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The Culture of Lifelong Learning Needs To Start Now

: Just as the workforce evolved into a more automated process, the future of education is going to have to evolve alongside the learner to keep students ready for the careers of tomorrow.
Just as the workforce evolved into a more automated process, the future of education is going to have to evolve alongside the learner to keep students ready for the careers of tomorrow.

20 years ago, between my first career in secondary education and my current career in higher education, I worked in business development and consulting. I will never forget one particular day I had in the field. I was consulting at a company that made glass baby food jars, and in the middle of their warehouse was something large and draped, waiting to be uncovered.

“What is that?” I asked their plant manager, pointing to the mystery item under the drape.“That is a robotic machine that will change the way we do what we do,” he replied casually.

“Who are those people,” I asked pointing to a row of seven people working literally in the shadow of this yet-to-be-unveiled robot.

And then his response came a little more cautiously and somewhat under his breath: “Those are the people who will lose their jobs when we turn on that machine.”

In higher education, I am afraid that our old models stand like those people (and ironically) in the shadow of a lifelong learning ecosystem slowly emerging as the new normal. Consider the traditional view of education: You start your degree, complete it, start your career, then retire. So many of our systems of higher education are still built on this increasingly irrelevant model.

In its place, humans are now asked to confront a different cycle of education and work. Instead, education and work operate in tandem, with learners coming in and out of systems of education to gain the new skills they need to be relevant.

I suspect those employees facing job loss at the implementation of the mystery robot wished that system existed for them.

Let’s consider some facts:

  • 7.4 million Americans were unemployed in October 2021.[1]
  • 82% of employees (and 62% of HR directors) believe they will need to re-skill or upskill at least once a year to maintain a competitive advantage.[2]
  • 45% of students who attend universities (about 9 million people) do not graduate.[3]
  • Below replacement fertility rates in the U.S. for over 50 years is creating a “sansdemic” situation, where viewing employees as interchangeable parts is not sustainable. There are simply not enough people.[4]
  • There were 10.4 million job openings in October 2021[5]

The future of work will include fewer employees, and those employees will need to evolve more often.

And higher education must change, too. Now.

Enter microcredentials.

Like cryptocurrency or blockchain, microcredentials portend being more than a fad—a revolution in the way we think about units of learning. Really, the old educational model, where you finish your degree, start a career and retire, is like carrying around large sums of cash or hoarding it in your house, then pulling it all out at once to pay for everything you need. Microcredentials allow learners to earn validation for the just-in-time skills they acquire to add value to employers. Neither learners or employers have to wait until artificial graduation dates to take advantage of the skills acquired, creating more equity among learners, educational institutions and employers.

In addition to equity, microcredentials improve access to education by decreasing the required time commitment to precisely the nexus of employment needs and learner demand. Do you not have years to earn a degree? No problem. And guess what, your employer probably doesn’t either. They hired you, which, given demographic trends, means they won the lottery. Through microcredentials, learners can get the skills they need to remain relevant at work, and educational institutions can build the lifelong learning relationships of the future instead of the one-and-done relationships of the past.

But Brent, you might be thinking, what about companies? Don’t they need to change, too? You are right. They do need to change, and they are changing. Recently, I learned about a major local agricultural company implementing a massive automation process that would eliminate the manual labor of thirteen employees. Guess what? Nobody was going to lose their job. The automation process was something the company knew they needed to do for their employees. The manual labor was unsustainable – on their bodies but instead of letting them go, they were going to move them into other areas of the company. People are hard to find and will continue to be hard to find, as data suggest, so companies are increasingly embracing upskilling and re-skilling their workforce. For companies, something has changed since my experience 20 years ago. For higher education, not as much.

The culture of lifelong learning needs to start now, and as higher education institutions update their model from the one-and-done to the in-and-out-and-in-and-out (return customer),companies and their employees will be empowered to embrace this cultural change as well. When learners come to our colleges, do they find a sign on the door that says, “cash only” (old model) or do they see that we take new forms of payment (new model)? Microcredentials are the new currency of education, a tool to empower employees and employers to create the lifelong learning culture they both need to remain competitive and relevant. For higher education institutions, microcredentials are an opportunity to update their business model and create the lifelong learning landscape of the 21st century.

The time to change is now.

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