Chapter 9: From Academic Preparation, through Skills Development, to the Knowledge Continuum

by Vistasp M. Karbhari, Ph.D.

Posted on March 28, 2019

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Every fall, thousands of students start their academic journeys at universities across the nation, taking tentative steps towards degrees.

Some of these students could well be defined as the “traditional” population, moving on from high school directly to universities pursuing a path that has not changed significantly for decades. An increasing number, though, belong to the group that was defined previously as “non-traditional” but are increasingly a significant percentage of the college-going population, raising questions over the use of the traditional-nontraditional differentiation. Many of these students follow pathways that include either periods of study at community colleges or periods of concurrent enrollment at both community colleges and universities. Still others are returning from the workforce to complete degrees started early in their lives and then put on hold to take on family responsibilities or are entering as adults for the first time after successful careers in the workforce either as employees for companies, big and small, or as proprietors of their own small businesses.

Irrespective of the details of the debate, it must be recognized that while topics have changed and new degrees are added at universities every year, by and large, the majority of our educational system is similar to that which might have been found at an institution of higher education 50 years ago. While the mode of instruction delivery may have changed, the aspects of learning have not changed as dramatically as might have been imagined due to the tremendous advances in technology over the years. This is not to say that new programs developed to address knowledge at the intersections of traditional disciplines or based on new emerging areas of focus have not been introduced, nor to posit that technology has not been used innovatively to enhance teaching, but that, as a whole, we in academia have not changed significantly. There is undoubtedly immense value in the pace of slow, methodical change, ensuring that academia does not bow to the drumbeat of “buzz-words” and the pull of short-term changes demanded by sectors that are focused on the “here and now” rather than the necessity of educating students not just for their first jobs but for their lifetimes, and ensuring that universities do not become assembly lines for pre-defined narrow skill sets but are focused on the development of an educated citizenry.

The students of today enter universities at a time when there is significant discussion about the purpose of higher education and its value proposition.  

We speak of education being the “great equalizer” and of the power of higher education to enable prosperity and a better future for our students, their families, and the communities in which they reside and work. The students of today enter universities at a time when there is significant discussion about the purpose of higher education and its value proposition. There is increasing debate over whether the cost of, and time taken to gain, a degree are worth it and whether we should be dramatically re-envisioning the focus of higher education to narrowly defined skills—emphasizing workforce readiness and training that can be put to use by the students to “hit the ground running” immediately on hire. A recent survey from NBC News and The Wall Street Journal reported that 47 percent of Americans surveyed thought that four-year degrees were not worth the cost “because people often graduate without specific job skills and with a large amount of debt to pay off.”1 Ironically, in the same time frame a report from McKinsey stated that “almost 40 percent of American employers say they cannot find people with the skills they need, even for entry level jobs. Nearly 60 percent complain of lack of preparation, even for entry level jobs.”2 Given these and other reports, as well as the increasing legislative and gubernatorial focus on skills gaps, debt, and the perceived lack of some academic majors/disciplines to result in jobs that can enable paying off debt and provide for the economic wellbeing of the graduate, one could well draw the conclusion that the traditional model of higher education is past its prime, if not broken, and that academe needs to re-envision how it focuses on ensuring the development of an educated citizenry that simultaneously is prepared for the careers of tomorrow.

In today’s world driven by rapid technology convergence, with information and knowledge being developed and made accessible at unprecedented rates, the linear progression of (a) go to college; (b) graduate; (c) learn job-based skills at one’s first job; and then (d) become a productive employee, no longer suffices. There is an increasing demand for graduates to come prepared with disciplinary talent, job-related proficiencies, and “soft” skills needed to “hit the ground running.” While one might argue that the roles of academia and the corporate world as related to preparation of a graduate for the workforce are different, there is no doubt that changes in the economy and the rapid evolution of new career paths have created a demand for the merging of the development of academic talent and workforce-directed skills. In many ways, the traditional academic model of preparing students for careers may not be attuned to the rapid developments of the workforce, where technology continues to revolutionize how we work and where careers among the most needed today did not even exist a decade ago.

What is needed in today’s global economy and a growing urban population is the intersection of knowledge and skills, the enablement of talent that ensures that a student is career-ready and has well-honed capabilities.  

Higher education today, perhaps, needs to re-envision the social contract between academe and the communities it serves, addressing a rapidly changing workplace that is driven by accelerating technology convergence while ensuring that our graduates continue to be learned citizens who are not just the workforce of the future but who will determine the future of the workforce. It is no longer enough to have academic knowledge at the end of a degree. Rather what is needed in today’s global economy and a growing urban population is the intersection of knowledge and skills, the enablement of talent that ensures that a student is career-ready and has well-honed capabilities ensuring success in a workforce that is highly competitive and evolving at an unprecedented rate. This requires, at the minimum, a greater focus on the integration of two aspects that have heretofore been more distinct than combined, often treated as separate aspects of the curriculum meeting totally distinct purposes rather than integrated into a well-designed direction. There is a need for substantially greater articulation and alignment between the teaching of academic knowledge and the focus on attaining qualifications, credentials, and training that prepare graduates for the workforce and/or as entrepreneurs creating new economic wealth and sustainability. Simultaneously, there is a greater need than ever before for a much better appreciation, and integration, of the precepts of a traditional liberal education across the curriculum with aspects of technology awareness and workforce competence.

Rather than separate the two aspects and try to provide disciplinary skills, a liberal education core, and talent development through entirely different aspects of the student’s experience, we need to integrate them, weaving them together into our fabric, ensuring that every student is not only prepared academically and as a learned member of society, but also prepared to join (or develop, as in the case of entrepreneurs) the workforce as an immediately productive member. It should be emphasized that in today’s world, and perhaps even more in the future, it is crucial that students are enabled to develop hand-in-hand intellectual and practical skills, while still at the university, that prepare them to deal with complexity, continuous and abrupt changes, and diversity, as well as an evolving work environment in which rapid re-tooling and/or updating of skill sets is a necessity. A focus on ensuring the development of characteristics of imagination and creativity, strategic thinking and social responsibility, along with the abilities to communicate and analyze/problem solve, need to be integral to every path of higher education. No longer can we afford to separate disciplinary knowledge from social skills and professional preparation.

No longer can we afford to separate disciplinary knowledge from social skills and professional preparation.  

It could therefore be argued that academe needs to focus on four key aspects: (1) increase the ability for students to gain a well-rounded education intertwined with professional skills; (2) respond at a significantly faster pace to the needs of the job market and be better aligned with changes in technology and the workplace; (3) create more flexible, and personalized, pathways for students to be able to convert knowledge and learning to skills that result in earnings capacity; and (4) change the “stove pipe” structure between academe and the workplace to enable greater integration and alignment between the curriculum and skills needed in the workplace. This will require the development of a dynamic and changing environment, maintaining a fine balance between knowledge and skills and highlighting interpersonal capabilities, complex systems thinking, problem solving skills, and disciplinary/professional competence.

Workforce skills are highly contextual; hence, these need to be interwoven with true experiential learning both in, and outside, the classroom. The process of teaching and learning has to fundamentally shift paradigms from a largely transactional one involving knowledge transfer to true collaboration and “learning by doing.” The use of advanced simulations and virtual and augmented reality (VR and AR) provides tremendous opportunities to develop professional talents and skills needed in the workplace, at the same time allowing students to explore aspects of art and culture that heretofore have been relegated to reading from books and experienced in person by just a select few who are able to travel to locations away from their primary location of learning. Imagine the inspiration provided to civil engineers by being able to “virtually” not just visit the Parthenon and watch its construction by the Athenians of that time but to also learn of its history, of societal influences, and of why even today it is regarded as a symbol of ancient democracy and western civilization. Already in use in the training of professions such as medicine and nursing and in the defense forces, these tools facilitate near-to-real experiences that provide students with the opportunity to also apply academic knowledge through simulation to “real world” scenarios, enabling them to hone skills that will be needed in the workforce. Through the use of state-of-the-science human patient simulators, hospital equipment, and additional technology, faculty at some institutions provide learning experiences for students to gain proficiency and confidence in healthcare procedures and processes. Rather than being treated as a separate aspect, simulations are integrated throughout the curriculum to enhance the learning, retention, and application of knowledge by our students. This allows them, while providing care to simulated patients, to practice nursing skills and make clinical judgments in the safe environment of a “Smart Hospital” while still being subject to the stresses and emotions that accompany a range of “real-world” medical situations. These experiences allow students to develop the insight and abilities needed to provide safe, high-quality nursing care to their patients in healthcare facilities almost immediately after graduation, making these students not just able to hit the ground running but also making them among the most highly sought out by hospitals and healthcare providers for employment.

Rather than being treated as a separate aspect, simulations are integrated throughout the curriculum to enhance the learning, retention, and application of knowledge by our students.  

The case study approach, valued in the education of business graduates, takes on an entirely new meaning when it can be developed to encompass not just intellectual challenge and knowledge transfer but action in a workplace setting within a simulated environment that mimics the workplace, including time pressure, teamwork, the immediate reaction to decisions, and the associated emotional, social, and intellectual stresses.

The last century saw the movement of development and teaching of knowledge from disciplinary and discrete to becoming inter-, multi-, and trans-disciplinary. In the 21st century, the focus will need to be on the true integration of the liberal arts and use of skills and talent development within the confines of a degree. Universities no longer have the luxury of just being purveyors of knowledge for its own sake. We are, and have always been, a critical part of the chain that develops, maintains, and transforms the workforce. We need to now not only educate the workforce of the future but more importantly be an integral, rather than isolated, part of developing the future of the workforce.

In today’s world, we need to recognize that higher education in general needs to be focused not just on creating an educated citizenry but also on preparing for tomorrow’s workforce in a world changing so rapidly that some careers with qualifications not even thought about a decade ago are now the most in demand. There is a critical need, based on demand, for a major shift in educational methods, away from passive classroom lecture-based degree courses toward interactive, collaborative learning experiences, provided as, when, and where the students need the knowledge and skills. The constraints of time, space, and location can be alleviated by technology to enable not just flexibility but also enhanced modalities of learning, causing the blurring of the various stages of learning throughout one’s lifetime and resulting in a continuum from K through Gray. 

We now have the tools to allow for learning based on individual ability rather than on the decades-old aggregated norm for a group. Learning can be at the pace and rate that best suits each individual. In addition, the use of digital instruction essentially expands the concept of both a university-bound faculty and student population. The very best individuals from across the globe can be assembled, from both institutions of higher education and from society at large, to teach a course or in a program. Imagine the power of being able to learn from the very best talent from Arlington, Texas one day; New Delhi, India the next; and Sydney, Australia on the third—all while sitting at a desk, or on a couch, in another city thousands of miles away. Distance and travel time between locations are no longer barriers. The very definition of “student” will change—no longer restricting knowledge to a set of people with similar characteristics, since instruction, or rather learning, could be based on ability and desire, rather than chronological age or time in seat. 

We need to move towards implementing the potential of students being able to choose modules from a library of knowledge, developing courses and certificates based on levels of interest and prior learning. Certificates, specializations, and badges could be the norm with these being aggregated, or “stacked,” to enable a degree, credential, or qualification. In this format the student, or potential employer, could define the curriculum within pre-set bounds, enhancing the effectiveness in meeting workforce needs or enabling an individual to rapidly gain specialized knowledge in an area pertinent to their field. While some in academia may well consider the “Amazonization” of education heresy, one has to also admit that it could result in its true “democratization,” enabling significantly greater access, faster delivery as and when needed, and potentially significantly lower costs for higher-quality services.

While some in academia may well consider the “Amazonization” of education heresy, one has to also admit that it could result in its true “democratization.”  

It is under these circumstances that one now needs to re-envision universities. No longer bound by location, time in seat, or even level of education sought by the student, education can truly take on a global perspective with instructors and students coming together across the previous bounds of time and space and effectively engaging at the widest possible level, simultaneously enabling both socio-cultural change and economic development. The future, however, is not new. It is one that comes from the ages, expanding access through technology and enabling Plato’s concept of a learned teacher instructing a few pupils to be democratized without losing the essential aspects of individual attention and a rigorous and quality education.


1C. Dunn. “Americans Split on Whether 4-Year College Degree is Worth the Cost,” NBC News, September 6, 2017:

2M. Laboisseere and M. Mourshed, “Closing the skills gap: Creating workforce-development programs that work for everyone,” McKinsey & Co., February 2017: