A Twenty-First Century Curriculum in Universities

The relevance of any curriculum at any university in the context of rapid technical and cultural changes is a pressing concern for all: educators, students, parents and employers alike.

A traditional curriculum typically refers to a structured and prescribed course of study that students follow to obtain a specific degree. Such curricula often have their roots in long-standing educational practices and evolve over time. They are usually designed to provide students with a broad education in addition to specialization in a particular field.  Almost every university requires students to complete a set of general education or core courses. These courses are structured to ensure that students receive a well-rounded education regardless of their major. Such courses often include: humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, mathematics and the arts. No two universities are the same, yet these core courses are the foundation of any major. I grimace when I hear someone say, “I can’t wait to get these core requirements out of the way so I can start my major.” These courses are the groundwork of every major on every campus, and therefore, they are crucial to any path of study.

The major courses specifically in the chosen field of study include foundational courses, the key concepts and skills of the field, advanced courses that provide deeper insights, labs or practical experiences, and sometimes, senior capstone projects or thesis requirements. These are accompanied by electives of many types.

In many institutions, and in some courses of study, there can be a mismatch between skills taught and industry needs according to Harvard Business Review. Students need to be aware of employment requirements and opportunities. At WT, we feel a strong sense of institutional responsibility to be clear and transparent with students and families regarding the fit of their major with job opportunity and availability. Employers increasingly emphasize the importance of soft skills such as communication, critical thinking, problem-solving and teamwork. We are working to make sure that students receive a range of experiences while studying at WT so that soft skills are enriched by the university experience. Interpersonal, non-technical abilities that can be applied across various job settings have real value. How people interact, communicate and manage relationships with others effectively in the workplace all contribute to a positive organizational culture. These are the skill sets that keep people satisfied and productive at work, serving others by treating them with dignity and respect.

All curricula should help create technologically literate people who can critically assess technology and its appropriate use. This involves considering the benefits, drawbacks, implications and potential impacts (e.g., environmental, social, ethical) of using various technologies. As technology continuously evolves, technological literacy also involves the ability to adapt and learn new technologies over time. Technical literacy recognizes the importance of safety and ethical considerations when using and developing technology. This includes understanding digital citizenship, privacy implications and potential misuse. Additionally, it is imperative that students understand the history, evolution and role of technology in society and its influences on cultural, economic and political factors.

Contemporary problems often require interdisciplinary solutions. For instance, solving a public health issue might require knowledge in biology, sociology, technology and policy-making. This is where a strong core curriculum is given life, and the combination of that in addition to sound technical skills leads to many positive outcomes while providing the basis for improved employability. Curricula aligned with industry needs boost graduates’ chances of finding relevant employment and should instill the value of lifelong learning.

There are challenges – many legitimate and some not. Universities, especially public ones, might face red tape that slows down curriculum sensitivity to student needs. And often, the populations of universities claim a progressive posture but frequently resist change. Some value an educational framework nearly a century old. The speed at which technology evolves can make it hard for curricula to keep pace, yet also creates a demand for responsiveness to changed learning, working and living environments and challenges.

These forces at work should lead a responsive university into regular consultations with industry stakeholders to ensure that curricula remain relevant. Instead of rigid curricular structures, modular systems where students can pick courses based on evolving interests and market demands might be more appropriate. Stackable certifications are growing in importance for this reason, breaking down the typical four-year educational experience into a series of more bite-sized encounters. And lastly, hybridized learning environments that integrate online and on-campus instruction could provide the framework for curriculum flexibility. This reinforces the power of a more traditional core curriculum with a more flexible junior and senior exposure, both professionally and academically, that provides the greatest flexibility for both learners and institutions.

A blend of foundational knowledge and contemporary skills, emphasizing both technical and soft skills, is key to preparing students for the modern job market. There is a pressing need to ensure curricular relevance.

Walter V. Wendler is President of West Texas A&M University. His weekly columns, with hyperlinks, are available at https://walterwendler.com/.

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