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Higher Education and the Fourth Industrial Revolution

Higher Education and the Fourth Industrial Revolution cover art

by Kayla Smith (’07)
Illustrations by Anita Boeira (MPC ’10)

The world is experiencing a time of great change and innovation—both happening every day at unprecedented speeds on micro and macro levels. The ways in which we learn, work, play, engage, and communicate look very different today than they did just 10 years ago. Looking back even a few decades further, many of Westminster’s current students and young alumni likely wouldn’t recognize tools that were considered cutting edge at the time: the fax machine, cassette tapes, and floppy discs.

Technology is one of the main factors contributing to these massive changes. But what exactly is technology? A quick Google search provides a variety of definitions—from straightforward to abstract—but, for the purposes of this article, we will use the definition found on “The application of science, math, engineering, art, and other fields of knowledge to create tools and implementations deemed useful by a society.”

As is evidenced by the many definitions of technology that one internet search provides, we might not all agree on the exact definition of technology, how it should be applied to our everyday lives, or whether it is a positive or negative influence in our world. Regardless, a few things about technology are certain: its current pace is unlike anything we’ve seen before, it is now inextricably woven into our day-to-day lives, change is inevitable, and we don’t fully understand what the future will look like.

The question of how society will adapt to these unseen technological changes of the future is one of significant importance to Westminster’s president, Beth Dobkin. “I see the impact of rapidly accelerating technology in giving people a sense of hope but also instability. The increasing pace of change is outstripping our ability to understand its consequences in time to effectively know how to respond,” President Dobkin says.

As the new president of a liberal arts institution, President Dobkin wanted to use her inauguration platform to open up a dialogue that explores what impact the early stages of the technology revolution—also known as the Fourth Industrial Revolution—has had on society, what is on the horizon, and what role Westminster and higher education can play in navigating and influencing the emerging technological landscape.

Recognizing that this topic is far too extensive, complicated, and messy for one inaugural address, President Dobkin brought together educators, industry experts, and faith leaders in a symposium dedicated to discussing which values will endure in a digital world. The event featured a keynote address by Amy Loomis, co-founder of the IBM Think Academy, and a diverse panel of experts, including Westminster alumni Nicole Bedera (Honors ’14), PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Michigan; Ray Bradford (Honors ’07), founder and CEO of Spruce Health; and Nate Walkingshaw, chief experience officer at Pluralsight.

The symposium acknowledged that it may seem like humankind is wading into uncharted territory; in 20 years the world could look like an episode of The Jetsons or the landscape of Mad Max. It seems impossible to know how to make moral, ethical, and strategic decisions for your life when you don’t know what technology will be capable of in as little as five years.

“It is really tough to orient yourself around what to do right now because you don’t know the origin story. The origin story of the technology evolution is going through an interesting gestation cycle because we haven’t seen the end of it,” Nate says.

Nate Walkinshaw black and white illustration

“The origin story of the technology evolution is going through an interesting gestation cycle because we haven’t seen the end of it.”

—Nate Walkingshaw

Today, we are living in the early stages of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. We are seeing changes at a speed, scale, and force unlike anything we’ve experienced before. This doesn’t mean society hasn’t experienced radical change and come out on the other side in a better place; we do have somewhat of a road map to reference. It’s an old, faded paper map that’s a little outdated, but it can help us feel a little less lost in the dark.

What did these previous revolutions look like? Historically, industrial revolutions began in the wealthy western countries of Europe and the United States. Over time, the technological advancements would eventually reach most other parts of the world. The first industrial revolution began in the late 1700s and consisted of mechanical innovations, such as the steam engine, cotton gin, and railroad. These inventions transformed agrarian, rural societies into industrial and urban hubs of production. Americans and Europeans were able to travel faster and farther than ever before, exposing them to different people, places, and ideas.

The second industrial revolution, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, introduced new industries such as steel, oil, and electricity; ushered in mass production through assembly lines; and brought inventions such as the telephone, light bulbs, the phonograph, and the internal combustion engine. The United States also experienced the advent of labor unions, the 40-hour work week, and an end to child labor.

The third industrial revolution, often referred to as the Digital Revolution, began to take shape in the 1980s and marks the stage where analog electronics and mechanical devices were transformed into the digital technology experienced today. This time also saw the introduction of the personal computer and the internet. These innovations have completely altered how we live, work, and play.

It took nearly 200 years to advance from the steam engine to the internet, but only around two decades to go from a computer in most homes to a computer carried 24/7 in nearly every hand. We are living in a time when radical, systemwide innovations happen in just a few years. “Tech teams of the past were organized around tech stacks with only two languages. Fast-forward 30 to 40 years and now you have 350 languages,” Nate says.

The breakneck pace of innovation is disorienting. Technology is making it more difficult than ever to know what is real, what is true, and what is private. At the same time, technology is making what was previously unthinkable reality: self-driving cars, immunotherapies to fight disease, organs grown in laboratories, and artificially intelligent robots that do everything from work on an assembly line to order pizza.

What does this mean for the average American worker? What does this mean for you and me and our grandchildren? What does it mean for higher education and training not just for the next generation of workers, but for the next generation of citizens? The World Economic Forum poses the question, “How do we avoid a world of joblessness, low productivity, and inequality?” Their response: “By ensuring the Fourth Industrial Revolution really does improve the world.”

Grounding ourselves in our core values is a critical component to ensuring that the current revolution improves the world. The inauguration-symposium participants explored what values they see as necessary to achieve this goal. The values that emerged from the discussions were adaptability, creativity, critical thinking, the desire to learn, and empathy. Since none of us can see the future, all we can do is speculate and hope that these are the values that endure. This is where higher education institutions factor in. For years Westminster has taken an active role in instilling these types of values in our students, as reflected in our college-wide learning goals of critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, communication, and global responsibility. Every course taught at Westminster embraces these goals and weaves them into the fabric of the coursework.

Professors can no longer focus on teaching facts and basic skills: they must also teach students how to learn so they can be agile and adapt. As Amy explains, “It is no longer enough to teach students how to use a particular tool; that tool may be obsolete in four years.” Westminster is also faced with the challenge of preparing its students for jobs that do not even exist yet. In fact, a 1999 Bureau of Labor Statistics report predicted that 65 percent of jobs do not yet exist. Furthermore, researchers Carl Frey and Michael Osborne from Oxford University’s Martin School estimate that 47 percent of positions will be automated by 2033.

Amy Loomis black and white illustration

“It is no longer enough to teach students how to use a particular tool; that tool may be obsolete in four years.”

—Amy Loomis

Erin Coleman, a Westminster assistant professor of communication, teaches courses on design, multimedia production, and user experience—and she moderated the panel discussion at the inauguration symposium. “If you look at the initiatives of five or 10 years ago, speculating as to what kind of designers we would need in 2015, design educators and professionals were very focused on the belief that they would need to learn these tools,” Erin explains. “Now, we see these tools are ubiquitous, and designers of today need to use them to help organizations brand for resilience, to be not only content creators, but curators of information.”

As technology becomes woven into the fabric of what we do every day—how we create and communicate—it becomes even more essential that our students are taught to critically evaluate how they use technology. Today’s professors are charged with the task of guiding students to consider whether they are wielding that technology conscientiously, creating new technology with moral and ethical frameworks in mind, and considering the human impact of technological applications.

“My sense of responsibility with technology, digital media, artificial intelligence, or even virtual reality is to create meaningful and authentic experiences for my students,” Erin says. “Part of authenticity is questioning bias, questioning our own roles and responsibilities.”

So, what must our students learn in order to be prepared to question their own biases, roles, and responsibilities in today’s world and the world ahead? In her inaugural address, President Dobkin stated, “At its core, Westminster is about developing people: bringing students together in community, where they learn the freedom to think, the wisdom to know, and the aptitude to act. Each part in the Westminster education is indispensable to the others and, together with our unique place, makes Westminster a truly remarkable institution.”

What does it mean to learn the freedom to think, the wisdom to know, and the aptitude to act? First, let’s explore the freedom to think. “We need to practice both the liberties and responsibilities of free thinking, which involves discovery of knowledge, breaking disciplinary boundaries, suspending judgment, and respectful engagement in difficult conversations,” President Dobkin explains. The curriculum at Westminster is structured to encourage connections and collaboration. Educators and leaders across campus are implementing innovative tools—like designing classes that incorporate two seemingly disparate topics (such as cooking and chemistry) and finding their intersection. Professors from different disciplines are also team-teaching courses.

“Most interesting things happen at intersections between disciplines,” says Ray. “It is critical to have a holistic decision-making process and critical-thinking skills to take into account the different elements of a problem: moral, ethical, structural, economic, and technical. The more you have different types of thinking—as well as timeless humanist values—present in the key decisions, the better the decisions you make as a society or a creator. That’s the type of thinking liberal arts education encourages. That is the spirit places like Westminster try to foster and facilitate.”

Ray Bradford black and white illustration

“The more you have different types of thinking—as well as timeless humanist values—present in the key decisions, the better the decisions you make as a society or a creator.”

—Ray Bradford (Honors ’07)

Next, we must cultivate the wisdom to know. Technological advancements are bringing with them an incredible amount of data and information. We must be able to sift through it all, evaluate its integrity, and draw conclusions. “The wisdom to know is where experience meets ideas, where context informs interpretations, and where people develop the cultural agility necessary to thrive in a globalized economy,” President Dobkin explains.

By being exposed to diverse perspectives, ways of thinking, and experiences that challenge our own points of view, we are able to think more broadly and consider unintended consequences. “To move society forward and make progress, we have to talk about who is allowed to have critical thought and where it’s fostered,” Nicole points out. “The way a lot of large research universities structure their STEM [science, technology, engineering, mathematics] programs, engineers are never taking a humanities class. In a liberal arts education, everybody has to learn critical thought. It takes a little bit of power away from the people at the top because they can’t convince us as easily.”

Nicole Bedera black and white illustration

“In a liberal arts education, everybody has to learn critical thought. It takes a little bit of power away from the people at the top because they can’t convince us as easily.”

—Nicole Bedera (Honors ’14)

During the symposium, Amy asked, “What if we bring the sensibilities that are ethical, social, and moral into the very classes that are teaching design and engineering? We are by nature building ethical sensitivities into the design process.” This is exactly what Professor Coleman is doing in her design classroom. “I try to immerse my students in lots of good design—to help my students become visually literate, so they can communicate and discuss the impact of design in the world. Last semester, we talked about ballot design and the 2000 election butterfly ballot used in Florida, in which thousands of ballots were invalidated due to confusing design,” says Erin. “I want my students to learn that we need to be more intentional about our process, be mindful of what we are doing, and apologize when we are wrong.”

That brings us to the final component, the aptitude to act. Skills like critical thinking, creativity, and communication are only useful if applied. At Westminster we promote community and project-based learning, giving students the opportunity to implement the knowledge and skills they’ve gained through their education. As technology advances, we will need to continue to learn and adapt. A Westminster education prepares students to do so, regardless of what the landscape ahead looks like.

It is also important to note that as the landscape continues to morph with each new advancement of engineering and technology, so too must the business models of every industry. This includes higher education. Online learning and tutorial platforms are becoming more common and sophisticated. What does that mean for Westminster and the traditional classroom?

“The challenge for education is, ‘How do we develop the skills and mindset to be able to retain a sense of agency in a world that seems to be taking it away from us?’” says President Dobkin. Technology is putting up barriers that make it easier to avoid interacting with people, things, and ideas that don’t please us or fit with our current worldview.

“There’s a loss of ability to navigate human relationships that we don’t necessarily want to have,” points out President Dobkin. “This is destroying our ability to understand across differences, empathize, and be able to build communities in a diverse society. At the same time, we need that diversity in order to push our thinking to adapt quickly and flexibly to changing circumstances.”

This is where the classroom can make a difference. “I strongly believe in the environment of the classroom,” Erin says. “To have this experience, you create relationships and connection. Students’ ideas build off each other; they set the bar higher and challenge each other to think differently. And that is how it is in the professional world. More often than not, there is a need to be collaborative, to have an exchange of ideas.”

Westminster and other small liberal arts institutions have long had learning communities that many other institutions are now trying to replicate. “The more we cultivate curiosity and creativity, perforate disciplinary boundaries, and bring diverse students together to solve problems, the more relevant their educational experience will be to all kinds of future work environments and to living a fuller life,” President Dobkin says.

We can all take comfort that institutions like Westminster are here to prepare current students and are finding ways to adapt and remain relevant for the students of the future. But what does all this mean for those of us who have already left college?

According to the Bank of New York, only about 27 percent of individuals ever work in a career within their major, and data shows that the average career in the new digital economy will typically consist of 17 jobs across five different industries. “We need to rethink the role of education in our lives. We all need to be learning at whatever stage of life we are in,” Amy says.

Heather McGown, a thought leader in the world of education and the workforce and co-founder of Work to Learn, suggests we retire three age-old questions: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” “What is your major?” and “What do you do?” In the old economy, our life blocks were to become educated, work, and retire. We moved through the stages in a fairly linear fashion. The new economy imposed by technology has shifted life blocks to engage, learn, and recondition, bouncing back and forth between the stages throughout our lives. Because of this, McGown encourages all of us as educators, employers, and individuals to “change our systems, change our mindsets, and change our expectations.”

Amy recommends getting interested in professions that are uniquely human. “It is important to not mistake skills for professions. Just because skills are being automated doesn’t mean the profession is going away,” she says.

In her inaugural speech, President Dobkin said, “The needs to connect with others, develop a personal identity that is acknowledged and respected by others, and join in communities of shared values and pursuits are timeless.”

The ability to think, analyze, respectfully share ideas, innovate, collaborate, and empathize with others has been critical to success in the old economy and will be even more so in the new, emerging economy. These are skills that are difficult to instill, making those who cultivate them valuable and essential to shaping our future society.

Westminster and our community of learners have long been cultivating these skills. We’ve been solving big problems and imagining great possibilities for decades. It is hard work. It is messy, dirty, sweaty work. It is important work. And in the words of Westminster’s new leader, “No one can do it alone, but we can do it together. We are Westminster. Let us begin.”

President Bethami Dobkin black and white illustration

“No one can do it alone, but we can do it together. We are Westminster. Let us begin.”

—President Bethami Dobkin, PhD



About the Westminster Review

The Westminster Review is Westminster University’s bi-annual alumni magazine that is distributed to alumni and community members. Each issue aims to keep alumni updated on campus current events and highlights the accomplishments of current students, professors, and Westminster alum.