Have MOOC Surfaced a New Breed of Learner?

Early research findings about MOOCs point to who actually benefits from these courses. What some of the early findings seem to indicate is that these are people who already have a traditional credential or two under their belt.  Of course, there are plenty of well-credentialed people who never take or complete MOOCs, so it is about more than just being formally educated. In fact, this leads me to wonder (since I don’t have the data at this point) if MOOCs are not surfacing a certain breed of learner. Consider the following:

  • While there are exceptions, MOOCs are rarely required learning activities for the participants as part of a larger formal education program or an employer requirement.
  • People who complete MOOCs do not earn a highly sought after or valued credential.
  • There are no traditional letter grades associated in most MOOCs.
  • People take MOOCs based upon individual goals, interests and aspirations.
  • One study indicated that many MOOC completers tend to be taking the MOOC for career advancement, developing new and valued knowledge or skill.
  • People tend to work on MOOCs during evenings and weekends.

Look at these different features, and we start to see that people who complete MOOCs are learners. As much it is might be a cliché to some, these are lifelong learners. They value learning, not just earning grades or credentials. They value enough of it that they are willing to replace other leisure activities with the work that it takes to complete a MOOC. They are self-motivated, self-starters, even self-directed learners.

In other words, if you are browsing the digital landscape in search of great learners, MOOCs are not a bad place to look. They are havens for people with a genuine love of learning and curiosity, or people with a drive for personal growth and development. Where else do you find people who want to study big data, ancient history, American history, design thinking, or international law for fun, personal interest, and professional gain (apart from getting a new degree)? We might find them in libraries, public lectures, online communities of practice and by browsing the comments of social media; but MOOCs as online learning communities represent a concentration of people who understand several important aspects of life and learning in a connected world.

  • Learning is about more than earning credits, grades and credentials.
  • The digital world is a new frontier for the willing and self-directed learner.
  • Learning apart from formal credentials has practical and professional benefits.
  • There is power is taking ownership for one’s learning, designing personal pathways based upon interests, professional aspirations, and personal goals.
  • Valuable learning experiences are freely available to those who are willing to seek them out and take advantage of them.

Not everyone approaches life and learning with such insights and perspectives, but the development of MOOCs over the past years puts a spotlight on these learners. Of course, MOOCs are not the only way to embrace the joys of open and connected learning, but they are a noteworthy congregating place for such people.

This leads me to muse about the implications for education. While some have touted MOOCs as a replacement for traditional higher education, I’m increasingly to what MOOCs tell us about self-directed learning. There is a treasure trove of insights to be gleaned from studying the people who congregate in and benefit from these massive online learning communities.

Too often we look to the technology and its capacity for changing education. I’m the first to argue that technology amplifies and muffles different values. As such, what values are amplified by MOOCs? One is clearly self-directed, uncaged learning. Not everyone is thriving in MOOC learning contexts, but those who are have the capacity to motivate themselves, manage their time, set their own learning goals or at least act upon their learning interests, and follow through on commitments to learning goals. This doesn’t sound too different from some of our most successful learners in traditional learning environments, does it?

This also points to what I consistently refer to as the new digital divide. The divide is between those who have the confidence and capacity to take initiative for their learning in the connected world and those who remain largely passive and dependent upon others to direct their learning. As such, learning from MOOC participants is something that reminds about one of the more imporant aspects of a quality educational experience, developing the agency and skill to take cotrol of one’s personal learning journey.

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.


Who Benefits from the The #ASUonline / #Starbucks Partnership?

While there were many highlights from the 2015 ASU+GSV Summit, for me it was the interview with Michael Crow, President of Arizona State University and Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks. Nearing a year into their widely touted partnership, the two came together at the Summit to retell the story of the partnership, the vision, and possibilities for the future.

In case you’ve missed the media over the past ten months, in 2014 Arizona State University online and Starbucks announced a partnership that provided a discounted tuition to Starbucks employees around the globe. When a student successfully completes a certain number of credits, that student gets a full reimbursement…with no strings attached. While partnerships between Universities are nothing new, many are more about equipping employees with skills related to their current work, but that is not the focus of the ASU/Starbucks deal.

Both agreed that their partnership was not simply about workforce development. This was not a partnership focused exclusively on a University helping a company better or further equip employees. Instead, Shultz cast a vision for how a publicly held company can help people pursue their life goals. This is a no-strings-attached perk for Starbucks employees. The partnership covers the tuition and employee are free to stay or leave Starbucks upon completion of the degree. This is a University/company model that doesn’t simply treat the employee as a human resource to help increase shareholder value. Indeed, the employees do that, but Shultz has demonstrated a commitment to investing in the quality of life for employees beyond simple measures of increasing shareholder wealth. This was demonstrated with a 350 million dollar investment in healthcare for employees (an amount that Shultz mentioned far exceeds what they pay for coffee in a decade), along with this newer 250 million dollar investment in the educational goals and broader aspirations of current employees.

According to Michael Crow, their vision is not for this single partnership to transform society. However, he is hopeful that other “value-driven Universities and value-driven companies” will do the same thing. They are establishing an exemplar for other Universities and companies on the public good of investing in human potential. Ultimately, this is about something bigger than the well-being of a single company. This is a for-profit business embracing social entrepreneurship.

Increasing shareholder wealth remains a critical part of Starbucks, as it does for all public companies. With that in mind, how does such a partnership fit? A $250 million dollar investment in the education of employees is well over double what Starbucks spent on advertising in 2013. There is no question that the media coverage from such a partnership strengthened the already robust company brand, but it might be a challenge to suggest that there is an evident and solid financial return on this effort. This is simply about more than the bottom line. As best as I can tell, this is about a set of core values, about defining and living out a social vision for the company.

What about ASU? What benefits do they get from this partnership? That one is easier to see. I’ve not reviewed financials to discover how much ASU spends on marketing for their online programs, but online recruitment is an expensive endeavor, with some online programs putting well beyond 20% of tuition toward marketing and recruiting new students. As such, a partnership like this allows a University to contribute what looks like a generous tuition discount without losing money on the deal. In essence, the partnership provides a stream of students and gets an amazing brand like Starbucks to market the ASU program from within the company. There is immense value in that. As such, a partnership like this makes it possible for a University to contribute a discount directly to students instead of having to spend that same money on marketing.

What is next for this partnership? They didn’t discuss this much in the interview, but Michael Crow certainly took the opportunity to give a glimpse into how efforts like this partnership represent a larger vision for ASU. He stated that higher education has “reached its maximum in its current form. The only way forward is through innovations like college completion and lifelong education” through modes like online learning. It is time, according to Crow, for us to “move beyond the notion that college is something that you do between the age of 17 and 22” (if you happen to come from a wealthy enough background). Crow knows the stats as well as anyone. That population of traditional college age residential students is the minority in higher education today, and there is every indication that the “non-traditional” learner will continue to become the norm. With this in mind, Crow continued with a challenge. “Who is willing to step out and start evolving the next form of higher education?” ASU is stepping up to the challenge, and we see countless others stepping forward as well; not to mention the many startups and education companies that are not officially labeled as “higher education providers” but are actively offering products and services that were once limited to traditional learning organizations. Welcome to the digital-age learning revolution.

5 Whys for Lifelong Learning & the Role of Learning Organizations

We’ve talked about “lifelong learning” for decades but what do we mean by that phrase, how is it different from the past, and what are the implications for learning organizations? On one level, it is simply learning throughout life, but there are different arguments for the importance of lifelong learning that give us a more complete understanding of the term. As such, following are five ways of thinking about it along with a few thoughts on the role of learning organizations and education companies in each of these areas. Advocates for lifelong learning do not necessarily separate it into these distinct categories, but doing so sometimes helps us develop a richer understanding of the phrase across contexts. Doing this is also critical for learning organizations and educational companies that are considering their role in supporting different types of lifelong learning.

A Life of Many Chances

As Jacques Delors explains,

“In the 1996 report, the UNESCO Commission on Education places a strong interest on lifelong learning…the further we evolve in a society that is both fixed and constantly changing, in the context of globalization, the more we become aware of the centrality of education, the central nature of education in society, and we defined four objectives relating to education that, it seems to me, are still relevant today:

  1.  learning to know – a world subject to major evolutionary change, but which also entails learning to know history and scientific discoveries;
  2. learning to do – by which I mean having access to necessary competencies;
  3. learning to live together – undoubtedly the most important of all in the world riven with inequalities, fundamentalism and wars;
  4. and finally learning to be – in other words, getting to know oneself better in order to gain self-confidence.

Delors goes on to explain that a critical why behind lifelong and adult learning is to fill gaps that were missed in primary education and to address inequities that result from having those gaps. This might include a person who grew up in a community or part of the world with poor or limited access to early education, but it also includes someone who missed important lessons due to various life and social circumstances. Should such a person be restricted from the many jobs and opportunities of life because of those early experiences? Proponents of lifelong learning like Delors argues that this should not be the case, and we can help by giving learning experiences throughout the life span that are substantive, accessible and equalizing. This is a vision for lifelong learning that rejects the idea that, if you missed it the first time, then you just have the live with the consequences.

What is the role of learning organizations?

As we look at this why, learning organizations contribute by creating opportunities for formal education that has a low entrance barrier, embracing the opportunity and challenge to help people address potential gaps in their learning. This might come through degree programs, certificates, stand alone courses, as well as non-credit offerings. There are also organizations dedicated to helping people gain the pre-requisite skills to be successful in future formal learning. In addition, education companies provide inexpensive learning solutions, often available online, that help people fill gaps and gain skills that increase one’s employability.

In some ways, this was a large part of the early vision behind the online learning revolution that launched in the 1990s and is already integrated with mainstream approaches to both K-12 and higher education. Online learning continues to increase access and opportunity. It started by reaching out to those who were not served or undeserved in traditional contexts, and it has now gained a solid grounding in the broader landscape of P-20 education. Today online learning is one of many forces that is helped move higher education from an education of the elite to an opportunity for the majority.

 Living & Learning in a World of Constant Change

Others focus on the reality of modern life, that lessons learned in school five, ten or twenty years ago are not enough to prepare us for the constantly changing world in which we live. We must embrace a mindset and commitment to ongoing learning: acquiring new knowledge, skills, mindsets…and we must further develop important character traits as we face increasingly complex challenges and gain access to greater opportunities. Within this perspective on lifelong learning, we see champions of ongoing formal and informal learning experiences. We notice reminders that education can’t be segmented into an early stage of life, as if you get and education and then go on with the rest of your life. Learning does not stop with primary school, secondary school, a first college degree or even a doctorate or other terminal degree. It requires a lifelong commitment.

What is the role of learning organizations?

Here learning organizations are partnering with companies to provide formal and custom training to meet the changing needs of organizations, and the changing demands of work in these organizations. There remain many leaders and individuals who are overwhelmed and less interested in the “teach a man to fish” approach. They want packaged training and educational programming that will help them achieve their goals and meet the immediate demands. As such, there is a massive market for startups, educational publishers and content providers, and traditional learning organizations who are willing to partner around these goals, or to simply create and market produces and courses that address high-demand training needs.

MOOCs, personal learning networks, online communities of practices and many other develops are helping to meets some of these needs as well.

Preparing for Life in a World of Constant Change

This is largely the same argument as the last, but the difference is on the preparation. Now we are looking at the approach to lifelong learning that is less focused on creating increased access and opportunity to ongoing learning experiences, and more focused on equipping people to be competent and confidence self-directed learners. It is a survival skills approach. Make sure people can survive and thrive in a constantly changing world by being able to own and manage their own learning, becoming confident as both the designers of and general contractors for a life of continual learning. This is something that can be nurtured in formative years, but it can also be developed in adulthood. This short video from Salman Khan illustrates this perspective.

What is the role of learning organizations?

We see more learning organizations embracing the importance of a curriculum that is not simply about learning to know, but about learning to learn. On the K-12 level, there are schools fully committed to nurturing a generation of self-directed learning by creating new types of learning environments where students take greater ownership for how and what they learn. The same thing is happening in some higher education institutions as well as new approaches to professional development in the workplace (like Jay Cross’s excellent work around informal learning).

There are countless online resources and communities to support people who want to learn how to learn, but it takes a certain measure of drive and initiative to pursue them. As such, formal learning organizations and educational companies still have a role to play to help people learn how to help themselves. This might seem counter-intuitive from a business perspective. Why would you want to equip people so well that they don’t need you anymore? Yet, that is the ultimate aim of all great education. While it may seem this way at first glance, I am certain that any organization capable of nurturing and empowering deeply competent and highly confident self-directed learners will have no problem addressing the financial realities of running a learning organization or educational company. Besides, being a self-directed learner is not about being a lone-ranger learner. As such, there will continue to be a valuable role for learning organizations that help people connect, collaborate, network, and co-learn.

Preparing for Changes in Life Circumstances

Just as the world around us is in constant change, people make changes in their lives; and those changes often require new learning, formal and/or informal. As Jeanne Meister points out, Job Hopping is the New Normal for Millennials, with an average of 4.4 years in a job. Some are shifting a job in one organization to a similar one in another. Others are making small or massive career shifts. Both often (or almost always) require some measure of retraining, retooling, and new learning. Sometimes these changes are by choice. Other times, people experience changes in their lives beyond their control that require them to look for new lines of work.

What is the role of learning organizations?

Adult education programs in community and technical colleges, traditional Universities, online schools, and other organizations already offer a multitude of options for this purpose. There is no evidence that this is slowing. There will continue to be huge demand for programs and services that help people transition from one context to another, or that prepare people to do so through formal and informal education (and training) programs. Any program, product or service that proves its value in helping people make these changes will find plenty of opportunities.

Ongoing Personal & Professional Development, and Peak Performance

A fourth why for lifelong learning relates to the traits of those who achieve true expertise and excellence in one or more domains. It is about reaching new heights in one’s life, goals and aspirations. How does a concert pianist become that skilled and continue to develop throughout her career? How does one grow as an increasingly effective or excellent leader, educator, government official, parent, community organizer, gardener, designer, or entrepreneur? This is an area that has its own domains and disciplines, and is sometimes separated from what we refer to as lifelong learning, but it is certainly a vibrant part of learning throughout life.

What is the role of learning organizations?

At different stages of life, people experience plateaus. Sometimes this leads to frustration, other times to boredom. Achieving new goals, growing and improving helps people remain engaged in their work. Companies want people who are deeply engaged in their work in ways that help the organization achieve its goals. Similarly, there are many other aspects of a person’s life that are important to them: health and wellness, family and relationships, avocations and hobbies, leadership capacity for future possibilities, financial goals, citizenship and activism. As such, there remains a valuable role for learning organizations that help people improve and advance through training, resources to help with accountability, networking with like-minded peopled, formal coaching and mentoring, rich and engaging interactive content with feedback, along with guides and tips for taking things to the next level.

Lifelong learning is the new normal. It is a perspective on education that has largely shattered past notions of education as something limited to primary school, secondary school, a college degree, or a formal training program. The shift from a schooling to an education mindset is largely complete, even as some only focus on the former. What does this mean for learning organizations? As I see it, this further solidifies the value of agile, innovative, and learner-centered organizations. It invites them to consider the distinct role(s) they will play in the 70+ year education of people in the modern era.