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Taking the Long View: Postsecondary Institutions and the 60-Year Curriculum

Planning for the future of learning requires higher ed institutions to reimagine education on a lifelong timeline

Although reflecting a long-developing and long-term trend, when “The 60-Year Curriculum” arrived on the scene in April 2020, it did so with uncannily precise timing. The world was witnessing just the tip of the iceberg of the upheaval the pandemic would create. But the same could be said of the forces that were already remolding the education and employment landscapes. Although the pandemic accelerated these trends at a previously unimaginable rate, the idea that a first-time, full-time college experience was sufficient for a lifetime of workplace relevancy had already been dispelled. Amid constant tech-driven change, students were pursuing careers that they hoped would prepare them for the workforce. Yet their career success would often hinge on occupations that didn’t yet exist. And even when their classroom learning developed valuable knowledge and skills, there were frequent difficulties translating college credentials into skills recognized and valued by industry. Even worse, students were often confronted with an all-or-nothing dilemma: complete 100% of the program or receive no academic validation. This prompted a movement to unbundle academic endorsements. Microcredentials and certificates developed in close alignment with verified industry demands became more common. Their schedule-friendly nature was an additional benefit to working or displaced adult learners trying to keep pace with evolving career demands. 

It is within this context that the authors, Dr. John Richards and Dr. Chris Dede, wrote The 60-Year Curriculum: New Models for Lifelong Learning in the Digital Economy. The book describes continuous learning as a process punctuated by repeated job and even career changes. While the book was written before the pandemic changed the world, its message of lifelong learning is one of remaining agile amid just such sweeping change and instability, whether driven by artificial intelligence or natural disasters. Last month, Drs. Richards and Dede, both of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, presented at a CAEL webinar about the 60-year theory’s implications on higher ed. Offering some complementary practice-point perspectives were Dr. Ian Roark and Dr. Billie Gastic Rosado. Dr. Roark is vice president of workforce development and strategic partnerships at Pima Community College, a CAEL member. Dr. Gastic Rosado, also a CAEL member, is associate dean of liberal arts, languages, and post-traditional undergraduate studies at the NYU School of Professional Studies (NYS SPS).

John and Chris noted that there are tendencies to regard lifelong learning as episodic. For example, we may think about additional education in the context of landing a promotion. However, lifelong learning must be continuous and oriented toward the multiple career paths one can expect to travel over a 60-year tenure in the workforce. If postsecondary institutions are to help learners be more adaptive, they themselves must evolve, which requires them to move beyond digitization, or making everything digital, to digitalization, the re-engineering of work and systems. The traditional role of institutions is to prepare students for a lifetime career, with work ending with each graduating cohort. But in the framework of the 60-year curriculum, institutions must link education to employment over multiple careers and prepare learners with skills and competencies that are portable across professions. That means shifting from traditional content-oriented assessment models and helping learners see themselves as possessing a set of skills rather than being locked into a narrow and predestined career path. 

For example, flexibility, resilience, confidence, and initiative are not usually at the forefront of career preparation. Yet these soft skills are essential to propelling someone forward in the flow from one career to the next. Where cognitive outcomes may be difficult to transfer, workers making the jump to another career can land on their feet by applying the skills needed to lead a team, for example. Therefore, soft skills like executive function, collaboration, and social-emotional learning should be thought of as curriculum critical. 

To exemplify the 60-year postsecondary model, John and Chris referenced the factory-office-network education metaphor. In the industrial era, education was a factory using a warehouse cognition model. Students were clerks who learned through information transfer. They were preparing for manufacturing and production roles. Around the 1990s, we began to view education within an office framework. Cognition became a process, and students were symbolic analysts. They used thinking skills to prepare for knowledge work. The 60-year curriculum marks a transition to the digitalization era. Here, the essence of learning is developing transferable skills acquired through agile network cognition. Learners use these skills to thrive as consultants or entrepreneurs in the gig economy. Hallmarks of this approach include microcredentials, an emphasis on job skills and applied learning, portable credentials, diverse learning platforms, and a seamless continuum linking undergraduate studies and continuing education.

How can institutions successfully transition into the digitalization era? John and Chris point to learning engineering, a concept pioneered by Herbert Simon in the late 1960s. One way to think about learning engineering is to think about how microscopes and telescopes changed the world by gathering new information. The data they target has always been there, but it is only when it is captured that it becomes paradigm-shifting. The proliferation of online learning during the pandemic created more data streams than ever before. Institutions should seize the opportunity to personalize learning and reimagine instruction within the agile network framework of the 60-year curriculum. 

Ian explained how embracing the 60-year curriculum is a practical necessity as well as a vehicle of inclusiveness. It benefits learners, institutions, and businesses. He described the birth dearth in the Tucson area, with population growth limited to ages 45 and older. This demographic shift further underscores the need to view learners beyond the traditional focus. At the same time, Pima Community College knows from local research that automation is going to displace or significantly alter 40% of all jobs in Pima County by 2028. As it shifted from a linear view of the employment-education connection, it unstratified its taxonomy of students, viewing everyone as learners regardless of what demographic bucket tradition would assign them. 

Ian offered several examples of how this shift in thinking creates broad community benefits. A major company recently approached Pima with a need to help their engineers, skilled in physics and math, design solutions more feasible for Arizona’s weather extremes. The college has trained over a hundred of the engineers in welding and other areas associated with career and technical education, so they can better align theory and practice. Another example he shared is the college’s work with a company specializing in self-driving technology. The organization wanted to be proactive supporting workers who will be displaced over time. Through this partnership, Pima developed a certificate program that bridges the gap between legacy skillsets and those needed to manage automated technology. And in another example of focusing on purpose rather than personas, Pima and fellow state community colleges launched an IT professional support certificate program in the midst of the pandemic. Combining asynchronous availability with on-demand faculty support, the program serves learners in seemingly every circumstance. They include GED seekers and high school students, the unemployed seeking training via the public workforce system, and employees completing company-required training, yet they all share the same cohort, learn from the same content, and receive support from the same coach. The model has served over 120 learners since June.

Billie echoed the need to avoid stratification, advising institutions to view education as a catalyst for successive transitions as learners seek opportunities to reinvent themselves and discover new skills. That calls for empathy as students reengage with institutions at different times in their lives. Institutions also should offer emphatic assurance that lifelong learning is an institutional priority. One way NYU SPS does this is through its Academy of Lifelong Learning. Along the themes of breaking down silos and valuing soft skills, Billie upheld listening skills as something that institutions should both impart on learners and practice themselves as they seek to gain better understanding of needs in the field.

I’ll close with some excellent advice Ian and Billie offered during the webinar. To ensure you’re putting your students first, Billie suggested that we ask ourselves, Why is my student here? Why is this particular student making the decision right now to be in school? This encourages the mindfulness to fit a program to the student rather than the other way around. She also suggested directing a similar question inward: What case are we making? What are we doing with each interaction in each day that demonstrates that students have made the right choice? This can empower faculty to see themselves as supportive beyond their areas of expertise. Finally, Billie urged institutions to get alumni relations colleagues involved. They have relationships that many within academic units aren’t as likely to have, with rich, on-the-ground knowledge, camaraderie, and understanding.

Ian’s advice also hinged on collaboration that transcends immediate interest areas. When workforce development and continuing education programs generate revenue for their own self-sustaining units, it shouldn’t be funneled back exclusively within those programs. Instead, it should go to the college as a whole to support learners. This is walking the walk when it comes to advocating for a fundamental shift in models so everyone sees their role is teaching the learners in our communities. This can be a controversial shift, but it can create strong economic incentives internally. Along those same lines, faculty need to be involved in program creation. That’s the case whether they are technical instructors or liberal arts professors. After all, people generally support that which they helped create. Ultimately, what Pima Community College, NYU SPS, and all institutions embracing the 60-year curriculum are creating are new pathways for adult learner success. 

You can watch a replay of the webinar at

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