Visit Modern Campus

Adapting to the Lifelong Learning Culture: How and Why Postsecondary Institutions Must Shift

The EvoLLLution | Adapting to the Lifelong Learning Culture: How and Why Postsecondary Institutions Must Shift
As societal norms evolve from higher education as a single engagement to higher education as an ongoing part of the life of professionals, the role and approach to institutional management at colleges and universities across the United States needs to evolve.
The higher education environment is changing, and the changes aren’t being driven by demographic shifts alone. Changes in the labor market and evolving expectations—and capacity—for continuous learning are combining to create an environment where lifelong learning is becoming an expectation, not an exception. In this interview, Bernard Bull shares his thoughts on the factors that are creating this lifelong learning culture and reflects on how colleges and universities need to adapt to meet this change.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why is lifelong learning talked about so much more today than in the past?

Bernard Bull (BB): The common answer to this question is that we no longer live in a world where a person can expect to be in the same job for decades or longer, or that the rate of change in technology and society has grown so much that one must be in a state of constant learning, re-learning, and unlearning to remain current and effective. This is not a new concept. If we go back to Alvin Toffler writing and speaking about this in the 1970s. This line of thinking goes back much further than that, but Toffler’s book, Future Shock, certainly popularized and expanded the conversation about lifelong learning. Of course, when Toffler first wrote and spoke about the idea, it was difficult for many people to imagine the incredible insight and implications associated with such a claim. Today, this is not just a futuristic claim. The rate of change in work and life is sometimes that impacts many of us in undeniable ways. Almost anyone can list a dozen jobs that exist today, but didn’t even ten years ago. We can easily articulate the dozens (or sometimes hundreds) of massive changes that new and emerging technologies are bringing in our work and life. So, it is talked about more today because it is an undeniable truth of life and learning in the contemporary world. Harold Wilson is attributed as saying, “He who rejects change is the architect of decay. The only human institution which rejects change is the cemetery.” This can be applied to the individual as well, especially as it relates to work.

That is the more common response to such a question, but I’d like to offer another one as well. The information revolution brought about by the rapid growth and expansion of the Internet and digital culture in the 1990s shifted something about how we think about learning. While learning was never limited to formal schooling and classrooms, the democratization of information made learning a leisure activity, an informal pastime. Some might not think that browsing the web for tips on how to fix your lawnmower is not some grand or enlightened endeavor. Yet, this same process and experience is used by diverse people of all ages as they ponder practical problems and questions about home life, family, work, and even their deep ponderings about the meaning and purpose of life. I contend that the main reason why we are talking and thinking so much about lifelong learning is because it is an increasingly integrated part of modern life. Some learn to harness this for greater formal or professional goals than others, but lifelong, even daily, learning is amplified by digital culture. Of course, the quality and value of some of this learning can be challenged by some, but I think that misses the larger and more significant insight about how much learning is changing in the contemporary world.

Let me give the example of MOOCS. Media became enamored by MOOCs a few years ago but some are now suggesting that it was just hype. In fact, more people are taking massive and not so massive open online courses today than they were a few years ago. It is just that it isn’t as trendy, and it isn’t necessarily transforming formal education immediately. I was an early voice to point out that this was never the most interesting or significant aspect of MOOCs. They were not about replacing existing modes of school in the short-term as much as they were and are an important cultural artifact that draws our attention to the changing nature of learning, and the further expansion of learning communities and opportunities beyond formal courses, credits, degrees, and programs.

Evo: How does the shift from postsecondary education as a single engagement to an ongoing engagement change the role colleges and universities play, both to students themselves and to the labor market more broadly?

BB: That is one of those questions that conjures a dozen different lines of thinking, but I’ll just choose two for now. The first relates to our understanding of graduation as the goal. The second relates to our dangerous modern obsessions with diplomas and degrees. Yet, I’m going to combine these two in my response.

Regarding the first—graduation as the goal—this is short-sighted in today’s world. The goal is to learn, to reach personally meaningful goals, to discover, to solve problems, to grow in competence and confidence, to develop new knowledge and skill, to prepare for a future job or circumstance, or maybe to make a difference in one’s life, family, community, or the world. Graduation is a milestone that many people appreciate. I earned four college degrees and skipped every graduation. I don’t post my diplomas on the wall. This is because, for me, the diploma was not the goal. The degree was not the goal. It was about growth and learning. I contend that higher education institutions that want to thrive or maybe even just survive in this new landscape are wise to focus on the learning. They are, at their best, places of learning and discovery. They are learning communities. They are communities of purpose, practice, and possibility. When you are that type of a higher education institution, people will come to you, they will not just jump through the hoops of graduation requirements, never to return. When we start to make this shift, we become less obsessed with the game of schooling, less focused upon courses, credits, degrees, and programs. We instead invest ourselves in transformational learning and not simple transactional schooling.

I’m convinced that one of our greatest access and opportunity education problems in the modern era relates to diplomas and credentials, or rather what many much wiser scholars before me call credentialism. Credentialism is an obsession with credentials over competence, or better described as instances where we conflate credentials and competence. Consider the employer who posts a job and lists it as requiring a minimum of a bachelor’s degree. Yet, when you look at the knowledge and skill required for the job, there are plenty of people qualified who don’t have the degree. So, we just excluded a ton of promising talent. Higher education institutions can be part of the problem or the solution to this. Oddly enough, I happen to think that a re-imagining of credentials is one of the best and most viable solutions to this problem. Along the way, it can better prepare higher education institutions for the future of learning.

Evo: What are some of the most important changes colleges and universities need to make to their model to adapt to this new role?

BB: I’ve described some already, but here is a shortlist that comes to mind right away.

Focus upon meaningful and authentic feedback and mentoring and resist the testing and modern obsession with summative assessment. That is a largely a deception that drives us further int the game of schooling, and further away from the real needs and opportunities for 21st and 22nd century learning communities.

Look at your learning community and ask what it would look like if you stopped issuing credits and degrees. What would be left? How would you make sure that it was a robust and viable learning community? Look at that list of answers and focus on those things first, give them priority as you allocate time, money, and resources.

Beware of digging your heels in and resisting the informal and digital learning revolution. That is a losing battle. Instead invest in being an active participant in one of the most exciting debates and conversations in all of modern education. Join in co-creating that future. Ask the hard questions. Experiment. Explore. Partner with other organizations that have insights and expertise that you do not.

Don’t assume that the modern measures of success are the best or most useful. People love to talk about graduation rates, retention rates, time to graduation, grade point average, and many other such measures. These have their place, but if you really look at your institution as first and foremost a rich and robust learning community, it becomes about much more than how to retain people or get them to graduate in a set number of years. You will find yourself drawn to both qualitative and quantitative measures that align more closely and carefully to your values.

Look beyond other higher education institutions for imagining the possibilities for modern life and learning. In the last two decades, I’ve interviewed thousands, studied (formally and informally) hundreds or perhaps over a thousand different types of learning organizations. I don’t limit myself to colleges and universities. I look at startups, community-based organizations, informal online learning communities, early childhood centers, K-12 schools, homeschool co-ops, corporations with robust cultures of learning, and more. I explore how people learn outside of school, when there are no formal or structured assignments. By doing this, I am able to cultivate a much broader sense of what learning is and what it looks like today. These insights and ideas are incredible valuable as a I think about the future of formal higher education.

Evo: What do you think will be the biggest challenges postsecondary leaders will face in trying to inspire these changes on their respective campuses?

BB: Formal learning organizations are full of people who were good at the game of schooling. Many love the structures and systems that served them so well. As such, they can be resistant to changes to that system. At the same time, our best learning organizations are also full of people who, at the heart, love learning. They are deeply curious. They are inquisitive, problem-solvers, and they know the power of a great idea to change the world or the life of a single person. The challenge for leading and inspiring is to help cultivate conversations and rituals that remind people of those first loves, to invite them to join you in setting the game of school aside for real and vibrant learning. This means that leaders must also be willing to reconsider longstanding policies, to tolerate and celebrate experimentation, to help nurture a culture where people are unleashed to invest their thought, time, and energy into nurturing a truly culture of learning and not a far too typical educational bureaucracy.

Evo: With those challenges in mind, how would you recommend leaders start the process of change?

BB: First, get or be clear about why your organization exist. What is the compelling reason for its existence and why you are so willing to give some of your few and precious years of life to the endeavor. Start with and lead with this.

Second, and I’m repeating myself a bit, but for many it starts with doing whatever you can to get as informed as possible about the breadth of possibilities. That will expand your sense of what is achievable. Invite others along on this learning journey. Talk about what you see and discover. Ask difficult questions. Then consider how you can devise some simple experiments in your organization that have promise to give you actionable insights on where to go next. Michael Shrage’s Innovator’s Hypothesis is a wonderful resource for delving into this idea of experimentation.

Finally, think about the vocabulary and metaphors that you use. Is your vocabulary focused on educational transactions or more about transformation? Do your metaphors drive us to think about schooling, degrees, and diplomas…academic hoop jumping? Or, do your metaphors draw us into thinking more about the true essence of what makes your learning community worthwhile?

Author Perspective: