Q&A with William Bonvillian, Lecturer in the MIT Science, Technology & Society and Political Science Departments

Steve Nelson

Bill is currently working as the director of the Workforce Project, a research project on workforce education at MIT’s Office of Open Learning. He began teaching science and technology policy at MIT in 2007, and has also taught a course on innovation policy since 2017. Prior to this position, from 2006-17, he was Director of MIT’s Washington, D.C. Office, reporting to MIT’s President. In this position he worked to support MIT’s strong and historic relations with federal R&D agencies, and its role on national science policy.  He has assisted with major MIT technology policy initiatives on energy technology, the “convergence” of life, engineering and physical sciences, advanced manufacturing, online higher education, and its "innovation orchard" project on startup scale-up. The study on workforce education builds on ideas in his new book (with Peter L. Singer), Advanced Manufacturing – The New American Innovation Policies released in January by MIT Press.

What changes are needed to meet the demands of educating the future workforce?

The American working class has faced significant disruption in the past fifteen years. We lost 1/3 of manufacturing jobs – 5.8 million – between 2000 and 2010, and only 12% of those jobs have come back. Nationwide, median income of men without high school diplomas dropped 20% between 1990 and 2013; for men with high school diplomas or some college it fell 13%.  This marks growing erosion of the middle class and growing economic inequality. Although the unemployment rate is low, the number that have dropped out of the workforce is at historic highs. Meanwhile, U.S. labor markets are upskilling – the great majority of jobs created since the Great Recession required some college education.

Yet the U.S. has the most decentralized labor markets in the developed world.  We need to develop a new workforce education system that helps simultaneously three categories of workers: new entrants, incumbent workers, and displaced workers, although all have different needs.

How can higher education better prepare students who will be entering a completely different landscape?

A suite of new IT technologies is poised to enter the workplace including AI, robotics, big data and analytics, and advanced sensor and digital systems.  This new workplace will evolve over time, this will not happen overnight – we have some time to prepare our workforce for it. Higher ed can take new tools in online education and create blended learning models.  These can be used with new sets of education partners – industries, community colleges, manufacturing institutes, and new apprenticeship programs.

What do you imagine will be the biggest disruption to workforce education in the next ten years?

Not only will new tools be entering the workplace, new tools will be entering education. What MIT Open Learning’s Sanjay Sarma is calling “immersive education” is on the way. It will combine virtual reality, augmented reality, computer gaming, and digital tutors in a new mix for intensive learning.  It will be sight, sound, touch, and do.  It will be ideal for practical workforce education, where much of the learning must be “hands on,”  and could significantly drive down the cost of workforce training. These technologies could also make a dramatic change in the quality of education overall, particularly in science and engineering, which, as MIT’s motto suggests, must be “mind and hand.”

What is your favorite thing about being at MIT?

MIT was nearly unique among universities in being willing in 2012 to embrace online education at scale, although it could potentially disrupt higher education, including MIT.  MIT saw that a blended learning model, combining face-to-face learning with online learning, was going to be better than the traditional university mainstay, the lecture, and unlike most, was prepared to invest in and move on it.  That teaching revolution is now well underway and MIT’s leadership deserves much credit for seeing this.