The future of learning

The structure of education is driven by, and mirrors, the needs of the economy that it supports.

At the turn of the 20th century, mass migration from rural America was underway. Individuals migrated to industrialized cities in unprecedented numbers. The daily rhythm of the rural community was out of sync with the rigid structure of factories. How do you instill structured behaviors needed to operate large-scale industry in someone from a rural environment where the schedule is determined by seasons?

The answer: The educational system. 

Students were trained to follow a structured industrial work day. They had a meal, arrived, worked, had lunch, worked and went home at specific times. They repeated the cycle the next day, and the next and the next. Furthermore, the rate at which knowledge was acquired was increasing, but at a sustainable rate — and the life of a skill or profession spanned generations.

Since the birth of the Industrial Era, we have moved through the service, information and knowledge economies. Today, we enter The Age of Content. When you contrast the evolutionary speed of the educational system supporting these eras, there is a definite lack of synchronization. Economic and educational systems are three to four cycles out of step. The rest of the global community replicates this situation.

How do we move past generations of neglect to create an educational infrastructure with the adaptability to remain meaningful — all while skills and professions have lifespans measured in years rather than decades? The solution lay not in massively rigid institutions, but in agile, versatile, adaptable educational vectors.


Technology provides today’s workforce the ability to work from anywhere any time, creating the expectation of constant availability. The workforce’s perpetual motion means the structure put in place and reinforced by traditional education is no longer valid. This need for constant access reflects the high degree of competition in today’s market.  

The technology facilitating constant communication also drives constant change. Opportunities arise and vanish in a period of months, forcing companies to be agile. They must be able to immediately capitalize on opportunity. Business no longer seeks long-term, dedicated, adaptable employees who are generalists in their fields. The current market seeks lasers with pinpoint-precision skills to perform a task quickly, then move on. Often, these are contractors.

This approach to employment does not leave a window for the apprenticeship phase that new hires fresh from college have historically enjoyed. Companies do not want to bear the costs of training someone else’s staff. Students leave school with exposure, but not the experience or extremely specialized skills sought by employers. Even after a $100,000 college education, students often are inadequately prepared for the job market’s rigors — and must seek alternative educational channels. 


Today’s education and its massive college industrial complex simply take too long and cost too much.

By the time students graduate with a four-year
degree, the job, and sometimes the career they trained for, no longer exist. Other times, they were trained for positions that never existed. They are channeled into the creative curriculum or designer classes. These highly specialized courses were developed by an instructor for their benefit, but have no practical value to the student. Other times, students are forced to take unneeded classes to satisfy requirements an accreditation board has placed on the university — resulting in revenue for the school, and expenses in the thousands for the student. In all these cases, students are left with little other than substantial debt and no way to pay it.  

These institutions are also artifacts of an era in which a bachelor’s degree was sufficient to open doors to career opportunitues. That myth is still perpetuated. The reality: Most Americans will change their career three or more times due to changing interests, changes in their role, or simply that the initial occupation no longer exists. Both the time and costs required by a traditional university are prohibitive for career retooling. Even if you choose a graduate program to shorten the time commitment, the expenses are often restricting. Continuing-education departments help fill gaps, but costs of $1,300 for a three-day course are rarely the solution for students with large debt. These organizations often assume that employers pay for these courses.


Millennials are disillusioned and out of gas. They were promised the American dream of college, home, career and family — only to have it replaced by a world in which a bachelor’s degree has the impact a high school diploma once held. They’re encumbered by debt, from student loans and credit cards, and that impinges on making home ownership a reality. Combine a shifting economy and transient careers, and millennials are in a difficult situation. With college having yielded neutral to negative results, this generation is slow to seek solutions there. For many, this only means incurring further debt.  

As millennials’ role in the corporate world evolves, the requirement for further education arises — leaving them caught between the need for further education and limited resources. These are complicated by the needs and responsibilities associated with raising a family.  

Generation Xers are in a similar situation. They need to preserve retirement funds, but find a 20- or 30-year-old degree of limited value. Constrained by career options, limited due to perceptions associated with aging and a struggle to remain relevant, they need additional education to retool for the latter stages of their careers. Some change careers altogether; others merely seek mental stimulation to delay the onset of disease. A few have eliminated the burden of debt. Others carry the accumulated debt load of a lifetime and need additional education to remain employable so they can address the debt before retirement.

Millennials and Gen Xers arrive at the same point from different directions. They have a common goal: the quest for value in education. They also share an equally strong need to be fiscally conservative, often preventing either group from moving forward. Their common obstacle: The educational industrial complex. This entity itself is slow to change. Supported by vast financial resources, and powered by substantial momentum both mythical and cultural, the educational system is blinded by the restricting effects of awareness.  


The future of education is bite-sized, relevant and self-directed. Success requires a baseline knowledge. The dynamic work environment also mandates a dedication to lifelong learning. As technology and knowledge increase, so does the need for understanding how to apply it and how to identify new opportunities and processes — which are moving as fast as technologies driving them.  

The factors directing the need for specific education also define the nature in which that education is delivered. The need for the skill often is immediate. It is not practical to apply to a university, wait for acceptance, enroll in classes and then complete a 16-week semester. As our role changes from individual contributor to frontline manager, so do core skills. We do not require an entirely new degree; we only need the first two weeks of the semester, yet have to pay thousands for the entire class. We want to learn in chunks, appropriate to the material or skill needed.

We once purchased an entire CD to get the one song we wanted. Today, we buy only the track we want. We get what we want, when and where we want it, and pay only for what we use. People observe patterns. Once established, they wish to apply the pattern elsewhere. What works for the music industry should work for education: I want the training I need, when and where I want it, only what I need, and I only want to pay the least amount.

Some institutions providing online training are accredited; many leading organizations are not.  However, there are many paths to validation. Even with their shortcomings, they are meeting the needs of millions while remaining largely free. 


Massive Open Online Courses, known as MOOCs, are offered by traditional universities worldwide from Harvard and Stanford to Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. A MOOC is an online course provided free to a broad audience. The list of providers from traditional sources is staggering. In January 2015, there were 3,842 MOOCs, reflecting 201 percent growth in 2014. Stanford initially offered “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” in October 2011. Of 160,000 students, 23,000 were awarded a certificate of completion. However, success has not been limited to traditional institutions.

Kahn Academy has more than 10 million students. Courses had 4 million students enrolled at the end of its second year. Corporate entities are providing targeted training to develop the labor force needed to correctly use services and tools they market. The Microsoft Virtual Academy had 768,500 students enrolled; they had completed 826,200 self-assessment exams by 2012. According to the US Department of Education, 4.3 million students, or 20 percent of college students, participated in distance learning in 2007.

Some concerns arise regarding validity and accreditation. Formal accreditation is good and bad: It ensures a level of competency, but sometimes can drive competency without meaning. There is a different kind of accreditation, less formal, but more practical: The ability of students to pass industry-certification exams. For millennials, a course’s reputation rapidly spreads through social media. Excellent programs rapidly gain favor. Specific courses can gain credibility while others fall out of favor as they become dated. Rather than accreditation, this approach provides something more powerful: Validation.

These tools are enabling the manifestation of self-directed, on-demand learning. They are still too coarse; finer levels of granularity are rapidly presenting themselves as they respond to the public’s needs. These classes range from a traditional 16 weeks to three hours to complete. Still, they are shards of the education mosaic. The problem: They remain isolated. They must be integrated to present the broader picture of our total education.


The Mosaic of Education is the pattern we form as we pursue a lifetime of learning. It consists of traditional, MOOC, corporate, seminars, conferences and other training opportunities. Most are not documented. The more our education progresses, the more unique this educational profile becomes. Like a fingerprint, no two are identical.  

The total of an individual’s training presents an ever clearer image of what roles that person can fulfill. Employers are split because we are in transition from traditional institutional education and the new era of immediate, self-directed, free to lower-cost education. Companies want the solid credentials of a bachelor’s or master’s degree, but also demand the precision of a specialist. The traditional degree produces a generalist; the new model allows an individual to drill down to the laser-like focus of a Ph.D. faster, and with minimal cost. The training bringing them to that point is unique to that individual.

The new model allows this education to be accomplished in bite-sized steps. Each enables a particular practical task to be completed while providing a foundation for pursuing more advanced lines of study.  Once the desired level of expertise is achieved, other areas can be perused. The individual can change focus with a 90-degree turn on a moment’s notice. That turn can be the adoption of a new technology, new medical treatment or business process. If students need a new baseline, they find the entry-level material and grow from there. Students can attain the level of education desired, according to their capability. Each of these training elements is a shard in the mosaic.

As employers seek ever-increasing specialization to solve a particular challenge, the mosaic allows the firm to identify the most qualified person. All that is needed, the catalyst to push this over the edge, is the appropriate engine — one that integrates the learning and associates it with an individual. It’s the tool that turns discrete educational shards into a pattern of learning that forms the mosaic.  


This engine also could translate the distinct needs of employers into a similar pattern. They would then match them to specific individuals to find the best fit for their need. Those seeking a particular position or career will have a clearer idea of the training needed, and can leverage the online resources needed to become competitive for them.    TJ  

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