Ready or Not, the Classroom of the Future is Here

By John J. “Ski” Sygielski, Ed.D., president, HACC, Central Pennsylvania’s Community College

Recent advances in artificial intelligence by companies like Google, Apple and IBM demonstrate the impressive power of emerging technologies, raising excitement at the opportunities they represent and anxiety about the disruptive shifts such changes can have on the workplace. Whether pursuing their first degree or training for a new career, today’s graduates have no choice but to keep up. If higher education doesn’t embrace emerging technology, our students and our workforce will be left behind.  

Through pathways and partnerships, educational institutions must provide students easy access to the leading technologies that define today’s job market.

At HACC, Central Pennsylvania’s Community College, our Mechatronics Program represents just one example of a successful merger between advanced technologies and community buy-in. The hands-on, high-tech program combines practical, industrial knowledge and skills with advanced electronics and computer technology. Students learn how to perform maintenance on robots, repair electromechanical systems and program. Mechatronics was launched at HACC in direct response to employment needs in the region. Since the program began at the College’s Gettysburg Campus in 2014, students have achieved a 100-percent success rate of earning employment in the industry or continuing into an associate degree in applied science. These HACC graduates will not be taken by surprise when robotics and artificial intelligence become part of the new normal.   

Educational institutions have to prepare students to use the technology they need today, but also the technology they will need 10 years from now. The technology identified today as “industry-disrupting” will become standard, and our students must be prepared with the resilience and creativity to adapt. Basic computer skills are now a fundamental requirement for almost any employment opportunity. Within the next decade, cloud-mediated collaboration and video conference communications will be prevalent, with artificial intelligence and augmented reality also on the horizon.

To train employees who are competitive in the workplace of the future, colleges and universities must foster technology-rich environments that weave these and other technologies into the fabric of the educational experience. This encourages a growth-minded perspective that technology use is not a one-time skillset, but an ongoing practice. Technology literacy helps with collaboration, critical analysis and problem solving – skills that employers need.

To this end, HACC launched a collegewide plan that includes the creation of technology-rich learning spaces tailored for collaboration and creative problem solving. These spaces combine flexible furniture with technology, including touchscreen computer displays and an interactive projector. Students have the capability to share content from their own devices in an environment where they work, learn and share under guidance from content-expert faculty. HACC’s ongoing commitment to forward-looking technology has earned the College the distinction of being named one of the Top 10 Digital Community Colleges in the nation by the Center for Digital Education.

If community colleges hope to train adaptable, future-ready graduates with the knowledge, skills and flexibility required to lead tomorrow’s workforce, we must work with community partners and employers to provide the technology and experiences to build these vital skillsets. Faced with funding challenges and enrollment pressures, colleges may find it tempting to argue against technology investments. We cannot allow financial stressors to limit our understanding of how technology will shape the future of our students’ careers and lives. Delaying this investment is a disservice to our current students and a threat to the long-term well-being of our community and its workforce.
 
John J. “Ski” Sygielski, Ed.D., is the president of HACC, Central Pennsylvania’s Community College.