Education Institutions Must Become Continuous Learning Coaches
There is a lot of debate at the moment about the future of work and whether new graduates as well as experienced workers have the skills necessary to carry them into the future.
Who is on the bus, who is off the bus, who needs to retrain to stay on the bus and who do you need to hire onto the bus? Universities play a vital role in equipping our workforce for the future, but the bigger question is this: are they still equipped to do so? It’s a challenge we explored with Amanda Third, Professor of Digital, Social & Cultural Research at Western Sydney University.
“I think many universities around the world are trying to think – ‘what does university in the 21st century look like?’ The ways we generate and use knowledge has shifted and transformed. We’ve got to rethink how we train young people for careers in a world where certain professions are being phased out, and other professions are springing up. The challenges for universities are really big.”
As Amanda states, we are moving from a knowledge economy back to a skills economy. Technology has provided almost unlimited access to knowledge, but what people and businesses are demanding from educational institutions is improving our ability to wield that knowledge. This will take time and practice as skills need to be developed, not trained.
Education is no longer something we seek while we are young and carries us into a life-long career. Instead, learning has become something that people will pursue continually throughout their careers in order to keep pace with disruptive change.
Keeping the pace
The competition for education institutions is hotting up. Some of this is driven by the billion dollar education industry in Australia alone, but much of this is driven by commercial enterprises racing to upskill the current workforce in proficiencies that are not widely provided by universities.
Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are starting up everywhere to offer short courses in thousands of different subjects. Almost all the major technology companies are offering training to their employees in STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts & maths) skills – from machine learning to videography – and personalised education courses like LinkedIn’s Lynda.com learning hub that’s customised to your career path.
Another factor driving education courses is the sheer speed of emerging technology demanding a new set of user skills and understanding. For example, Artificial Intelligence (AI) has become essential to the marketer’s playbook and, according to the 2019 Digital Trends Report by Econsultancy in partnership with Adobe, will play a role in over 70% of marketing-related activities. Understanding how AI can bring cost efficiencies and customer insights first requires access to education about the tool capabilities.
In a world of continuous learning, we are moving towards micro-credentials where students no longer transition to alumni but remain students for life. Unless education institutions can offer an extremely wide spectrum of skills-based courses, students will be micro-credentialed across tens – if not hundreds – of institutions. The healthy loyalty and benefaction that universities have enjoyed up till now is being quickly eroded and universities will have to work much harder to retain this into the future. To continue to enjoy the patronage of Alumni, the value proposition will have to rapidly change far beyond the offer of networking meetups and special access passes, to something of far greater value – a continuous learning coach.
Providing continuous learning
For the most part, traditional universities are still applying legacy thinking in their approach to students, focusing on the institution (the campus and the faculty) and the product (educational courses). In my observation, very rarely is there a focus on instilling a learner-centric mindset in students. There is a striking bifurcation of thinking when universities are spending billions of dollars on campus upgrades, yet Australian students are increasingly choosing to consume their course information online, in their own time, on their own device, in whichever location best suits them. Although 45 per cent of students enrolled on-campus reported doing half or more of their study online, no university is spending a billion dollars to ensure these students have ready access to complete these courses wherever it best suits the student.
Education institutions need leadership and urgency when it comes to delivering digital experiences for students. A first step here is hiring and retaining staff, particularly those with STEAM skills, to both educate and engage the future workforce. As the commercial industry continues to work hard to close this skills gap, education institutions have an opportunity to become places we look to for this very guidance.
My concern is that commercial industry for the large part has realised that there is a gap and is working hard to close that, but the education institutions have not.
Here are some ideas to radically change education institutions:
- Leadership: set a benchmark of >15% of the executive team and board to have in-depth discussions on technology and digital experience.
- Strategy: have a clearly communicated strategy for radical digital transformations with the majority of performance-based pay on delivering these transformation outcomes.
- People: have the lecturers spend at least 20% of their time in industry-related activities to stay relevant.
- Product: have an industry council vet the course content for real-world applicability and meet with academic advisors regularly. Be prepared to evolve the course content drastically each time it is delivered and even restart altogether.
- Customer: have a student committee across different status’ (full-time and part-time, international and local, on-campus and online) that meets regularly with the institution’s executive board on the relevance of course content, deliverability and experience. The executive team should then be held accountable for meeting these needs.
We all fear change, but keep in mind that at no time in the past has the level of disruption been so fast, nor will it ever be this slow again. UNSW is one example of an education institution future-proofing themselves by investing in retention and harnessing technology to drive better student experiences. If you’re an education leader, take the opportunity now while its ‘slow’ to implement the foundations for future hyper-growth.