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Enabling Lifelong Learners in the University of the Future

Web Panel

2014 Knight Fellow Umbreen Bhatti (center) says it's important to understand that you learn as much from informal opportunities to meet people on campus as you do in the formal classes you take.  Photo by Misha Bruk.

A pair of Year of Learning panels offer diverse perspectives on the evolving role of the university in preparing students for successful careers and then helping them continue to learn throughout their lives.

Stanford’s Year of Learning closed out its Winter quarter examination of the ongoing evolution of both learners and learning with two panel discussions that explored how universities might change to better address people’s educational needs throughout their lives.  

Phil Pizzo

“This is a time of pretty dramatic transition and transformation in our society and in our universities,” noted former Dean of Stanford’s School of Medicine and Founding Director of the Stanford Distinguished Careers Institute Philip Pizzo in introducing the late afternoon event at the Huang Engineering Building. 

In particular, Pizzo observed, it’s increasingly difficult for students to know what their careers will look like in the future, which in turn impacts what they choose to study. “Does one focus on a more liberal arts education?” he asked. “Or is it more important to be equipped with skills which you can immediately import and employ when you get into the world?”

The panels, collectively titled “The University of the Future: Learning across the Lifespan,” aimed to explore both how faculty and student responses to that question are changing the traditional university experience, and also what that shift might imply for the relationships students maintain with universities as they grow older.

The evolving traditional university 

The conversation began with four Stanford faculty members debating how the role of the university as a platform for launching young adults into their professional careers is changing.

For Harry Elam, Stanford’s Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education, a useful frame was the university’s own SUES report of 2012, which established four goals for a Stanford undergraduate education: owning knowledge; honing skills and capacities; developing a sense of personal and social responsibility; and fostering the ability to apply learning from one area of understanding to another. Add creative confidence and critical thinking skills, Elam suggested, and you create a foundation that equips students with an education “that’s going to translate outside of the four years that students spend here to their lifelong pursuits.” At the same time, he cautioned, “Students are changing, and so what we need to do in education is change along with them. So even as we set out these principals, we have to be able to adapt them to this environment and think about meeting students where they are.”  

Dean of Stanford’s School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, Pamela Matson, emphasized the challenges in education, equity, health, security, and environmental change the planet will be facing as today’s students graduate, and that will result, she said, “in the multiple and multi-dimensional career paths that they’ll need to have in order to work in this incredibly complex and rapidly changing world.” To be successful in that environment, Matson argued, every student needs to understand how complex systems work, which suggests that they should be asked to do more interdisciplinary study. In addition, students should be able to learn from hands-on experience and research, to grow empathy by seeing the world though the eyes of decision makers, and to develop an open, collaborative mindset – all of which impact the design of the student experience. 

Student interests certainly are shifting, noted School of Engineering Senior Associate Dean and former Computer Science Department Chair, Jennifer Widom, pointing as evidence to a sharp increase in students majoring in computer science at Stanford. But the field itself is rapidly changing, which complicates the question of what students should be taught. “We can teach our students the tools they need to get a great job when they graduate, and we do,” Widom explained. “But those tools and techniques are so short-lived.” In the face of that, it’s essential that students learn how to think computationally in a more abstracted and intellectually portable sense, and also how to learn new things and adapt. “I think that’s our main job,” Widom said.  

Jennifer Widom

Rounding out the panel, former School of Engineering Dean, Jim Plummer, broke down the challenge of adapting the university experience by education levels: undergraduate; masters/professional; and doctoral. Of the three, he said, doctoral education is likely to change the least, given the almost one-to-one relationship required between student and faculty advisor. We can expect the middle level to change the most, becoming dominated by online and commercially delivered services in the future. But undergraduate education will likely change significantly, too, Plummer argued. An engineering education, for example, used to be about acquiring a set of technical tools. In contrast, he suggested, “When I ask what should our more technical students know today, I think about it in terms of a set of life skills.”  These include: technology fundamentals, technical literacy, an appreciation for the arts and humanities, a passion for learning, team skills, creative thinking, and an entrepreneurial mindset. Plummer noted that it’s hard to deliver these successfully outside of a residential undergraduate experience, but that they do represent a significant change from how undergraduate education has been traditionally framed. 

Questions and comments from the audience drew out further discussion of the degree to which humanities and social science students need technical versus critical thinking skills and the value of a multi-disciplinary experience for all students. Others emphasized the value of overseas study, of departments and programs being more open to curricular change, and the degree to which universities could help bring faculty from disparate disciplines together to create more interdisciplinary options.

The university for all ages

If universities are rethinking the pre-career student experience in the face of a rapidly changing world, those same forces are spurring an evolution in how higher education serves people across their working lives and into retirement. 

The event’s second panel explored what those changes might look like by drawing upon the insights of a number of current and former Stanford students who have been able to study at the university at different points in their careers. 

In opening the conversation, Philip Pizzo, whose Stanford Distinguished Careers Institute (DCI) offers year-long fellowships to successful professionals looking to ready themselves for new roles in which they can make a significant social impact, noted that people are living longer than ever and can expect to enjoy both long working lives and retirements. “That really asks the question, what do you do after you’ve had your first career?” he observed.

Joan King Salwen’s answer has been to go back to college as a 2016 DCI Fellow. After two distinct careers in management consultancy and then in high school leadership, Salwen has been using her year at Stanford, she said, “to find a way to continue to contribute, to grow, and to learn.” Crucially, she didn’t think she could do that alone. Instead, she said, “I was looking for a way to immerse myself in a very vibrant learning environment.” 

Both Salwen and fellow 2016 DCI Fellowship recipient Steve Leveen spoke to the value of spending time with people at very different life stages than their own. “The chance to work with undergraduates has been wonderful,” said Leveen, an author and entrepreneur who is currently writing a book on multilingualism. 

For the past 50 years, Stanford has also offered Knight Fellowships to mid-career journalists interested in helping rethink both their own careers and, since 1984, the future of their profession. 2014 Knight Fellow Umbreen Bhatti noted that, as a mature student, you can’t help being aware of your age but that the positive intensity of the classroom experience can easily bridge age differentials. It’s also important to understand that you learn as much from informal opportunities to meet people on campus as you do in the formal classes you take, she added. 


If there’s value for experienced adults in engaging with young people, it works the other way, too, suggested current Stanford sophomore Sandy Lee who has taken classes with DCI Fellows and, she said, learned a huge amount from hearing about their life experiences. Speaking to Bhatti, Lee joked that “You guys are kind of like the cool kids who know everything and are really friendly!”  

Lee’s experience was echoed by fellow sophomore, Madilyn Ontiveros, MBA candidate Niamh Gavin, and bioengineering PhD student Alice Stanton. A former DCI Fellow and classmate became a valued mentor to Ontiveros. Gavin has found her learning community enriched through engagement with people of different ages and aims to keep learning throughout her life. Stanton, meanwhile, held up the DCI and Knight fellows as exemplars who can model for undergraduates how they might themselves keep education in their lives as they age. 

Audience members were curious about the degree to which K-12 schools are also shifting their teaching to prepare students for the future, whether universities should emphasize critical thinking more, and how to get young faculty more interested in teaching older students. Panelists were also invited to share how they learn when they are not in school, how one goes about reinventing oneself, and how, in the face of both changing employment patterns and increased longevity, people are increasingly re-conceptualizing the notion of a career. 

While programs like Stanford’s DCI and Knight Fellowships remain small, they offer an opportunity to collaborate and engage with other universities to catalyze their own engagement in mid-life education, Pizzo had suggested in introducing the afternoon’s second panel. “But the important point here is that we are in a learning environment that is in many ways bidirectional,” he added towards its end.  “We can learn from each other, teach each other, share experiences with each other and mentor and guide each other – and that’s what I think about as the university of the future.”

The Year of Learning Video Gallery

Watch the first panel discussion: "Evolving the Traditional Role of the University." 

Watch the second panel discussion: "The University of the Future."

Watch more videos from the Year of Learning.