Defining the Learner Revolution


The Learner Revolution, Education Design Lab
© Education Design Lab


We need better alignment between the business and higher education communities, and the right tools to align them.
Soon, learners will not be looking for degrees; they’ll be looking for very specific sets of competencies.

The “Learner Revolution” represents an exhilarating, yet daunting deconstruction of the degree as we know it: a world where a learner will not be tethered to one institution for their degree, where in fact, earning a whole degree will be only one option on a success-focused learner’s menu.

Back in 2013, this all felt like a future state that was possibly two decades away. We were invited to facilitate a design session at the White House with universities and entrepreneurs on how government should prepare for this day. The U.S. Department of Education partnered with us to imagine underserved students’ needs in a project called #10YearsOut. The futurists squinted and imagined.

But now, the day when the degree stops being the sine qua non for 21st-century career readiness feels much closer. While employers still rely heavily on degrees for now, only half say they are “fairly reliable representations of candidates' skills and knowledge,” according to a new nationally represented survey of employers from Northeastern University’s Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy. And a majority of employers said they have a formal effort underway, or are actively exploring one, to deemphasize degrees and prioritize skills in hiring.

In a recent survey of some of the Lab’s employer partners, all 20 said they need new hiring tools that recognize credentials other than or in addition to the degree. At the same time, the U.S. Department of Education is looking to overhaul the federal government’s relationship to higher education—including changes that would allow a greater use of direct assessment and begin to move away from the credit-hour standard for eligibility for federal financial aid programs.

In other words, the last major bulwarks supporting the degree as the gold standard for learning may be giving way.

Competencies, Not Courses

Within the decade, all but the most exclusive learning providers, old and new, will compete for students at the competency and experience level rather than at the degree level. That is the principal paradigm shift of the Learner Revolution. 

Learners might earn a whole degree with one provider if the institution makes a compelling case for career outcomes, but they will be just as likely to pick and choose from a menu of experiences, courses, badges, certificates, and pathways from multiple providers that are potentially endorsed—or even offered—by employers or other respected validators. In the shorter term, colleges are likely to be the curators. Their goal will be to curate a compelling, seamless menu of competency-earning opportunities for learners. And, to promote an equitable future, the menus need to be available through federal financial aid.

Prior learning assessment will become integrated into the student application process, and in some cases, blockchain technology or credential “backpacks” may eliminate the need for actual assessment.

Some colleges might compete in the “coming of age, residential experience” space, while others focus on employer-sponsored pathways. The big winners, though, will be critical mass, user-friendly platforms or marketplaces, like LinkedIn or Amazon. Colleges will compete to offer learning products similarly to how NBC and HBO currently compete on other companies’ distribution platforms (think Comcast and Verizon FIOS). To take these examples up the maturation curve, some of the platforms may start to compete directly with the content providers: think Netflix and Amazon, who are changing up the streaming business as both content creators and distribution platforms.

Many proponents of student success argue that the day when colleges will compete at the competency level for students is far off. Some early studies of certificate and micro-credential holders suggest that these credentials are mainly being used to supplement, not supplant degrees. Hightouch, in-person education is still the house favorite for most educators and most students, although our work at the Lab reveals that students clearly want to use technology and new learning paradigms to make their education faster, cheaper, and better.

Amy Laitinen, director for higher education with the Education Policy program at New America, emphasizes that institutions should be especially focused on the latter—using innovations like competency-based education to provide a better education experience.

“As everyone is thinking about how they do this, they need to make sure that quality is at the center of it,” Laitinen says. “Institutions need to make sure they’re not looking to it as an easy way to solve a funding problem or an enrollment problem. They need to be looking to it to actually solve a learning problem.”

Ultimately, the models that flourish will depend a great deal on employers, and a small but growing proportion are experimenting with competency-based hiring and promotion. Key examples include IBM, Ernst and Young, Microsoft, Cisco, and SAP. We believe that will accelerate as more employers, and not just IT and services companies, learn how to isolate and articulate their non-technical requirements.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation is leading two major initiatives focused on creating standards for hiring and education competencies. The Job Data Exchange is working to help employers communicate, or signal, key workforce competencies that allow learners and workers to see changes in requirements in real time. The T3 Innovation Network builds on that work and will use technology to better align student, workforce, and credentialing data, with the ultimate goal of improving training and talent development. 

“We need better alignment between the business community and our higher education system, but we also need the right set of tools to develop that alignment. Technology is going to be a big part of the solution moving forward,” says Jason Tyszko, vice president of the Chamber Foundation’s Center for Education and Workforce. “For employers, it starts with how they signal in-demand jobs and skills in a changing world. For higher education, it requires an openness to using the information employers provide while being responsive when that information changes.”

Talent shortages are doing nothing but accelerating the demand for greater education and business alignment. Lev Gonick, CIO at Arizona State University, a Lab partner that is working closely with corporations to meet their talent needs, sees an urgency around creating proof points. Soon, in certain fields, he says learners “will not be looking for degrees; they’ll be looking for very specific sets of competencies.” 

This post is an approved excerpt from the white paper The Learner Revolution: How Colleges Can Thrive in a New Skills and Competencies Marketplace, published by the Education Design Lab, a national nonprofit that designs, tests, and implements unique higher education models and credentials that address the rapidly changing economy and emerging technology opportunities. The Lab demonstrates where technology, rigor, and design can improve opportunity for historically underserved learners to maximize their potential in the higher education system.