COVID-19 as a Catalyst for the Intentionally Designed Continuous Learning Model
The COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly brought a great deal of pain and sadness to the lives of Americans. COVID-19 also exposed the cracks in our education and employment systems that make it next to impossible for the working class to achieve social and economic mobility. Millions of Americans are now unemployed, yet skills gaps continue to grow in some industries. At the same time, some smaller employers need to upskill or reskill their employees immediately but lack the resources to do so. Our higher education system is scrambling to decipher its future, while our workforce development system is overwhelmed. In addition, there is no national infrastructure in place to coordinate an education-and-work ecosystem that can effectively and efficiently educate working learners for continuous learning that will cover multiple career changes.
We don’t have to accept this state of affairs. Indeed, there are increasing calls for closer connections between postsecondary education, employers and workforce developers. Even before COVID-19, as a nation, we were beginning to understand that today’s college students are more likely to be working adult learners than 18-year-olds living in residence halls. Those of us addressing these working learners’ needs thought we had three to five years to develop new approaches and solutions. Then COVID-19 struck. As a result, we are now on the edge of the precipice of a new world–one we can passively watch emerge or one that we can intentionally shape to meet the moment’s challenges with solutions as dynamic as a new learn-and-earn ecosystem.
We are not the only people writing and publishing thoughts on what we should be doing as a nation to recover from the economic and social impacts of COVID-19. Many articles about education and work have urged the creation of new learning models and approaches to skills-based hiring. However, these articles (and we have written some of them) tend to assert what education and workforce practitioners and leaders should do without discussing how we might accomplish these goals on a large scale. Even the best ideas will never get off the ground when no map exists for “how.”
So, how might we build an intentionally designed continuous learning model for all learners? First, let us stop referring to artificial groupings such as “traditional-age learners” and “adult learners.” The truth is that most learners–no matter their age–lead complicated lives. Instead of creating models for the normative “college student” that we see in popular culture, we need to create new models for the learners who are actually in our classrooms–be they virtual or in-person—along with the individuals who bring with them prior validated learning experiences, such as military or workplace training.
Today’s postsecondary learners require learning models that fit into their complicated lives rather than the fixed models that have been the norm on campuses for years. Online and blended learning models, experiential learning models, work-based learning models, and stackable credentials have all been offered as solutions. These models are important, but we should start with individual learners’ current needs.
Working learners, students ranging from 16 to 55 years old who balances simultaneous part- or full-time school and work, are a sizeable and growing segment of the college population. A quarter of working learners are enrolled full-time and work full-time, often balancing competing priorities and placing the people in their lives first and themselves second or even third, which may result in a relatively small amount of time to devote to studies. COVID-19 could result in more of these learners becoming unemployed or underemployed, making it even harder for them to afford expensive tuition and fees at a time when acquiring new skills or earning a credential that adds immediate value in the job market is critical.
Collectively, we need to rethink how we provide young and mature working learners with support and wraparound services in a more flexible, learner-centric way than we have traditionally offered in the past. These learners are anything but unmotivated; rather, they are juggling more responsibilities than many of us can imagine.
To this end, many colleges and universities are rising to the challenge of creating support systems, but they tend to begin and end with support that is focused solely on the college degree program. They do not take into account the larger structures and systems within which working learners also employ their talents, and that have the potential to create great synergistic impact on working learners’ education. Examples of these structures include employers, the workforce system, public libraries, nonprofit associations, churches and even the healthcare system. Education is a fundamental aspect of creating healthier and stronger individuals and communities, and so far, many of our systems have a role to play in this new world. Why can we not more broadly combine learning with actual workplace projects? Doing so will require re-imagining how and where learning occurs, but powerful models already exist, including the one found in Northeastern University’s Bachelor of Science degree in advanced manufacturing systems.
We envision an infrastructure that supports all learners in accessing a variety of learning pathways throughout their lives, regardless of their ages or backgrounds. Learners in high school already have opportunities to earn dual credit with colleges (although not all colleges will accept this for transfer credit, which can be problematic) and can learn a skilled trade with the option of continuing to college, should this be their choice. Notably, though, the career and technical education to degree pathways remain fragmented, and credit for prior learning, done well, is limited to a smaller number of colleges and universities. This is the sort of “both/and” thinking of which we need more throughout the working learner’s entire lifespan. Across a long career, we need to support not simply vertical advancement but also lateral moves to adjacent careers.
Some of the changes we need are attitudinal. Upon graduating from high school, a learner should view the future as flexible and evolving. This is particularly the case now given the rapid changes we are likely to experience as a result of COVID-19. Perhaps learners will begin in a skilled trade or complete a first college certificate and then enter employment. No matter what their first job is, they should have access to a continuous career-building system that exposes them to new jobs with associated skill sets. Working learners should also be able to foster relationships with mentors, associations, employers and work experiences that help them determine some of the pathways they may choose to pursue. This includes exposure to purposefully structured work experience opportunities in high school and guidance counselors who are trained in this new, flexible approach to careers. Instead of equating success with locking into a career path at 22, we ought to view people’s 20s as the time to explore a variety of “meta” careers that will help them focus on the specific pathways suited to their skills and interests. Consequently, in an intentionally designed continuous learning model, purposeful career exploration is to be celebrated, and premature selection is to be avoided. A pertinent discussion of this new form of career exploration can be found in McGowan and Shipley’s recent book, The Adaptation Advantage.
With learners so often also being workers, education shifts to experiential learning, of which the basis for learning are intentionally designed projects rather than individual subject areas that are taught one course at a time and somewhat removed from the “real world.” We can learn from Finland, which just a few years ago abolished standalone disciplinary subjects in favor of interdisciplinary approaches to problem-based learning. This type of learning built around real-world problems will motivate workers to continually upskill and reskill by acquiring the competencies that will help them thrive in their jobs and communities across a lifetime.
In this model, learning is constructed to meet the learner where they are and designed in such a way that renders all learners capable of success. In this model, a four-year baccalaureate or a master’s degree will still be an achievement worth earning but is more likely to be coupled with work experience and achieved a little later in life (at 35 or 40 rather than at 22 or 25). Working learners will continually plan for the next phases of their lives and careers, well past what we now consider “retirement age,” to anticipate and prepare for the longer lives and careers that lie ahead of us.
Nonetheless, to bring this model to fruition we need to do more than just assert that such changes are necessary. This is a model that cannot be developed in one sector alone. It requires major changes to how employers engage with postsecondary education, changes in the alignment and funding of workforce development agencies’ goals, and changes in how career exploration and career development are embedded in our lives. This will require the kind of transformational change that disrupts our accepted ways of thinking, challenges our current structures and systems, and forces us to question existing education funding models. However, if we are not willing to make changes now, when COVID-19 is ravaging our country, when will we be ready to make them?
Let us stop discussing what we should do and begin forming intentional change communities in regions that are ready to place learners at the core of their communities. Change in these communities will be driven by local leaders, innovators and influencers from the public and private sectors who understand the challenges associated with being a working learner in the current context. This grassroots change to educate and lift communities to meet today’s challenges is the best way for us to build a continuous learning model structured enough to guide change but flexible enough to adapt to local and regional needs as they arise. It is time to focus on working learners to ensure that they will never again be stranded without a pathway to their next good job or career. We need to commit to engaging, empowering, developing, and building capacity among those who will spur local change and share those positive outcomes across broad networks to amplify lasting change.