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PERHAPS MANY OF US RETAIN AN IMAGE OF THE TYPICAL U.S. COLLEGE STUDENT as a young, idealistic man or woman, about twenty years of age, eager to learn, but also to play, enjoying a four-year reprieve from full adulthood and the pressures of “real life.” Traditionally, the college or university has been imagined as a leafy enclave, or ivory tower, that is set apart from the workaday world. But technology, economics and globalization have all contrived to create a significant discontinuity with that fading snapshot of campus life.

For one thing, today’s student body is much more diverse in age, ethnicity and cultural and economic background than in the past. In the 2010/2011 school year, international student enrollment in U.S. colleges and universities increased by 5% to 723,711 according to an Open Doors report published by the International Institute of Education in partnership with the U.S. Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs. The trend is helping to increase global awareness among a student body already much more aware of itself as part of a global village.

Of course, globalization began long before the 21st century. The noted Canadian communications theorist Marshall McLuhan referred to the “global village” as early as the 1960’s. But the advance of technology has only fed that process forward. Today’s students are aware of and even passionate about global issues, and schools like Stanford University have responded with degrees in fields such as Earth Systems, International Policy Studies and Global Innovation. And global awareness starts early: watch a twelve year-old playing Xbox with fellow gamers around the world, or a teenager researching a history assignment on his laptop. Beyond a textbook with a single photograph of the pyramids of Egypt, that student can take a virtual tour, visit the site through Google Earth, view travelers’ personal photos and Skype an archaeologist working at the site.

“We become what we behold. First we shape our tools, and then our tools shape us.”

- Marshall Mcluhan

Digital Natives or Generation Z, who still dominate the college demographic, have never known life without computers, cell phones, video games and the instant gratification of iTunes. It is extraordinary to see how quickly a young person adapts to technology. A four-year-old can learn to play Angry Birds on her parents’ cell phone. Preschoolers can use a mouse before they can tie their shoes or ride a bike. A sixth grader will look up the answer to “Why is grass green?” on Wikipedia, rather than consult a library book. And at the college level, students trust the Internet as a source of information, often seeking information online, rather than in the classroom. Students possess unprecedented skills with technology.

21st century students are not only expert at using technology to access information from various sources, they also possess skills as creators of content. Since a young age, most have a public face through social media and are comfortable sharing self-generated content with friends and with the world. According to Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project, 27% of Internet-using teens 12-17 record and upload video to the Internet; 13% stream video live to the Internet.[2] While the content generated by these teens may not be equivalent to informed and instructive educational content, the activity itself suggests that these students will want to be active in an educational scenario, as well as a social one. Our research indicates that this is so.

Thought leader Marc Prensky, who holds degrees from Yale and Harvard Business School and who coined the term Digital Natives, believes that today’s students represent not an “incremental” change, but rather a fundamental shift—indeed, different kinds of thinking patterns. An example? Digital Immigrants, who of course include parents and teachers, read a manual when learning to use a new software program; Digital Natives assume that the program itself will “teach” them how to use it. These students have not adapted to a digital world; they were born there.[3]

Today, most students entering college expect the institution to be equipped with pervasive Wi-Fi, multimedia classrooms and libraries that provide computers and lend laptops loaded with research software. Teachers often use technology to augment lectures or to facilitate discussion in a smaller group. Students in study groups or those working on project teams often connect via laptops or smartphones to share ideas and information. They seem to be natural collaborators. Certainly most students possess the technical and social networking skills required to participate in new blended teaching models that combine face-to-face instruction with podcasts, online discussion forums, digital games, interactive video and social media.

“Our students have changed radically. Today's students are no longer the people our educational system was designed to teach.”

- Marc Prensky, Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants

Beyond the ubiquity of iPhones and a knack for the “language” of technology, post-millennial university students differ from those who entered college in 1980 or 1990 in other significant ways. Students, by necessity as well as acculturation, are consumers. With tuition through the roof—often necessitating student loans that are equally astronomical—many students are taking a hard look at the cost-benefit of a college education: what exactly can I expect to get out of a 4-year, $200,000 degree? Will I be able to get a job to pay off my loans? Faced with a competitive job market, students are looking for programs that promise professional rewards. In response, schools offer programs like MIT’s Leaders in Global Operations degree—and advertise that 95% of LGO graduates are employed upon graduation.

For talented techies and those with an entrepreneurial bent, opting out of a bachelor’s degree may be a smart move. Each year, the Thiel Fellowship offers young people (those born after 1992) no-strings-attached $100,000 grants to “skip college and focus on their work, their research and their self-education.” Mentoring is provided to Thiel fellows by notable investors, scientists and entrepreneurs who provide guidance and business connections. “Rather than just studying, you’re doing.”[4] Thanks to the iconic status of post-Millennial cultural heroes like Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs, many ambitious young people do indeed envision a future as an entrepreneur, not four to six years in school followed by a slow climb up the rungs of the corporate ladder. That said, only twenty lucky young people a year are granted a Thiel Fellowship— it’s easier to get into an Ivy League School.

The New York Times recently reported that apprenticeship is re-emerging in new programs like Enstitute, a two-year, on-the-job educational experience that teaches skills in technology-based fields, as well as digital media/ advertising and nonprofit/social good organizations. “Enstitute seeks to challenge the conventional wisdom that top professional jobs always require a bachelor’s degree — at least for a small group of the young, digital elite.”[5] The cost? As of fall 2013, tuition stood at $1,500 each year. And when Enstitute fellows complete the program, “instead of getting a paper diploma, the fellows will graduate with a portfolio of skills they’ve acquired, business development deals they’ve closed, marketing materials they’ve created and products they’ve built, in addition to 5 to 10 recommendations.”

The advantage that an eighteen-year-old may see in such a program is getting a leg up on his or her peers in the workforce. While some employers still believe that a bachelor’s degree is requisite for a professional position, others say they would prefer that a new hire have solid, relevant skills.

In the 21st century, a traditional liberal arts degree accounts for less than 10% of all majors, a steep drop from a decade ago according to the U.S. Department of Education. Rather, students choose a major that will potentially land them a job. Accordingly, more than half of college undergrads now choose business, engineering or nursing. Business is the nation’s most popular B.A., at 22 percent of all degrees awarded. Schools are also responding to students’ concerns with co-op programs, experiential learning and corporate partnerships.

“It's better to be a pirate than to join the Navy.”

- Steve Jobs

It is possible to take a negative view of this pragmatic approach to education, but one can also see its value. Students learn to make decisions, evaluate risk and take responsibility for their choices. They also make valuable connections. While the intellectual range of the liberal arts college still has value, students also want to pursue an education that is meaningful in terms of their lives at this moment in history, to grapple with relevant questions and plunge into solving real problems.

What do today’s students think about education? Professor Michael Wesch and some 200 students enrolled in his Introduction to Anthropology class collaborated to create a remarkable video in which a group of students seated in an auditorium hold up cards or sheets of paper that read, “I Facebook throughout class”, “I did not create the problems, but they are MY problems,” “I buy hundreds of dollars of textbooks that I never read,” “18% of my teachers know my name,” “I am a multi-tasker, I have to be,” “When I graduate, I will have a job that doesn’t exist today,” and “over 1 billion people make less than $2 a day.”[6]

How have modern-day students changed from previous generations? How do 21st-century student, faculty, technology and curriculum changes impact interior planning? How do classrooms adapt to changes in learning and teaching? How do we accommodate change within heritage buildings? In business, how do we design workplaces to attract today’s Digital Natives and maximize their skill set?

All of these topics and more are covered in a new research piece written by Teknion and Gensler.
Explore current and emerging trends in higher education while discovering parallels to the modern workplace with emphasis on flexibility, sustainability and communication technologies.

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