‘Am I Preparing My Students for the Future?’
- Technologies emerging from the Fourth and Fifth Industrial Revolutions are changing numerous industries far more quickly than major innovations have done in the past.
- If we are to set our students up for success, we must ensure that they fully understand the implications that current and future technologies will have in their chosen industries.
- When faculty keep themselves educated on the newest technologies, they not only can better prepare their students for the future, but also help their schools fulfill the requirements of AACSB’s Standard 7.
As business faculty, we have contractual relationships with our universities that often heavily emphasize teaching responsibilities. Even so, most faculty have little to no incentive to develop new areas of expertise solely for teaching purposes. After all, why should we learn something new when we can make things easier on ourselves by teaching the same content year after year? And, especially, why learn something new that we cannot apply to our research?
In the past, professors might have been able to get away with the reasoning they could set aside “unproductive” activities, such as staying on top of technological trends, to give them more time for research. But those days are quickly nearing their end. In previous centuries, only a few technological advancements had broad impact. With few exceptions—such as such as James Watt’s improvements on the steam engine in the late 1700s—most innovations happened within particular sectors and rarely impacted other industries.
But today, the world is undergoing one of the most wide-ranging, disruptive periods of technological advancement in human history. We are seeing steam-engine-level advances occurring across numerous industries in a very short period. Furthermore, those advances are intersecting in very disruptive ways.
By now, we all are aware of the “ChatGPT” moment that unfolded during spring and summer of 2023. In fact, some more forward-looking faculty already may have added policies governing the use of generative artificial intelligence (AI) to their course syllabi. But the advances in AI and machine learning (ML) that made the ChatGPT moment possible are just the tip of the Fourth and Fifth Industrial Revolution (4IR+5IR) iceberg that’s now heading our way.
A Far Different Kind of Revolution
The world has long had to adapt to major technological shifts, which have changed the way we live and work in pervasive and fundamental ways. In a 2022 paper that explores the implications of today’s current technological upheaval, Stephanie Noble and colleagues define these major shifts, each defined as distinct Industrial Revolutions, in the following ways:
- According to Noble and her co-authors, the First Industrial Revolution (1IR) began with the first versions of the steam engine, invented by Thomas Newcomen in the early 1700s before Watt refined it. The technology enabled the spread of factory production.
- The Second Industrial Revolution (2IR) harnessed distributed electricity in the wake of the war of the currents between Edison and Westinghouse in the late 1800s.
- The Third Industrial Revolution (3IR) began with the digital era of the mid-1900s. Mainframe computers shrank to the size of personal computers, and the initial specialized use of the World Wide Web gave way to internet protocols that began connecting humans worldwide to vast repositories of information.
- The Fourth Industrial Revolution began in the 2000s, as human activities were being connected to everything electronic. Some 4IR innovations that have sparked the most far-reaching changes include the Internet of Things (IoT), blockchain and cryptocurrencies, 3D printing, AI/ML, 5G telecommunications, and augmented/virtual reality (AR/VR).
In a 4IR world, people can rent infinite computing power and cloud computing storage; they can use AI and ML to make sophisticated predictions based on data captured by devices halfway around the world via IoT sensors, in real time via 5G. They can use blockchain to transfer cryptocurrencies securely between parties after the automatic execution of “smart contracts.” They can ride to work in their self-driving cars enabled by 5G, IoT, and AI/ML. Doctors are even experimenting with remote surgeries performed via 5G—soon, people will be able to access a surgeon’s skills from anywhere in the world. As 4IR technologies converge, the opportunities and threats to existing business models are nearly endless.
- Now in the middle of the Fifth Industrial Revolution, we are experiencing a shift in mindset. We are moving away from a zero-sum view, in which technology competes with and substitutes for humans at work. Instead, we are adopting a synergistic view in which machines add to and multiply human capabilities. The complementary interactions between humans and machines promise to drive greater productivity, promote personal fulfillment, and create positive outcomes for all stakeholders.
As we examine this long history, we can see how each phase of progress came with great disruption, eventually settling into times of improved prosperity. But 1IR, 2IR, and 3IR happened relatively slowly, often over decades or even across centuries. Today, that cycle has compressed considerably. We are experiencing 4IR+5IR changes far more quickly than in the past—over just a few years or months.
Because of this rapid pace of change, educators must be more proactive in the ways they upskill themselves before they enter the classroom. Because if we don’t appear knowledgeable about the technologies that are reshaping business, our students will not be able to turn to us for the information and guidance they need to prepare for their futures.
Teaching the Future Requires Upskilling
According to Standard 7.2 of AACSB’s most recently updated Guiding Principles and Standards, business schools should have “development activities in place to enhance faculty teaching and ensure that teachers can deliver curriculum that is current, relevant, forward-looking, globally oriented, innovative, and aligned with program competency goals.” But how can educators be “current, relevant, and forward-looking” if they do not consider, or if they only superficially consider, the implications of 4IR+5IR on business?
For example, AI models can spot anomalies faster than humans can, which is quickly changing the auditing industry. What do aspiring accountants and auditors need to know about this development? To share this knowledge, accounting faculty should be immersing themselves in the possibilities of this technology; they should be philosophizing with colleagues about the implications of this 5IR “dance” between machines and humans.
How can educators be “current, relevant, and forward-looking” if they do not consider, or if they only superficially consider, the implications of 4IR+5IR on business?
Cryptocurrencies, stablecoins, and decentralized finance are disrupting banking institutions, credit card services, and online payment platforms. Finance faculty should be well-versed in these innovations, so that they can ready their students for the future of fintech. The list goes on and on.
So, Where Do We Start?
It might seem that staying atop 4IR+5IR technologies would be time-consuming. However, several simple strategies can help educators minimize the time it takes to stay informed:
Follow experts on social media. Before business faculty can start considering 5IR implications, they first must gather information about the various 4IR technologies. Social media platforms offer a great place to start. I am a huge fan of Twitter (now X) and Substack, because they allow me to follow subject matter experts who post the most cutting-edge insights in their fields. I follow futurists, technology writers, and authorities on topics as broad as smart contracts.
Keep in mind that if we are to engage in conversations in the classroom about 4IR+5IR, a little reading each week can go a long way. Take superconductors, for example. I was unfamiliar with this technology, but as the LK-99 adventure began unfolding and replication studies popped up in labs around the world, I knew I needed to educate myself. So, I simply began closely following the social media accounts of experts on the topic. Over a couple of days, I spent about 90 minutes reading their insights. Afterward, I understood how the discovery might impact everything from transportation to computers—and why it could be worthy of a Nobel Prize. I also knew where to point students if they wanted to dig further than our conversations.
Reach out to alumni. Other great resources are alumni who work in industries that are hiring students. The knowledge that alumni have to offer not only will help faculty bring the “real world” into the classroom, but also will give them ideas about where to look for industry-relevant implications of 4IR+5IR.
When smart colleagues bounce ideas off each other, the energy of the discussion quickly becomes generative, both in terms of imagining possibilities and understanding realities.
Moreover, alumni input can help schools meet Standard 7.3, which holds that faculty should remain “current in their discipline and pedagogical methods” and demonstrate a “lifelong learning mindset.” Faculty’s outreach to alums in industry also can be included in a school’s documentation for Standard 7.4, which requires concrete evidence of teaching impact.
Ask business schools to fund continuous learning. It is especially helpful if business schools organize and fund faculty learning on 4IR+5IR technologies. By providing faculty with regular upskilling sessions, schools not only will encourage professors to consider the implications of these technological advances for their fields, but also will work toward fulfilling Standard 7.
Schedule brainstorming sessions. Along with their traditional research talks and brown bag lunches, academic departments can schedule meetings where faculty exchange ideas and information related to 4IR+5IR innovations. When smart colleagues bounce ideas off each other, the energy of the discussion quickly becomes generative, both in terms of imagining possibilities and understanding realities. If deans cover the cost of lunches or guests on occasion, that also helps schools meet Standard 7.
Anticipate students’ needs. Before they set foot in their classrooms, faculty need to ask themselves a simple but profound question: “Am I preparing my students for the future?” Professors can answer this question in the affirmative when they set aside part of some class sessions to discuss with students the implications of 4IR+5IR technologies to the subject at hand.
Such discussions will engage students in perspective-taking exercises that will introduce them to the world they will face every day after graduation. Even better, these discussions might just open professors’ eyes to possibilities that they had never even considered. My own journey into the blockchain space came about from a group of former students who invited me to an author’s book launch and signing on a topic I knew nothing about at the time. My decision to say “Yes!” to learning something new changed the direction of my scholarship and my teaching.
A Source of Inspiration
As a professor, I enjoy asking cool research questions. I view my research and teaching as symbiotic activities. With this perspective, I never fear that delving into new topics will detract from my research. Rather, doing so often supports my research on topics such as bitcoin, and has allowed me to work across disciplines with scholars around the world.
By learning about emerging technologies, I tap into a source of inspiration that helps me take my research in new directions and explore new questions. I love discovering and sharing the answers in papers that (hopefully) are compelling enough to convince skeptical reviewers and journal editors to accept for publication.
That said, even if learning more about the impact of new technologies does not lead to published research, I consider it time well spent—and a necessary part of my role as an educator. I enjoy teaching immensely, and I know that I can use the knowledge I gain to enrich my classroom, and more importantly, to ensure my students will be ready for meaningful careers, no matter what the future has in store.