To meet society’s changing needs, our antique educational system has to change or it will get a failing grade, many argue. At the recent Wharton “Reimagine Education” conference, innovators came together to propose new paradigms and digital solutions to upend the traditional practices of higher education.

The conference was created by Jerry Wind, director of Wharton’s SEI Center for Advanced Studies in Management, and Nunzio Quacquarelli, CEO of Quacquarelli Symonds (QS), a global provider of higher education and career information solutions. They spoke with Knowledge at Wharton about the latest innovations in education, where the best ideas are coming from, and the skills that future graduates will need the most. 

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Knowledge at Wharton: Tell us about the conference. What are some of its key takeaways?

Nunzio Quacquarelli: The mission of the conference is to identify the most innovative pedagogies in learning and in nurturing employability. Jerry and I have known each other for 26 years, and a few years ago, we got together and [realized] that there was a real need to try and identify which institutions were being innovative in this arena. And also, QS is known for producing the QS World University Rankings. We are the most popular ranking system in the world today, and we know that rankings have limitations. They can’t really identify excellence in teaching or learning. So this conference is a solution to that need to identify which institutions around the world are really innovating, really pushing the boundaries.

Jerry Wind: Another aspect [of the conference] is that it’s not just to report what’s there [in higher education], but actually to stimulate more innovative research in this area.… We have a global competition. We’re basically following … the wisdom of the crowd, and we are encouraging universities and businesses around the world to innovate, to come up with more innovative experiments that can be scaled.

The real reward for me from the conference was that what Nunzio and I started [in 2014] is actually stimulating people to think more creatively about how we can address the challenges in education. One of the key takeaways from the conference — one that reinforced our beliefs and premise in starting it — is that education cannot just continue as it is today. … One of our speakers, Shiv Khemka, actually illustrated that very vividly when he talked about the fact that in India today, if they were to continue teaching the way they [have been teaching], they’d need about 800 new universities. They’re getting a magnitude of 25 million new students in higher education a year.

There is no way the college educational system can [handle it]. So the conclusion is absolutely clear: We need more truly breakthrough innovations in pedagogical approaches to higher education. The traditional classroom model does not work, and we have to rethink it. What we are going to try to accomplish with the competition is to encourage universities around the world and businesses — and ideally, collaborations between the two — to try to come up with those innovative solutions.

Knowledge at Wharton: What do you think are the main challenges facing higher education today, and can technology help?

Wind: Well, technology is a must. You cannot solve the problems of a country like India or China or others without it. Or the U.S.: If you talk about the number of high school dropouts that we have, if you talk about the issue of functional illiteracy among high school graduates — you cannot solve those problems with the traditional approach. You need totally radical, new approaches to education. And the solution is not just to have MOOCs [Massive Open Online Courses] out there.

The solution is to try to rethink education and to basically ask the question: How can we use technology to enable us [in the following ways]? Number one, personalization; two, a better way of engaging the learners; three, … balancing technology with the absolutely critical component of the human interaction between mentor and student? And four, how do we do it in a way that is scalable, so that you can actually achieve the objective?

“The traditional classroom model does not work, and we have to rethink it.”–Jerry Wind

We hope that by integrating technology — not looking at technology separately, but as part of a new learning paradigm — we’ll be able to come up with better education, better results, more impactful results. Results that are addressing the employability issues we have, addressing the challenges of people throughout their life cycles — we’re not talking just about the 18- to 22-year-olds. We’re talking about the fact that, throughout the lifecycle of a person, we need continuous upgrading of capabilities and skills. That’s something we have to start addressing.

So the hope is that the conference will stimulate people to challenge their traditional mental models about education and engage in really bold experiments, taking advantage of some of the incredible advances and what we have learned about education over the years.

Quacquarelli: Higher education has been a sleepy industry. It hasn’t been disrupted. It’s been able to carry on, as-is, for hundreds of years. And in the next 10 years — or even sooner — it’s all going to change. There will be elements that are retained, but there is going to be fundamental change. Whether it’s degree certificates being passed through MOOCs — like the micro-MOOCs which MIT is offering on the edX platform — whether it’s experts from around the world sharing their knowledge across institutions, peer-to-peer learning, peer-to-peer assessment and grading, edutainment, games. As Jaime Casap of Google said, Generation Z is used to devices, they are used to being entertained, and education has to respond to the new profile of this generation. And it’s happening. There are people out there innovating and developing these tools.

Knowledge at Wharton: One of the ideas that came out of this conference was that of co-creation and closer collaborations between professors and students when it comes to learning. Can you talk more about this and why that is a trailblazing concept in higher education?

Wind: First of all, the foundation of this is in business. Every business knows that the best way to try to engage customers is to engage them as co-creators, whether as co-designers or as co-producers. Think about a company such as Build-A-Bear. Now, the kid is building the bear and so is the company. Or think about all of the user-generated content that you have in advertising. Companies — at least, enlightened companies — realize you cannot look at a consumer as a target and bombard them with stuff that you are developing, because first of all, you don’t know what they really need or how they will respond.

Education has been very slow in reacting to this. It’s still using the old, archaic model — the faculty standing, the students sitting in the classroom. And we, the faculty, know best what education we should provide. But to allow the students to co-create their own curriculum? [That’s rare.] Let them decide what they need, or better yet, how we work together. Do that, and you’ll get much greater results, much greater engagement.

Knowledge at Wharton: How receptive is academia to all of this change? Or is there fear of all of this innovation?

“Higher education has been a sleepy industry. It hasn’t been disrupted. …  And in the next 10 years — or even sooner — it’s all going to change.”–Nunzio Quacquarelli

Wind: Huge fear, and in general, there is reluctance to take risks. One of my comments [at the conference] when I ran the design workshop was, “You need courage to try to implement it, because we know what has to be done, they know what has to be done, and the question is: Are they going to be able to overcome the resistance to change in the various institutions?” So the idea is, it’s not only waiting for the president to say, “Go do it.” the idea is for everyone, if you have the responsibility, to start taking the initiative and experimenting with new models. Don’t wait for someone else to do it.

Quacquarelli: There’s this huge fear when you’re going into the unknown, and if you try and leap in one direction in a holistic way, then there probably is a big risk of failure. But if you adopt the approach Jerry recommended, which is adaptive experimentation, then you basically try new things and you measure the impact. And if it works, you continue. If it doesn’t work, you change tracks again. I think that was really good advice.

Knowledge at Wharton: What is the most exciting innovation to come out of this year’s conference?

Quacquarelli: The overall winner [of the innovation contest] was an organization called Osmosis that comes out of Johns Hopkins University. It’s a bunch of medical students and PhDs, and their concept is that the learning requirements for a medical student in America today or worldwide are huge. The volume of knowledge they have to assimilate is huge, and in fact, the dropout rate among medical students in the U.S. is in the tens of thousands, which is costing universities huge amounts of money because those students just can’t pass the exams. So they’re using technology to support the learning of those medical students with videos, quizzes, memory cards and other support tools that actually are integrated within the medical curriculum for each element, and support the student’s learning.

What they can clearly demonstrate — and the reason they won – was that students were highly engaged with this new form of learning, and it was effective. They were significantly increasing the success rates of those students, which is what we’re looking for. Because it’s provided through technology, it’s clearly scalable. They’ve got 300 medical schools using it now. They can extend that number of medical schools. They are finding a solution that can help avoid the high dropout rate among medical students, which is a real improvement in the efficiency of medical education.

We had a second winner called Kaizena, and it was focused on feedback. Most students get a grade when they put in an assignment, and the grade tells them whether they passed, failed, whether they were great or poor. But they don’t actually learn from that. To learn and to improve, you need feedback, and the problem with the way we traditionally provide feedback is you might get that paper back in two weeks’ or three weeks’ time with some notes, and by that time you’ve moved on. So you can’t absorb that feedback; you’re in a different space. This is a tool that allows the professor or a peer community to provide feedback almost instantaneously, while you’re doing an assignment. You can submit it, it can be viewed, they can embed video, they can do voice, or they can provide written feedback. So as you’re conducting the assignment, you can actually learn and improve that assignment. It is improving the quality of the output of the students. And again, they could demonstrate real engagement, really high adoption rates, and also real improvement in the learning outcomes of those students.

Those are two really high-quality innovations that we came across.

Wind: Let me give you a few other examples — not necessarily a particular one, but things that illustrate the direction that I think is very important.

Ben Nelson, who is the founder and CEO of Minerva, was our keynote speaker [in 2014], and we asked him to come and give us an update. He has this really innovative approach, a new way to think about college. [For example, as part of its curriculum, Minerva Schools encourages students to live in as many as seven cities known for their technological, economic, political and cultural impact.]

“Let [students] decide what they need, or better yet, how we work together. Do that, and you’ll get much greater results, much greater engagement.”–Jerry Wind

So, number one: The market response [to Minerva] has been absolutely incredible. He started with 20 students. For the second year, he got 11,000 applications, from which he selected 100 people. Obviously, the market responds to innovation. This would be a strong message to everyone. And two: Everything he talked about was how they’re continuously innovating and experimenting — continuous experimentation.

The second area that really stood out [were insights that came from] Bill Rankin, who talked about a very strong link to the findings in neuroscience, and how the neuroscience of learning should help guide us in what we are doing. I think it’s great that we’re seeing the explicit links in this.

The third is the initiatives bridging the gap between academia and industry, as illustrated by a very innovative new program that’s initiated by the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, [Israel]. It’s a younger university, about 21 years old, but they’re initiating a new program that integrates [the process of] teaching. Co-teaching is done jointly by faculty and industry mentors. It’s basically a 12-month program, and three months of it [involve] being in a startup accelerator, and at the end of the program, the students have a startup that they can launch.

It’s another great example of the trends that we see. So I think of those three things: continuous experimentation; linking to new disciplines like neuroscience and bringing that into the learning area; and the closer link between industry and academia.

Quacquarelli: One of Bill Rankin’s points was that the brain learns by doing better than just by absorbing. We’ve seen that a lot of the interest for “Reimagine Education” has also been very action-oriented. Particularly in the sciences, you’ve got virtual laboratories, virtual experimentation; or in engineering, you’ve got very low-cost experimentation with the creation of music speakers or other elements, which are enabling more students to actually learn by doing and learn by experimentation — whether they be high-quality students at elite universities or disadvantaged students in Africa or India. And that’s a very rich field that technology can enable much more.

Knowledge at Wharton: Employers often talk about the employability skills gap – that what graduates learn in school doesn’t necessarily give them the skills they need for their first jobs. How can innovation in education begin to close that gap?

Quacquarelli: Employers don’t know what skills graduates need because they’re changing so rapidly. The jobs you prepare a graduate for today aren’t going to be there in five years’ time. There are going to be new jobs requiring new skills.

So actually, what employers want is what institutions are developing — core competencies. [These are] core cognitive skills, critical thinking, reasoning, communication skills, and soft skills [such as] interpersonal skills, team-playing skills. Those are things that need to be developed and enhanced. A lot of universities around the world are focusing on innovation in this area.

“Generation Z is used to devices, they are used to being entertained, and education has to respond to the new profile of this generation.”–Nunzio Quacquarelli

Wind: Let me add some other characteristics that employers are looking for. First of all, let me recognize that employers are not all traditional large Fortune 500 firms. Close to a third of the U.S. workforce are independent — they don’t want to work for a large company. They are either starting their own company, work for start-up companies, work from home as free agents and the like. This is a huge market and they have needs as well.

So when we’re talking about employability, let’s not forget this growing segment and their needs. But within this — for those who want to work by themselves at home, or at other places [including] the larger companies — I think the recognition that all problems require interdisciplinary solutions is critical.

The idea here is not to become a dilettante by touching every discipline, but to have in-depth knowledge in one discipline, and also the ability to bridge to other disciplines. That’s generally recognized as absolutely critical. Another one is the ability continuously to learn, because most of the jobs that we’ll see in the next 10 years do not exist today. If you go 10 years back, can you imagine thinking about a job as a search engine optimizer? No way. It didn’t even exist at the time.

So fundamentally, we are to prepare people, as Nunzio said, for jobs that do not exist today. [What they will need are] interdisciplinary skills, the ability to continuously learn and experiment, the ability to adapt to new technologies and use technology effectively, and then all of the fundamental things that Nunzio was discussing.