Letter from Australia: Brave new world

For reasons I can’t fully comprehend, I spent much of the Easter break thinking about the future of higher education. As one does.

It must have been triggered by a friend’s casual reference to Stanford University’s Open Loop.

“Open Loop. You know Open Loop don’t you?” she asked. I nodded vigorously.

Of course, I didn’t. So when I Googled it, I felt a simultaneous rush of embarrassment and revelation. The first at my ignorance and the second at the possibilities.

For those of you who might be in the same boat as me, Open Loop came out of Stanford’s School of Design after a series of workshops attempted to envisage what a Stanford education might look like in 2025.

They arrived at four fundamental principles: the four-year post-school degree is replaced with a six year education that students can drop into and out of over their lifetime. Those that complete within four years still have two years of a Stanford education, a boon in an era when lifelong learning is no longer just a mantra but a necessity. Majors are replaced with a “”calibration, activation, elevation” journey, that starts with short, introductory courses, moves on to in-depth study, including original research, and then internships or more research. Skill acquisition is more important than disciplinary knowledge. Majors also get replaced with purpose-learning and a mission to solve real-world problems.

Lifelong alumni

Stanford would as you’d expect to be ahead of the curve. And then I discovered that back in 2010 Wharton Business School introduced a scheme whereby MBA alumni would have access to up to seven executive education programs for free over their lifetimes. Michigan University’s Ross School of Business has recently followed suit offering free executive education programs to alumni for the rest of their lives.

Sure it’s a marketing pitch in an effort to attract the best and brightest into their (very expensive) programs,  but it also seems like a sincere attempt to address the profound issue of how leaders lead in a world that is constantly changing.

A 2016 book called The 100-Year Life by Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott detailed the challenges and choices that face young people in Western democracies. After all, a 20 year old today will have a life expectancy of 105 and will be in the workforce for 60 years. The decisions they make need to ensure their very long lives turn into a “gift and not a curse”. Among those important life choices will be a shift in attitude toward lifelong learning which in turn will require a flexible and adaptable education system.

Of course, a small number of universities and a veritable tidal wave of EdTech operations are already onto this, with new types of credentials, digital badges, certificates and microcredentials emerging faster than Usain Bolt out of the blocks.

Their selling point is obvious: cheap, quick, just-in-time and stackable. In a world where students are increasingly cautious that higher education, particularly in countries like the US, might not offer value for money, this emerging education paradigm allow students develop skills and knowledge constantly over a lifetime.

Forcing the shift

On top of these we are also seeing a shift in how some companies and some industries view traditional qualifications. With high starting salaries and healthy employment opportunities in some sectors, including data analytics, computer coding, and cybersecurity, there is a rather large opportunity cost for students struggling through a full undergraduate degree when they could sign up with General Assembly and be in the workforce within a few months.

The issue at the moment is how many employers employers are also on board. I guess that is dependent on the sector, but it is understandable that the traditional degree is still the dominant currency among HR directors. But that could change. It’s not long ago that online degrees were viewed with a certain disdain, but that’s changing and will continue to change as the world’s best universities offer their wares online.

A 2018 survey from Northwestern University’s Centre for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy found that “a majority of HR leaders (64%) believe that in the future, the need for continuous lifelong learning will demand higher levels of education and more credentials – and 52% believe that in the future, most advanced degrees will be completed online”.

It also found that skills-based hiring appears to be gaining momentum, with a majority of HR leaders reporting they were considering ways to de-emphasise degrees and prioritise skills as part of the recruitment strategy. Certainly, some of the big consultancies are already moving down this path, as are other companies.

While online degrees were seen by over 60% of HR directors to be of equivalent quality to an on-campus degree, there was little awareness of microcredentials, as offered by MOOCs and other platforms, the survey found.

“Microcredentials are typically serving as supplements rather than substitutes for traditional degrees,” the report said.

“In the years ahead, pre-hire assessment, talent analytics, microcredentialing, and other innovations in hiring and credentialing are poised to challenge – in various ways and at different paces – the historical emphasis on college degrees in hiring.”

Right or passage?

Of course, for some the rite of passage that comes with an on-campus residential undergraduate education in young adulthood will endure (the residential part not so much in Australia, but that’s another story).

But a brave new world is already upon us. It’s not what was imagined when MOOCs arrived on the scene in 2012, but it will change the future of post-secondary education so profoundly that universities that continue in a business-as-usual trajectory might suddenly find themselves caught up in that long-delayed avalanche of change.

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