a reboot button

We need to rethink how students learn

Countless organizations are rethinking how to fix postsecondary education

Employers are in desperate need of skilled workers to address current employee shortages and prepare for projected disruption in the workplace. Artificial intelligence, for example, will create 2.3 million jobs while eliminating 1.8 million by 2020, according to a 2017 Gartner report.

To fill jobs now while preparing for the future, countless organizations are rethinking how students learn and earn skills in postsecondary education. Such a change requires new mindsets for institutions and businesses.

The rise of micro-credentials
Perhaps the biggest trend that has the attention of colleges and universities is “microcredentialing,” as enrollment continues to decline in traditional college degree and master’s programs.

“As we move toward an ecosystem of skills- or competency-based hiring, employers will care less about the degree itself,” says Kathleen deLaski, founder and president of the nonprofit Education Design Lab (The Lab), an organization that works with more than 70 institutions and employers to prepare students to fill jobs, and offers opportunities to earn employer-desired skills. “For liberal arts degrees particularly, institutions have to think about how to compete at the competency level, not the degree level, because that’s what consumers will expect in many disciplines.”

deLaski believes that college departments offering majors that prepare students for regulated industries that require degree-level certifications may find it easier to keep their full degree-level requirements in place, such as pre-med and K-12 teaching.

“Many proponents of student success argue that employers will continue to require a degree for most roles,” she says, “but once employers start accepting ‘shortcuts’ or ‘alternatives,’ and once competency-based hiring gains steam, the pace of disruption will quicken.”

The tight labor market already has employers like IBM, Walmart, and Amazon experimenting with alternatives to the four-year degree. In response, higher education is rethinking the value of the degree, accelerated by pressures like the Internet of Things, automation, student debt, and wage stagnation. In fact, a recent Wall Street Journal poll found that less than half of Americans believe that a four-year degree is “worth it.”

The drivers of change
To create real change in the higher-ed landscape, deLaski outlines key areas that have potential to transform higher education toward the future of work.

Microcredentials for 21st century skills
Microcredentials in higher education have exploded in the past couple years; one in five colleges offer digital badges. To support institutions and employers in defining standards for badges, Education Design Lab designs and tests rigorous courses that enable students to hone in-demand skills desired by employers.

“The four-year degree may always be important for certain STEM majors, but we see students hungry for translation of their broader learning to more tangible competencies, and we see employers ready to move beyond the resume and the four-year degree,” says deLaski.

Employers like IBM tell The Lab that technical skills are changing so rapidly that they don’t expect colleges to teach them. The changing landscape requires institutions to prepare a student to learn how to learn, which led The Lab to begin working on new ways to help students build and display their 21st-century skills.

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