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James Spohrer, Director, IBM Global University Programs

James Spohrer, Director, IBM Global University Programs

By Jim Spohrer

Moore’s Law describes the phenomenon that drives rapid progress in the electronics industry.  Taking advantage of the laws of physics, engineers have been able to pack transistors ever more densely onto semiconductor chips, doubling their capacity every 18-24 months. The effect of this so-called “scaling” phenomenon is the ability to do more with less space, continuously increasing the capabilities and lowering the cost of computing. Rapid progress is built into the system.

Society’s efforts to scale higher education have not been so successful. Sure, the world’s developed economies handle an immense quantity of university students. In the United States alone, nearly 5,000 institutions of higher education serve more than 20 million students. Yet the way we have scaled up to produce the number of knowledge workers required by modern society is ineffective and unsustainable. In the US, the cost of higher education has increased by 1,120% over the past 35 years, four times the increase in the consumer price index.  And stasis, rather than progress, is built into the system.

What we need is new approach to higher education that has a similar effect to the one Moore’s Law has on electronics. We need to produce graduates with new skillsets, quicker, and less expensively. And we need to create a system that adapts rapidly to the changing needs of society and industry.

If you want to participate in the conversation about T-Shaped people, Michigan State University and IBM are hosting T-SUMMIT 2014: Cultivating Tomorrow’s Talent Today March 25 at IBM Research in San Jose, Calif. Tweet to #TSummit.

At IBM, I oversee efforts designed to help 5,000 universities and colleges worldwide build and evolve their computer science and engineering programs and courses. From my perch, I see a number of potentially fruitful experiments taking place, including the immensely popular massively open online courses (MOOCs) and programs that combine disciplines. But, so far, no comprehensive strategy has taken hold that promises to make our system of higher education more effective and sustainable.

I don’t claim that I have the answer, either. However, I have some suggestions for what I see as some of the key ingredients of a Moore’s Law for education.

The solution must be systemic: Any large-scale reform to higher education must recognize that our educational institutions cannot remain ivory towers. They must be integrated much more aggressively with the other systems of society—cities, government bodies, the economy, social networks, cultural institutions, etc. An example of this principle in action is Yale University, where I got my Ph.D. In recent years, the university has become a true partner with New Haven city government and civic institutions in strengthening the local economy. For faculty and students alike, New Haven is a living laboratory for learning and testing their ideas.

The solution must produce T-Shaped people. In an era that has been marked by increased specialization, it’s time for the pendulum to swing back in the other direction. A services-based economy increasingly demands individuals with deep disciplinary knowledge plus the ability to understand and work within complex systems and the ability to collaborate across disciplinary boundaries. Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh is responding to this need by launching a program later this year called Integrative Design, Arts, and Technology (IDeATe). The program which brings together the disciplines of art, design and technology to prepare undergraduates and grad students for careers that span computer gaming, performance arts, media and education.

The solution must enable rapid adaptation. Faced with the accelerating rate of change in business and society, universities struggle to keep up. One sticking point is the lecture format. Too many professors make the lecture the centerpiece of the classroom experience and deliver the same presentations year after year. In a typical US college course, less than 1% of the lecture material changes from year to year. That’s a recipe for obsolescence. Today, some of the best teachers continuously update their lectures with fresh knowledge and real-world examples. A good model is Singularity University in Moffett Field, Calif., where, typically, 50% of the lecture content changes every year.  Additionally, the spread of MOOCs is helping to break down the constraints of the traditional classroom lecture model. Around the country, I see pioneering teachers requiring students to participate in MOOCs produced either by themselves or other experts, and reserving classroom time for real-time, interactive learning.

Computer augmentation can play an important role.  We’re on the cusp of a new era of computing where cognitive systems will increasingly help us think. Machines will learn from interactions with humans and data, reason and interact with us in ways that are more natural to humans. In my view, one of the most valuable uses of cognitive computing will be in helping us learn.  Systems will understand how we as individuals learn best and will help us design truly personalized courses and methods of study. Once we are established in professions, systems trained in specific domains will make us aware of the most recently produced ideas and findings—so our learning never stops.

In today’s society, individuals have to constantly reinvent themselves to remain current and valuable. We should expect no less of our universities. Let’s develop new methods for simultaneously deepening and broadening the universe of knowledge that individuals can tap into and the skills they can express. Let’s do more to prepare students for entry into the world of work and enterprise. And let’s get them there faster and less expensively. Our collective future depends on it.


If you want to learn more about the new era of computing, read Smart Machines: IBM’s Watson and the Era of Cognitive Computing.



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Hi Gabriel. The simplest ingredient is to shift routine to technology by some fixed percentage each year. And let that part be largely student ( customer self- service). Then the professor (the provider) can add innovations year-over-year. That is the gist of it, constant innovation and productivity gains. -Jim

Posted by: Jim Spohrer
March 26, 2014
10:27 pm

That’s really awesome, but how we will make this touchable to people like me?

And how can we direct people like me to have the same vision to the vision you guys have, to the great potential of the new era of computing?

Posted by: Gabriel
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April 1, 2015
3:41 am

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March 31, 2014
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[…] Continued here: Needed: A Moore's Law for Higher Education – A Smarter Planet Blog […]

Posted by: Needed: A Moore's Law for Higher Education – A Smarter Planet Blog | Study Professionals
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