From Degrees to A Lifelong Educational Ecosystem

This is an age of unbundled education and it can be argued that higher education institutions are sleeping giants in this realm. As such, I’ve been grappling with a concept for the past year that I’d like to share with you, one that I suspect represents an emerging shift in the way we think about educational offerings. If this were to gain traction, it could have promising possibilities for everything from workforce development to social entrepreneurship, ongoing professional development to educational credentials.

Let me start by explaining what I mean by unbundling. Where we once thought of formal education as an all or nothing, one size fits all option, we now see many aspects being broken down into discrete elements, providing a buffet of choices. One might choose the free online lectures and content without the degree. Another might opt for a competency-based program that is heavy on assessment and verification of learning leading toward a credential, but it does not have the typical classroom experience. Another might get the credit without the class through a prior learning credit option. Still another might choose computer-based instruction that carefully monitors progress toward mastery, but it may or may not be in the context over an overall school experience. We can have the class and credential without a face-to-face element through online learning. Then there are also a litany of education companies emerging that have unbundled services that previously didn’t exist or were typically an integrated part of a University offering: services ranging from tutoring to educational travel, online study groups to writing help, gap year experiences to college prep services, career services to opportunities for internships. While many such companies have been around for a long time, today we see a rapid expansions of startups and education businesses that provide these and more services.

Why do I call higher education institutions the sleeping giants in the age of unbundled services? It is because flagship higher education institutions are gold mines of expertise in everything from neuroscience to healthcare, public policy to educational research, new product development to international business. Yet, many education businesses emerge in areas where higher education institutions have been less interested in venturing. Colleges and Universities think about research and degree programs as two primary elements, although there are many that have robust continuing education units that have a long and impressive history of a broader spectrum of educational offerings.

With this in mind, I’ve been exploring a concept that seems to have great potential for both higher education institutions and education companies. I refer to it as the life long learning educational ecosystem and wheel of offerings. This is a way of shifting our focus from degree programs to distinct areas of educational influence. The following image illustrates one such ecosystem as an an example. This particular example is focused on an area of personal interest, nurturing educational technology innovators and leaders. Notice how the center of the visual is not a degree in educational technology. Instead, the center is a vision or mission. The goal is to nurture innovators and leaders in the field of education. How we go about that will vary from one person to another. It will depend upon one’s interests, resources, level of expertise, stage of life and work, and much more. As such, a degree is listed as one option. Along side that we have a graduate certificate that is a focused but less expansive offering, one that also might cost less than a full degree. It might serve as a stepping stone to a degree, a stand-alone credential, or an add-on to an existing graduate degree. There there are also offerings that increase access and opportunity like open courses. These might be funnels to recruit students for the degree or certificate, but they are also ways to live out the mission even when people are not in need of a formal credential or do not have the time and resources for the degree or certificate. Continuing around the circle, we also have possible offerings like an 8-day boot camp, perhaps a series of 8 intensive 6-8 hour workshops focused upon key areas for educational innovation. From there we have options like mini-courses (for credit or not), potential coaching and mentoring services for emerging or existing educational leaders, 1- day events or conferences, and unconferences.

FinalAnd for bite-sized insights to help aspiring and emerging educational innovators, there is even a potential offering like a newsletter or blog that highlights promising practices and emerging research. There are hundreds of other spokes that could be added to this wheel of offerings ranging from webinars to Twitter chats, fellowships to online communities. The point is that they work as individual offerings but combine to create a robust set of standalone or stackable learning opportunities. Imagine what would happen if more flagship higher education institutions embraced such a vision for various academic areas of influence. What if more Universities thought of organizing their units around such discipline-specific missions instead of organizing more around degree programs?

I realize that there are many factors that make such a shift unlikely, but if a few sleeping giants in higher education fully embraced such a vision, imagine the potential social benefits. What if we did this with key social challenges and intellectual pursuits? Then what if we did it more formally through partnerships across organizations. There are examples, but they remain isolated and a minority.

The more I follow the trends in education, the more confident I am that such an ecosystem will become increasingly common. What remains unclear is the extent to which this will take place in formal higher education institutions. However, if it were to do so, I suspect that it would quickly silence (or at least muffle) concerns about the future of higher education.