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The Silent Learning Revolution in Higher Education: Crafting Strategies for a Changing World

The EvoLLLution | The Silent Learning Revolution in Higher Education: Crafting Strategies for a Changing World
The Silent Learning Revolution is fundamentally changing the nature of colleges and universities. Those that don’t proactively find ways of adapting to this new reality face the very real risk of obsolescence.

In June, Peter Smith published Free Range Learning in the Digital Age: The Emerging Revolution in College, Career and Higher Education. In it, Smith argues that technology has driven a “silent revolution” in higher education, where colleges and universities are no longer the gatekeepers to knowledge acquisition and validation. In this interview, Smith discusses the silent learning revolution and several associated concepts, arguing that colleges and universities must adapt to–or perish under–the weight of inevitable industry change.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What is the Silent Learning Revolution?

Peter Smith (PS): The Silent Learning Revolution speaks to the recent and permanent shift in access to education. Historically, universities have been an oasis of knowledge in a desert of information scarcity, but in the last 30 years the desert around that oasis has gone green with information. Technology is providing access to free-range, organized information: people can create pathways to learning, either on their own or through third-party non-profits or companies like MOOCs. They’re pursuing knowledge for educational, economic and personal reasons, and they’re doing so outside of the traditional university setting.

This is the Silent Learning Revolution. Colleges and universities are no longer the exclusive gatekeepers to education. For the first time, campuses are in a position where they cannot control who learns what, when, where and how. There are obviously some exceptions to this–if you hire an engineer or a brain surgeon, you want to be absolutely sure that they’ve been certified–but for the vast majority of learning that people need throughout their lives, the context and the opportunity to do so has changed very dramatically and very quietly.

Evo: In the book, you talk about “learning discrimination.” How do postsecondary institutions perpetuate learning discrimination and what are its impacts on individuals and/or the economy?

PS: When an information-poor society gathers information within a university setting, the university sets the rules about how that information is used. Oftentimes, the rules boil down to this: If you didn’t learn it here, you didn’t learn it. Historically, universities have only been interested in acknowledging learning acquired through the university itself. They set the terms and conditions: the curriculum, the sequence and the price. This has been the way universities have operated over the past 100 years, and how some operate even today.

Now, technological advancements have given us the capacity to recognize and capture learning whenever and wherever it happens, and assign it a value without having to defer to the university for validation. With experiential learning technology, we can assess and capture all of an individual’s personal learning–that is, learning that happens away from school–then validate it in terms of a job or degree requirement.

Given this shift, the system where the university dictated all the rules becomes logically unreasonable. Say I’m an accountant who has learned on the job and taken a professional development course. I have a set of skills, but I don’t get the same consideration for a promotion because I don’t have a certificate or a degree. That’s learning discrimination: I am being judged based on where I learned my skills and abilities, not on how well I possess those skills and abilities. In the Silent Learning Revolution, the old days of if you didn’t learn it here it doesn’t count are going to be replaced by if you know it and can show it, we’re going to value it. We’ve been doing that with advanced standing and prior learning assessment for years, but now we’re going to open that up beyond traditional academic learning.

Evo: How does learning discrimination reflect the gap that exists between higher education and the workforce itself? 

PS: It explains and defines it by the set of practices and policies that perpetuate it, versus the set of policies and practices that adult-friendly colleges and employers are beginning to implement.

From an economic perspective, there are millions of people walking around this country with untapped talent. Say there are approximately 60 million Americans with high school diplomas and no college degree. If you take the number of learning projects that one of these individuals does each year–around 9 or 10–and add them up, that amounts to an enormous learning asset that is being ignored. It’s a social asset, an economic asset, an academic asset, and a jobs asset, yet it’s wasted talent. It’s skills and abilities that are lost to the person and the employer because we have not been able to recognize that talent and apply it. Now, we know how to tap into that knowledge and turn it into something of value to our communities, the economy and, frankly, to the country.

Evo: Another concept that you raise in the book is the idea of the “parchment ceiling.” What is the parchment ceiling and what is its impact on individuals caught beneath it?

PS: There’s a story I tell in the book about a woman named Linda, who decided to apply for a new job at her company. It was a job she had done several times, so she knew she could do it, but she overheard two people say that she wasn’t going to get the job because she didn’t have a degree.

That’s the parchment ceiling. The term was coined by Norma Augustine, who wrote the introduction to the book, and it’s a consequence of learning discrimination. Linda had worked at this company for fifteen or twenty years, but she was being denied an opportunity because she didn’t have the piece of paper to show that she had the skills she demonstrated at work every day.

What did Linda do? She went back to Charter Oak State College, earned her degree, and got promoted, but the fact remains that there are people all over the United States who have the skills they need for advancement but they’re being overlooked because they don’t have a degree.

Many companies and non-profits are developing pathways to job skills validation that allow adult learners to prove they have the aptitudes they claim to have, so that they can receive promotions and opportunities. These pathways are being created within “adult-friendly” colleges and outside the collegiate track in formats like bootcamps.

Evo: How can colleges and universities start to work to evolve the postsecondary ecosystem into an environment that better recognizes and rewards people for their skills and talents?  

PS: To evolve, a college has to become a student of organizational culture, which, quite frankly, is easier said than done. Culture is not just a set of beliefs. It involves reinforcing those beliefs.

For example, think of a university that spends more than it makes on football. If it decided to give up football and put that $40 million they invest in football into scholarships and better faculty, the alumni would go crazy because football is an inherent part of that university’s culture. Culture is really hard to change, and we underestimate it at our own peril.

Having said that, college cultures will have to change because the business of higher ed is going to change. Colleges are going to move away from the teaching business and into the learning recognition business, where the teaching they provide will be friendly to the needs of adult students. They’ll offer evening, weekend, and online classes; daycare availability; and deals with employers to reduce the cost of workplace-based learning. Things are going to change structurally, which will impact academic culture. Postsecondary education is going to become a much more personalized undertaking than it could ever have been even five years ago.

Evo: You mentioned culture. What are some of the other significant roadblocks that you expect change-makers to face in trying to disrupt the status quo in higher education?

PS: The biggest obstacle will be changing a university’s economic model. If you create a new institution, it will by definition be far cheaper than changing an existing institution’s economic model, because if you build new learning services using the most expeditious technological options available, you can increase quality and lower costs.

Converting an existing economic model is much more difficult, because it scares the existing college that says, “but I need the tuition I’m getting, because I’m having a problem recruiting students.”

One of the best examples of an existing college being successful in adopting a new economic model is Georgia Tech’s computer science master’s program. They have a traditional, campus-based master’s program, which is one of the best in the country, and they’ve created an exclusively online master’s program that runs alongside it. The online program costs around 20 percent of the campus-based model. When it launched, there was great concern that the campus-based model would suffer, but exactly the opposite has happened. The campus-based model has done very well, and the online model has done very well at a fraction of the cost but with over 1500 active students. It’s the same content, packaged differently. The online model lowers the cost while increasing overall enrollments, and both models have prospered.

Think of Uber or Lyft as opposed to a traditional taxi company. For all the controversy, what you’re seeing are new, technologically enhanced business models. They’re putting the older business model for taxi service very much at risk.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about the Silent Learning Revolution and what it’s going to take for institutions to keep pace?

PS: Somebody asked me the other day whether I think traditional undergraduate education has had its day. Not at all.

I’d say to students who can afford a two- or four- year degree program, take it while you can get it–but think of that degree as the beginning, not the end, of your educational journey. Even youths are going to have to continue learning consciously throughout their lives.

The Silent Learning Revolution is not about good people versus bad or good methods versus bad. It just is what it is: an inevitable industry disruption, where practices that were considered legitimate ten years ago are being replaced by alternatives made possible through technology. Every college is going to have to figure out its own response to it. There’s no-one-size-fits-all solution because every college has its own culture, history, problems and geographic location. But colleges are going to have to adapt and adopt.

We should all be moving towards a culture of continuous improvement and renewal because all we know for sure is that these opportunities to strengthen learning outside the classroom are only going to grow. This is going to be dynamic change, as far as the eye can see, so developing a culture of data-driven renewal and improvement is going to be extremely important. Some colleges are already doing this–I use four or five examples of adult-friendly colleges in the book, but there are many more that are already crafting their response. Hundreds, maybe, but not thousands. These schools recognize that customer service and high-quality support are going to be critical components for successfully adapting to this new world.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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