Preparing students for the reality of the modern workplace

Preparing students for the reality of the modern workplace

Toni Townes-Whitley argues that to prepare students for work, their education must promote technology

Caspar Herzberg |

This article first appeared in the Winter 2017 issue of The Record.

Working in technology is living in the intersection of the present and the future. At Microsoft, we work hard to enable the success of our customers today, but constantly need to be envisioning and developing the technologies of tomorrow. This is both the thrill and the critical challenge of working in technology.

Striking this balance is especially relevant in education, where today’s innovation helps to define the future success of students, and ultimately global economies. At Microsoft, we use our immense sources of data and research to predict how jobs will evolve in the coming years in order to prepare our children for what the future holds. This is not just one of our most pressing societal challenges, but also one of our largest opportunities.

The numbers are clear – the jobs of tomorrow will look dramatically different from those of today. While core skills like mathematics, science and writing will remain critical, the modern workforce is demanding new skills like creativity, collaboration and coding. It’s estimated that 65% of future jobs don’t even exist yet, and 77% of jobs in the next decade will require technology skills. Even fields that don’t currently require a technical background are moving in that direction – from fashion, to food, to retail. This demands digital transformation in the classroom, in order to ensure students are not just prepared to survive in this new workforce, but inspired to thrive as the next innovators and leaders of their generation.

For some, these statistics evoke a fear that people will be replaced by robots in the workplace. But the reality of this digital revolution is that humans also are evolving and, in large part, driving the change. The future of technology is in fact, profoundly human. In education, this means we must build technology that makes teachers even more ‘super human’ than they already are, letting computers do the work that only computers can do, so that teachers can engage in more of the important educating that only they can do. And Microsoft has developed technology solutions that are helping to achieve this.

Tools like Microsoft Teams are making it easy for teachers to run an entirely digital classroom, encouraging students to learn from one another in a virtual discussion space. With Skype for the Classroom, teachers are using video to bring in remote speakers and make more human connections around the world to build global citizens. Tools like this help students in their social and emotional journey, as well as their academic journey. Research shows that it is increasingly important in determining their long-term professional success. Artificial intelligence can help focus research projects, leaving more time for discussion, and mixed reality can bring a lesson out of the textbook and into new dimensions.

With Windows 10 PCs, we are giving schools industry-leading security, management and creativity tools, without the compromises of our competitors. Our customers get the same great Windows experience, even on a device that costs less than US$200.

Our technology is designed to drive better learning outcomes, but just as importantly, to enable richer interactions between students and teachers, and to develop emotional, ethical and social skills that are emerging as critical for the workplace. Versatility, empathy, curiosity, drive and persistence – these are the skills that define the great employees on my team, and I love seeing how our products are helping to bring these traditionally soft skills into focus.

Another dynamic we are watching closely is related to the generational differences between educators and their students. At this pivotal moment in time, many educators are digital immigrants, so to speak, while their students are digital natives. While we can follow with some consistency the patterns and needs of today’s educators, students are much more complex, with varying attitudes towards technology based largely on their age.

Recent college graduates who’ve just entered the work force – millennials – are far more comfortable with technology than their predecessors, but they still have some preferences for the physical world they grew up in. Generation Z on the other hand – which makes up a majority of elementary and higher education students today – are the movers and shakers who see technology as the means to achieve their wildest dreams. They embrace it fully – both in and out of the classroom. Generation Z is innately social, entrepreneurial and curious, and they thrive in learning environments that are creative and collaborative. Unlike millennials, Generation Z students feel less restricted in how they envision career success and don’t feel that college is their only option.

And today’s kindergarteners – look out! This generation is commonly referred to as ‘phigitals’ because they are unable to draw a distinction between the physical world and its digital equivalent. These students will undoubtedly bring an even more dramatic change to our job market and economy because they learn and dream without limits. They are inspiring us at Microsoft to do the same.

The connection between the digital transformation of the workplace and the classroom is undeniable. Just as e-mails and Skype can fuel productivity in the office, Microsoft Teams in the classroom can inspire students to collaborate and learn from one another. And just as an architect can use 3D and holographic tools to visualise a space, students can measure and build new worlds in Minecraft: Education Edition.

As a leader in emerging technologies like virtual and augmented reality, 3D and artificial intelligence, we at Microsoft are also excited about the immense possibilities for these technologies to drive more personalised, creative and immersive learning that readies students for the economies that they will enter.

The CEOs, innovators, leaders, politicians and creators of tomorrow are all sitting in the classroom today. Our collective ability to empower students of all abilities, and to support them in their growth, will define our success as a society. It’s a tremendous opportunity, which the power of technology can help to define.

Toni Townes-Whitley is corporate vice president of industry for Microsoft

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