that way, but we need to.”

Next-Steps Advice for Building a 60-Year Curriculum

Part of building a 60-year curriculum comes down to making a commitment to a single student across the lifespan, understanding them more deeply, their passions, their ultimate desires, and what they want on their metaphorical tombstone.

“My students will come to me,” Chris said, “and say, ‘I don’t know if I should be an instructional designer or if I should be a researcher.’ I say, ‘Well, you’re going to be both. The real question is, which do you do first and then what are the other things that neither you nor I know about right now that’s going to be part of it?”

Universities are also going to need much stronger links to employers in industry so that that’s a continuing connection back and forth. When we think about these 60 years as a pipeline, they’re going to have to see continuing education not just as a cash cow that’s off at the side of the university, but actually as a very powerful extension of the university’s connection to students.

This post is based on a podcast interview with Dr. Chris Dede from Harvard University. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to Enrollment Growth University.

If you don’t use iTunes, you can listen to every episode here.

Eric Olsen

Eric brings more than a decade of award-winning creative brand development, marketing analytics and higher education experience to Helix Education. Eric is a graduate of Bradley University and earned his MBA at Lewis University.