Sustainability, the New Economy and Lifelong Learning

by |November 27, 2017
Columbia's Low Library

Students sit in front of Columbia’s Low Library

It is clear that an increased portion of our economic life is in the service sector (about 80 percent of GDP) and that economic growth in the future will require new technologies and greater attention paid to the environmental impact of economic activity. The fact that the high value-added parts of the economy are increasingly based on human ingenuity and brain power means that we can imagine wealth based less on goods than on services. One problem with less emphasis and wealth associated with material production might be that less talented people will be attracted to manufacturing, mining, agriculture, construction and related activities, and that they will be less creative in reducing environmental impacts. However, the nature of these production businesses is increasingly automated, computer and data-based and is dominated by their own internal service providers. For these reasons, we see a growing level of technical sophistication in all elements of the modern economy: mining, manufacturing and services.

If you doubt this conclusion, consider the modern motor vehicle: mechanical elements have increasingly been replaced by complex electronic and computer controls. Consider modern construction: modular units build in robotic-dominated factories are trucked to a construction site and then lowered by crane to help form a building. Gauging environmental impacts increasingly relies on remote sensing, satellite data, and impact models. These trends are easy to see and only growing.

This means that in the coming decades it will be easier and less expensive to measure and reduce environmental impacts, and the operational steps involved in reducing impacts can be integrated into the design of manufacturing processes ranging from cars to buildings to agriculture. This will happen if the political will to encourage it exists. Leaving aside the mid-twentieth century thinking now running the U.S. national government, most other local and non-U.S. government leaders recognize that we are well into the twenty-first century, and that a clean environment contributes to economic development. Just as road safety is promoted by speed limits and traffic lights, environmental protection requires the rules of the road we call regulation. Most world leaders understand that regulation helps create jobs rather than destroying them. Growth results from the greater certainty brought by clear and predictable rules and the economic benefits of less lost productivity and reduced health care costs.

The brain-based economy is here to stay and will expand, although its development is creating new challenges for educators and educational institutions. One problem is that some of the lessons we learn when we are young and go to school full-time become outmoded by the time we’ve been in the workforce for 10 or 20 years. Learning to learn and great ideas don’t become outmoded, but lots of stuff does. While much of what workers need to learn they learn on the job, sometimes new knowledge, new professions and new paradigms require formal education. But the format of that education cannot always be the 2-10 year in residence model, typical of higher education.

We are seeing many new formats for delivering education. Distance learning, hybrid programs combining live and distance elements, and part-time evening schedules are all in use. Traditional university faculty often resist and resent these new forms of education and consider the students and the courses to be low quality. Sometimes these new educational programs are low quality. Sometimes the students do not perform as well in class as traditional students do. But mostly these new students and educational programs are different, not worse than traditional programs and students. Working professionals in school have different needs than full-time students. The knowledge they bring to bear on the classroom experience is different, the skills they seek to acquire can be quite specific and these differences require faculty to adjust their teaching and assessment methods. When these part-time students end up in classes designed for full-time, in-residence students the results can be unpredictable. Sometimes they figure out what is required and succeed and sometimes they don’t and they fail.

Some traditional faculty in elite institutions who have taught these part-time students assume or believe they are not as smart as their “regular” students. This is exacerbated by some schools of continuing education or mid-career education that are more interested in generating revenues than in educating their students. Despite these issues, I believe that top universities must get better at delivering high quality education to part-time students. Traditional faculty need to wed their concern for quality education and skill at delivering quality to the growing need for lifelong learning and what I believe will be the expansion of all forms of education as the brain-based economy matures. By dismissing these students and looking down on these new programs, some faculty are abandoning a critical mission of contemporary higher education.

At Columbia, I direct two sustainability masters’ programs, one dominated by part-time students that is offered through our School of Professional Studies, and the other an intensive full time yearlong program offered through our School of International and Public Affairs. I’ve taught hundreds of students in both programs and consider them very bright and talented, but have learned that different methods are sometimes needed to teach these two very different groups of students. I require both groups of students to work in groups, give presentations and write professional memos and reports, but one group is coming to class at night after working all day, and the other is faced with the rigors of full-time graduate study. One group has more work experience and the other group has more time to go on field trips, conduct interviews and meet in-person after class. When they are in the same class and subject to the same standards, I need to ensure that my grading criteria are comprehensive enough to capture the differences in these two fairly distinct groups. That is not easy to do, and I am continuing to learn how to do a better job of teaching and evaluating these students.

Professional education of an already educated workforce often draws on the work of reflective practitioners who are willing to teach as part-time adjunct professors or as full-time professors of practice. It also requires educational programs to adjust their schedules and even assignments to the needs of those working full time. The challenge is to do this without reducing the quality of education for part-time students or compromising standards of quality. It also requires faculty to revise their traditional approach to scheduling and to use technologies such as video, cloud computing and web-based meeting software. Intensive weekend, week-long and evening sessions may be required to accommodate the scheduling needs of working professionals. Some accommodations can be unpredictable and more difficult; for example, when a student is suddenly sent on the road to deal with a work-related emergency and misses an assignment or a class session.

Full time, in-residence graduate education will remain, but as the economy demands new knowledge and as professionals seek to meet those needs, new forms of formal education and non-degree training will be demanded of our top universities. My view is that it is the civic responsibility of America’s best universities to learn how to meet these needs. It should not be left to lower quality institutions and it should not be relegated to lower quality units within high quality universities. Schools of continuing education are needed to develop the support services demanded by non-traditional students, but their degree programs and intellectual content should be developed in partnership with the existing academic units of their universities. This will help ensure that the concern for quality that has made these universities great is experienced by the part-time students. It will also ensure that the very real needs of non-traditional and part-time students are hard-wired into the culture and standard operating procedures of the continuing education school. Both content and delivery must be first rate. Too often, lifelong learners are made to feel as if they are second-class citizens when they enroll in elite institutions. The registrar, bursar, library, health clinic, and other key resources assume they are dealing with full-time and young students.

I have seen the benefits of partnering with a continuing education school in the programs the Earth Institute has developed with Columbia’s School of Professional Studies. Our Master of Science Programs in Sustainability Management and in Negotiation and Conflict Resolution have been doing well for years, and a new program in Sustainability Science begins in 2018, largely taught by research professors from our Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. My Earth Institute colleagues are eager to educate aspiring sustainability professionals, and my hope is that this model will be adopted throughout my university and many others. Sustainability and the new economy require lifelong learning. America’s great universities should take the lead in meeting this critical need.


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