Higher Education

OPINION: The new lifelong learner — an education to match America’s economic needs

‘The brain you graduate from college with at age 22 isn’t the one you’re stuck with for the rest of your life’

Tristan Wright-Crishon works in a music technology lab at Queensborough Community College.

Across the nation and the globe, our economy is shifting.

While automation may not replace your job, there’s a good chance it’ll change it.

The disruption that comes with automation has created new and different types of employment. These new roles could become the “blue-collar” jobs of the future — the positions that can promise middle-class security without necessarily requiring a traditional higher-education degree.

For this reason, there is great hope for the workforce of the future. But to train this workforce effectively, we’ll need to change the way we approach education.

Related: Without changes in education, the future of work will leave more people behind

How can young people prepare for the future workforce when this shift is occurring so quickly? And how can adults retrain and retool so their skills stay relevant?

In the past, we’ve often thought about formal education as the acquisition of broad skills at a fixed point in time, with training ending at about age 18, 22 or later for those who need advanced degrees.

In order to succeed in the jobs of the future, the workers of tomorrow will need to become lifelong learners. The brain you graduate from college with at age 22 isn’t the one you’re stuck with for the rest of your life. And lifelong learning is the education that never ends: An ever-evolving mastery and proof of abilities.

The good news about lifelong learning for employers is that it means more workers will tailor their skills directly to their job functions. Employers who build cultures to support these future opportunities will attract the best talent.

Related: Apprenticeships could provide a path to the middle class for millions of workers, new study says

That’s why employers and prospective employees will need to get more comfortable with alternative credentialing like specialized certifications, micro degrees and digital badges. Employers will also need to facilitate these new models.

For a lot of companies, the safest way to venture into this new world of lifelong learning and micro credentialing has been to modernize their own internal training programs and to invest in learning opportunities that expand the skills of existing employees.

Many firms have already taken important steps. Among those helping employees to pay for college are Starbucks, McDonalds and Fiat Chrysler. Meanwhile, PayPal, L’Oreal, AirFrance/KLM and a number of other companies are working with Coursera, a provider of massive open online courses (MOOCs), to give employees access to online instruction.

Traditional higher-education institutions and technology companies have a significant role to play as well. Colleges and universities, for their part, can continue to work with employers and industry leaders to ensure they are teaching the skills that are in highest demand today – and that are likely to continue to be in high demand in at least the near future.

Related: After decades of pushing bachelor’s degrees, U.S. needs more tradespeople

These institutions can also expand their certificate program offerings and explore other micro degree options. In particular, institutions already well-regarded for their traditional degree programs are in a unique position to help push alternate degree programs into the mainstream, allowing them to be seen as reputable — and valuable — by prospective employers.

We in the industry must continue to develop and refine technologies not only that extend access to lifelong learning — in the way that MOOCs do — but also that ensure high-quality, meaningfully personalized learning experiences.

As we enter an age where learners will be increasingly responsible for crafting their own educational journeys, it will be crucial to give these students the support they need and ensure the highest quality instruction possible, even when students are taking classes entirely online.

Recent breakthroughs in neuroscience have proven the plasticity of the human brain, revealing how it can continue to change throughout one’s lifetime.

That means we, as humans, are perfectly suited to adjusting our skills and learning new things. We are lifelong learners. Embracing that gives us the best chance at success in an uncertain future.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.

Mark Dorman is the president of the international and professional divisions of McGraw-Hill Education.

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Mark Dorman

Mark Dorman is the president of the international and professional divisions of McGraw-Hill Education. See Archive

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