Who Decides What Should be Taught & Learned in an Age of Educational Choice?

Dozens. There are more choices in education than there are cereals at the typical US grocery story. Where I live there are dozens of choices for schools. There are community public schools, charter schools, magnet schools, independent schools, and faith-based schools. There are classical schools, core knowledge schools, self-directed learning academies, project-based learning programs, game-based learning, blended learning schools, and place-based schools. This has empowered families with choice about curriculum, pedagogy, and anything else that they consider important. While some would rather us have a single uniform community public school system (with limited and select options through magnets), that is not where we are in education today. This is true about early childhood, elementary, secondary, and higher education. In addition to these educational organizations, there are hundreds of education startups and established companies that offer even more choices about what and how to learn. It is also true about the what and how of lifelong learning. With the digital age comes more educational options than any time in history.

That is the thing about democratized knowledge. It not only increases access and opportunity, but it gives voice and choice when it comes to determining what knowledge is worth acquiring and when to acquire it. Personalized and adaptive learning movements in education are growing quickly, but many of these early efforts are focused upon training and education that is largely standardized (e.g. math and foreign language). These are often complex product designs that require a large audience to get a reasonable return on the investment. That is why it is no coincidence that developments like the Common Core State Standards parallel the growth of education startups and the education sector at large. There is a reason the market share of educational assessment and testing companies has increased over the past couple of years. We see adaptive software gaining traction in areas like math, language instruction, and computer programming. What do these have in common? There is far less debate about the scope and sequence for areas like this.

Depending upon your perspective, these are delightful or troubling times withe regard to choice. For the business-minded, there are experiments like Draper University, probably one of the only schools that has a business curriculum that focuses upon futurology, bitcoins, and the warrior mindset. At this point, it seems that the startups and education sector in the business world are leading the way for more choice. As I shared in a presentation to University presidents yesterday, consider projects like Lynda.com, General Assembly, Udacity, and Learn Up. These are samples of the creativity, innovation, and infusion of choice that exemplifies the modern education landscape. These are not only efforts to sell products to schools. These are also standalone education companies that do what schools often do not or cannot do, reaching out directly to the learning, bypassing the educational establishments.

  • To what extent will we see some of these education companies filling the gap for schools and Universities?
  • How much will come from partnerships between these companies and schools?
  • Will more schools begin to embrace similar offerings and innovation from within their organization?
  • Which organizations are most insulated from growing choice and which are least?
  • Will the broader culture of choice redefine standard operations in many schools, driving them to provide more choice to learners?
  • How much with regulatory bodies limit the growth and impact of educational choices?
  • And, will the heavy regulations drive most of the innovations out of schools and into education startups and companies that are less bound or completely unbound from such limitations?

These are the types of questions that intrigue me in this age of educational choice.

Workforce Development, the Skills Gap, & the Limits of the College Solution

I am starting to turn a corner in my thinking about workforce development and equipping people for many of their life callings. I’m still an academic, and I’m not ready to throw out the idea of at the University. Sectors that old don’t just disappear overnight. They adjust, adapt and pivot; but they do not usually disappear. Yes, individual colleges and universities have to closed their doors, but the idea of the colleges and universities remains alive and well. Nonetheless, conversations about workforce development call for a multifaceted approach that embraces college as one of many important elements.

It would be a mistake to think that institutions of higher education have stuck around in largely unchanged formats, or that they are the sole means of preparing people for work and life. Higher education has experienced massive overhauls over the last thousand years: who is admitted (and who is not), who is taught (and who is not), how progress is determined, how learning is categorized, the concept of disciplines an fields of study, how credentials are earned (and what they mean), what is learned, how it is learned, when it is learned, where the learning takes place, how it is funded, how success is measured, and what (if anything) is measured. These have been in flux for over a millennium. At the same time, we still see many ways in which people prepare for life and work that does not include college or what is sometimes considered the “traditional college experience.”

This is sometimes not understood or it is forgotten.  “The university” or “the college degree” is often discussed as if it is one universal thing. Journalists and academics who often experienced residential 4-hour college programs too often write and think as if that is the typical college experience, when it is far from it. There is less attention for the commuting community college student, the evening student pursuing a degree while working and/or caring for family, the online learner, the student studying at a satellite site for a University that doesn’t have athletic teams or even student clubs and groups. Scan the list of the largest colleges in the United States and the top of the list includes names like the University of Phoenix, Ivy Tech Community College, Ashford University, and American Public (Military) University. That is a bit deceptive, however, because narrowing it to the largest undergraduate institutions results in a completely different list: University of Central Florida, Texas A & M, Ohio State, Penn State, and the University of Texas – Austin. Regardless, there are no universally accepted elements of the perfect college experience.

My point is that there is value in thinking about preparation for work and life more broadly than college and degrees. Following are two ways to do that, especially with workforce development in mind.

Alternatives to College

There is a  growing national conversation in the United States about skill gaps of the present and future. How do we prepare people for the job openings of the future? I commend President Obama’s call to consider free community college as part of the solution. That will help. However,we would be unnecessarily limiting ourselves if we only looked to colleges and universities. I am increasingly confident that we will find far more scalable and sustainable solutions if we expand our awareness of the possibilities. To only focus on colleges and universities to address the skills gap would be like focusing on adding more restaurants to solve a problem with hunger and malnutrition. There are other ways.

  • There are promising education startups.
  • There are efforts where employers are taking the initiative to build their own training programs for certain prospective employees.
  • There are partnerships between companies needing new employees with certain skills and training providers (sometimes colleges and universities, but often just education companies).
  • There are self-study opportunities that lead to assessments where people can demonstrate competence and/or readiness for a given job.
  • There are well-known certifications through professional organizations and companies that open the door to certain employment opportunities.
  • There are alternate credentialing systems (think digital badges) that can be used to document learning regardless of the learning pathway. With the continually growing number of free and open resources for learning online, why not embrace them as ways to help people prepare for various jobs, leveraging open badges or other emerging credentials to signify when someone is ready?

Think About More than Degrees

Even when we think about college and university as a solution, it is important not to get too sidetracked by the idea that a degree is the only valid or useful outcome. Learning takes place even when the final credential is not awarded. How might we recognize and credential that progressive learning so that people can step out and into a job, only to return later for further training and new opportunities? What would it look like to design the college or university experience (or at least some of them) with such built-in options? What about a program where you are credentialed for certain jobs after a semester or year, but you keep studying while working in that job. Now you have employment, but you are working to become prepared for a more advanced position in the near future? This might help solve workforce development and the cost of higher education at the same time. This is not how schools or most government entities related to education think. As it stands, schools would be penalized for such a model because students would be recorded as drop-outs, when they are really just stop-outs, and the stopping out led to employment. This is not a quite change, but it is doable, and I expect to see more higher education institutions re-discovering that they have so much more to offer in terms of preparation for work than courses, credits, and degrees.

How do we address issues related to workforce development and skill gaps? It doesn’t come from just trying to get more college graduates. That can be part of the solution, but I contend that we will make much more progress by 1) increasing access and opportunity to traditional college degrees while also 2) reimagining college in terms of progressive credentialing, and 3) looking beyond college for solutions.