The future of education is up for grabs. It is changing on virtually every dimension that matters—the design of schools, the role of faculty, and above all, the learning experience. These changes are inevitable because a tsunami of new technologies is driving profound shifts in education fundamentals—the relationship between teachers and the taught, the location and timing of educational activities, and the very definition of what it means to learn. They are also inevitable because today’s rising generation was born into a world of turmoil that demands the ability to design one’s life with an eye to personal as well as professional fulfillment.

Looming over all of us is an employability landscape disrupted by new technologies, new patterns of demand, and new economic models. Inevitably, this leads to the desire to acquire new innovative and entrepreneurial capacities that allow learners to design their jobs, their careers, and their lives. And this is a desire not only of the young but of adults who will increasingly rely on new just-in-time learning experiences to improve their economic and social mobility. It may be said that the learning continuum is now based more on need than age. This calls into question the very definition of what it means to be a student. The magnitude of these disruptions forces a reassessment of the purpose of education and our expectations of it.

Such pressures on traditional education are part of a larger context; we are living in what I call the Age of Innovation. Worldwide, both societies and enterprises understand that their future depends on innovation mastery. Forward-thinking educational institutions also appreciate the need to innovate—regarding their processes, their value proposition, and their approach to innovation itself. Innovating education also requires institutions to educate for innovation—to help their students cultivate the ability to generate new ideas, develop and realize value from them, and thrive in uncertainty.

So What for Community Colleges?

For community colleges, the challenges are clear and the opportunities are compelling. With a smart strategy in hand, they could turn the current turmoil in education to their advantage, to reposition themselves in a shifting competitive and fiscal landscape. Some of these advantages include:

• Experimentation—The ability to experiment free of the kind of crushing legacy thinking that emphasizes precedent over “what could be.”

• Flexibility—Scheduling flexibility to insert new learning experiences coupled with curriculum flexibility that anticipates the trend towards modularity in the form of bite-sized learning experiences and non-credit co-curricular tracks.

• Regional development relevance—The potential (and the perceived role) of driving regional economic and social development within a coherent narrative of how community colleges enable the building of innovation and entrepreneurial capacity. This requires the ability to engage with local community, employers, secondary schools, and four-year learning institutions, as well as local community and employers. From a learning perspective, there is an ongoing opportunity to link local economic and social development themes with pedagogy through internships, innovation competitions, and more.

• Learning that fits students—Relevance for people who want just-in-time learning arcs, such as returning veterans and returnees to the workforce who want to prepare for career engagement or to start a venture of their own.

Innovating Community Colleges

Going forward, community colleges must reaffirm their relevance to students, faculty, and the community. These challenges all require the ability to innovate for their resolution. Innovation happens when multiple conditions are present. Here are a half-dozen:

1. A compelling vision of a desired future that motivates the desire for change and that is fueled by a sense of urgency;

2. A narrative that translates the vision into engagement;

3. An organizational culture that supports responsible risk-taking and experimentation;

4. An approach to rewarding and retaining talent;

5. Processes for generating, developing, and realizing value from ideas developing; and

6. Leaders who understand their role in orchestrating an innovation agenda.

Experience shows that innovation is hard work. Yet nothing could be more important in setting the future agenda for the community college movement.

John Kao

Founder and Chairman, EdgeMakers, Inc.


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