Open Loop Education: Codifying the Lifelong Learning Partnership Between Students and Institutions

The EvoLLLution | Open Loop Education: Codifying the Lifelong Learning Partnership Between Students and Institutions
As the nature of higher education evolves alongside the demands of students and their expectations of institutions, it’s critical to shift to a postsecondary model that champions and supports lifelong learning.

Reports say the near-future threat of automation will one day require working adults in every industry to continue educating themselves to stay employable and ahead of the curve. The truth of the matter is that this is already the case—70 percent of employers say employees need continuous education and training just to keep up with their jobs. In this environment, postsecondary institutions play a crucial role in delivering ongoing learning to keep individuals on pace; however, for the most part, the shift to supporting the modern lifelong learner has been slow. In this interview, Scott DeRue shares his vision for an institutional model designed to support the lifelong learning reality and reflects on a few of the significant changes that need to occur to take open loop education from concept to concrete.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why is it important for colleges and universities to create more access to shorter, perhaps non-credit learning opportunities for students after they’ve graduated from their bachelor’s degree programs?

Scott DeRue (SDR): At least three trends are defining the need for shorter, more focused learning opportunities for people of all ages. First, rapid technological change has produced a skills half-life of two to three years. In today’s workplace and certainly in next-generation workplaces, people need to re-skill and re-tool themselves much more frequently than in the past. Shorter, focused and widely accessible learning opportunities are essential for people to keep their capabilities fresh and relevant.

Second, learners—especially those who are Millennials and younger—prefer shorter, more focused learning opportunities. One reason is that attention spans are decreasing. In 2000, it was twelve seconds. Today, it is eight seconds—in other words, not even enough time to read this paragraph. Another reason is that people who are in the workplace do not have sufficient time to learn. Ninety-four percent of employees report that they will stay with a company longer if the company invests in their career development, yet those same employees report that the number one factor holding them back from learning is time.

Third, companies are increasingly placing a premium on “what you can do” and less emphasis on the specific credential or degree. Just look at Tanmay Bakshi, who at 13 years old partnered with IBM on artificial intelligence. As a result, learning opportunities—whether they be for-credit or non-credit—are important because they help people further develop themselves professionally to sustain a high level of performance in changing times. In my opinion, colleges and universities not only have an opportunity to meet these needs, but a responsibility to society to provide accessible education throughout one’s life.

Evo: What is the “open loop” education model, and why did the concept resonate with you and your colleagues?

SDR: First and foremost, let me give credit where credit is due. I first heard of the “open loop” concept from a project at Stanford called Stanford2025. The “open loop” concept gave a name and language to an idea that we at the University of Michigan had been pursuing for a few years. Specifically, I never understood why higher education was so transactional and time-bound. Learning does not start when we arrive at a university, and it certainly does not end when we graduate and become part of that university’s alumni community.

If learning is continuous, why isn’t a person’s relationship with the university also continuous? This is the essence of the open loop university—a continuous relationship between student and university throughout one’s life.

In open loop education, students enter when they are ready across a range of ages. The boundaries between education and the workplace are permeable, with students coming and going in multiple “loops” in the same spirit as the original co-op programs that some universities still use. Students never become what we think of today as “alumni.” Rather, they are lifelong learners, and the university is their learning partner for life. As students become seasoned professionals, they return as expert practitioners and share their wisdom as teachers—which of course enhances the learning experience, since the best way to learn something is to teach it. Throughout a person’s life, they engage in multiple learning loops to ensure their knowledge and skills remain fresh and relevant.

At present, the open loop concept is an aspiration that several universities are pursuing. At the Michigan Ross School of Business, one version of this is the Alumni Advantage program, where we offer tuition-free access to any of our professional development and executive education programs for all alumni of the school. We have been doing this for a few years now, and it is widely popular and well received. But the value is not simply for our alumni; it is also for our current students, because it changes the return on the investment they’re making in an undergraduate or graduate degree. For example, I tell all of our current students to think of their tuition as an upfront subscription that they can use for life, because their learning will continue throughout their careers, and we will be their lifetime partner in personal and professional growth.

Evo: From an operations perspective, how must the management practices of postsecondary institutions evolve to be able to deliver this increasingly lifelong approach to education?

SDR: There are many things about institutions that will need to evolve, including what we offer, how we price it, and how we deliver it. I will offer a few examples:

First, consider how universities price the value of education. To justify the rising cost of tuition, universities point to the lifelong value of a college degree, and the data supports this assertion. Based on evidence from the Hamilton Project and many other similar initiatives, a college degree remains one of the best investments anyone can make. But if the half-life of knowledge and skills is shrinking and part of the solution is lifelong learning, universities need to re-imagine how education is priced. One option that some universities are experimenting with is using a percentage of salary as a substitute for upfront tuition. This solution addresses cost-related barriers to access, but it does not fully account for the continuous nature of learning and education. Another option would be to move to a subscription model, where students can access learning opportunities throughout their lives, on-demand and as needed. Personally, I think we will see three tiers of education pricing:

  1. A low-cost subscription model for basic content delivered primarily through technology
  2. A moderately-priced set of skills- or function-based credentials that are delivered using a mix of technology and residential education
  3. A higher-priced on-campus experience that leverages the true value of co-location and residential education

Another management practice that will need to evolve is how institutions define who is and is not a student. Today, we generally view the student as the individual on campus. This definition has expanded in recent years to include the person who joins our education programs virtually, but the definition has not yet shifted to include people throughout their lives across the full range of ages and career stages. We even have common language that separates “students” from “alumni,” and we treat them quite differently. In the future, I imagine a world where every person is a learner—a student—who is continuously engaging with the institution in a way that not only deepens learning and personal growth for that person, but also deepens and broadens that person’s relationship and connection with the institution.

For generations, lifelong learning came in the form of universities offering alumni a menu of lectures, short courses and cultural immersion trips that were not very well connected to the professional needs of the modern workplace. With advances in technology, a growing need for rapid and continuous re-skilling in the labor force, and the need for universities to deepen and broaden relationships with its community members, the commitment to lifelong learning and education is growing. Although we are in the early days of universities adapting to the concept of lifelong learning, I am excited for the future.

Evo: What will it take to maintain positive relationships with learners that will keep them coming back for ongoing education over the course of their careers?

SDR: Learners are like users of any service: they will come back for ongoing education when they perceive that the value of that ongoing education is greater than its cost, relative to other options. Of course, value can come in many different forms. Value can be a highly personalized learning opportunity that is linked to a specific need or interest. Value can also be the socio-emotional connection with people and place, the opportunity to pivot and make a life change, or the opportunity to give back and share wisdom and experience with others. Most importantly, institutions need to be clear with themselves and the learners about the value proposition of ongoing education and lifelong learning.

The costs also come in many forms. There is the direct cost of the education, but there are also indirect and opportunity costs that must be addressed. Institutions will need to become much more learner-centric in order to build and sustain positive relationships with learners.

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Key Takeaways

  • In the modern era, institutions must see their learners as students for life, rather than temporary students who turn into potential donors (and nothing else) upon graduation.
  • Like customers of any service, students will continue to return to the institution if they perceive a value return that’s higher than the cost, requiring colleges and universities to be more conscious and communicative of their value proposition.
  • Turning the open loop education model into a reality requires postsecondary institutions to rethink their pricing models and their definition of “student.”