We Need to Design the Learning Ecosystem of the Future
“Any useful statement about the future should at first seem ridiculous.”
—Jim Dator, futurist at University of Hawaii-Manoa
Here’s something ridiculous for you: Futurists and experts on aging and longevity are now suggesting that the first people to live to be 150 years old have already been born. That is a long time to live — and work. It’s almost unfathomable: Will the careers of the future last 80 or 100 years?
Combine this idea with the velocity of technological change we are experiencing. We are in a world of exponential futures: Moore’s law is doubling the rate of computing power every two years. With advancements in machine learning and deep learning, automation threatens 47 percent of the jobs in the U.S. workforce; nearly half of the activities associated with $15 trillion in wages in the global economy will potentially become automated. There will be large amounts of job obsolescence, but many also project plenty of job creation with the increased productivity of machines.
We’ll have to prepare students for work that doesn’t exist yet. As an example, in 2014, LinkedIn’s top 10 jobs were jobs that hadn’t existed five years prior: social media intern, iOS/Android developer, cloud manager, big data architect, or UI/UX designer as examples. How many new jobs that don’t exist today will a person have during a 150-year lifespan?
Proponents of the liberal arts love to explain how an excellent general education will teach students to learn how to learn for a lifetime. But two, four or six years on the front end of a 100-year work life sounds inadequate to say the least. The future of our nation’s economic prosperity and competitiveness will depend on a citizenry that regularly retools itself for the future of work.
These days, education reformers, evangelists and foundations pay a lot of lip service to the notion of lifelong learning, but we do little to invest in the systems, architecture and infrastructure needed to facilitate seamless movements in and out of learning and work.
Talk of lifelong learning doesn’t translate into action. In fact, resources and funding are often geared toward the traditional 17- to 22-year-old college-going population and less often to working adults, our growing new-traditional student population.
We’ll need a different investment thesis: For most adults, taking time off work to attend classes at a local, brick-and-mortar community college or a four-year institution will not be the answer. The opportunity costs will be too high. Our current system of traditional higher education is ill-suited to facilitate flexible, seamless, cost-effective learning pathways for these students to keep up with the emergent demands of the workforce.
Higher education today doesn’t offer many on- or off-ramps in and out of work. Our systems are not set up for students to navigate just-in-time learning pathways. If a student doesn’t follow the linear, insular two- or four-year learning experience, we do not make it easy for students to return and retrain themselves for the future. In fact, we often punish them with student loan debt.
Even the most innovative pathways today — whether they are coding or sales boot camps or online competency-based education pathways aligned to workforce needs — are nowhere near flexible enough for the vast majority of working adults. And those who likely need the most guidance are least aware of the available options.
We can’t extrapolate from where we are today to meet the challenges of the workforce of 2030 or 2040. Our postsecondary learning system will have to engage students differently than before.
Many adults may have no interest in coming back to college. Out of the 37 million Americans with some college and no degree, many have already failed one or twice before and will be wholly uninterested in experiencing more educational trauma. We can’t just say, “Here’s a MOOC, or here’s an online degree, or a six- to 12-week immersive boot camp.”
We have to do better. Let’s begin seeding the foundational elements of a learning ecosystem of the future — flexible enough for adults to move consistently in and out of learning and work. Enough talk about lifelong learning: Let’s build.
As we try to make sense of a longer, more turbulent work life, we must anticipate that the learning will have to be episodic and frequent. Working adults will be looking for truly flexible, on-demand pathways that tie education to economic relevance.
The new learning ecosystem will have to facilitate more seamless transitions in and out of the workforce. We need better assessment tools and prior learning assessments to take any student and assess where they are: What capabilities, skill sets and mindsets do they have? What are their gaps in relation to the learning goals?
Working learners will also need help articulating their learning goals and envisioning a future for themselves. People don’t know how to translate their skills from one industry to another. How does a student begin to understand that 30 percent of what they already know could be channeled into a totally different and potentially promising pathway they never even knew was within reach?
Working learners will need better competency maps and tools to build career paths. They’ll also need better information to understand whether in some cases it’s better to pursue a certification, a nanodegree, a boot camp or a degree program to get them where they need to go. So much of our current educational market is needlessly opaque because we do not provide easily consumable outcomes data at the program level to prospective learners.
The learning ecosystem of the future will likely entail strong peer-to-peer exchange models with more consumer insights. We will create the Amazon marketplace of higher education, in which anyone will be able to access verified reviews of this or that microcredential — not unlike reviews on other consumer services.
None of this is necessarily new, but the combination may have disruptive potential with the convergence of multiple vectors: the right learning model, the right technologies, the right customers, and the right business model. A powerful, open platform of the future can empower adults with better information, better assessments, and better maps to greater opportunity. It can offer just-in-time tutoring, advising or mentorship. Adults could be able to bundle together offerings from Lynda, Pluralsight, Udemy, Udacity or a MOOC and have them stack into something meaningful to employers. Perhaps even more importantly, this new proof of mastery must translate across learning providers, employers and state boundaries.
We have to begin saying these things aloud in order to prototype the flexible and seamless reskilling and upskilling pathways of the future. One of the most popular design-thinking and team-building activities is the marshmallow challenge. Teams are provided a bit of masking tape, some twine, 20 spaghetti noodles, scissors and a marshmallow. They have a short amount of time to create the tallest tower. Each tower must have the marshmallow sitting on top. Funnily enough, business school students are some of the worst at this game because they spend too much time orienting toward or analyzing the problem while vying for control. When time begins to run out, they hastily build and place the marshmallow on top last. The most successful teams, on the other hand, are kindergarteners. Why? They immediately begin placing the marshmallow on different structures, failing, trying again, and building iteratively.
If we begin writing the ridiculous stories about the future, we can design toward them. We can stop staring at the marshmallow and build the learning ecosystem of the future.
This column was first published on EdSurge.