lifelong learning_Higher Education_ChristensenInstitute

Packing for the journey: Can lifelong learning fit in a college-sized suitcase?

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May 4, 2018

Today’s workforce feels like a frantically accelerating and precarious place. The shelf life of skills is shortening. More workers are joining the gig economy. Automation is creeping into most sectors. All of these changes require that workers upskill, reskill, and master soft skills.

America’s higher education system already plays an integral role in delivering some of these skills, but it falls woefully short in delivering on the country’s lifelong learning needs. To properly address this challenge, we must reframe it and the language used to describe it, and Modularity Theory provides us with powerful tools for doing so.

How interfaces shape industries

If you’ve gone through your house and replaced your incandescent light bulbs with fluorescent or LED ones, you’ve already had a primer in Modularity Theory. Notice that you were able to simply screw the new bulbs into your existing sockets. You may not have even paid attention to the brand. In fact, those new bulbs would probably work fine in 100-year-old light fixtures.

This is because the interface between bulb and socket is highly standardized. The people that make sockets make them according to known specifications, and the people that make light bulbs know to make their products compatible with those sockets. Light bulb companies can tweak and optimize their products every which way, as long as they stick with that standard screw base. When a product or service consists of interchangeable, plug-and-play components and standardized interfaces, as above, we say it has a modular architecture.

The opposite scenario is a system whose components are interdependent in complex and less understood ways. For example, KIPP schools tackle the K-12 achievement gap by integrating into more areas of underserved students’ lives. KIPP controls more of students’ after-school and summer hours, provides more comprehensive healthcare, and gets more involved in character/values education than typical schools. It’s difficult to tease apart the effects of these interdependent components on academic performance, so KIPP covers them all, with the flexibility to try different combinations of interventions.

Thus a value chain becomes more interdependent when products are still not good enough and consumers want improved functionality. Once that improved functionality is achieved, the value chain shifts toward modularity as customers demand speed, convenience, and customizability. These competing priorities—functionality and flexibility vs. speed and standardization—drive companies to either integrate over multiple components (interdependent), or specialize in particular components (modular), fundamentally shaping these companies’ business models.

Higher education taps into many facets of individuals’ long-term social and economic well-being. There are, therefore, unacceptably high costs whenever schools, companies, and legislators employ and incentivize inappropriate business models and interventions. It is imperative that these stakeholders clearly understand how and where higher education interfaces with the labor market, and whether these interfaces are modular, interdependent, or somewhere in between.

You get one suitcase…

There is a tendency to see the transition between higher education and the workforce as packing all your belongings from college into one suitcase, getting your first job, and then…that’s it. You unpack, settle down, and never have to pack again. If you need anything else, your employer takes care of it. This leads educational institutions, government agencies, and many companies to imagine a single, modular interface between college and a first job, and to behave as if higher education’s role is done after the graduation ceremony.

This “pack once for the long haul” model may have worked fine when job responsibilities evolved more slowly, and when companies invested in keeping and training employees for the long haul as a default expectation. However, it breaks down in the face of lifelong learning, which requires more frequent and flexible learning options from various providers.

A more robust visual model would have you living out of multiple suitcases indefinitely. It’s entirely unreasonable to think that the initial packing would contain all the clothes you’ll need for every phase of your journey. At times, you’ll interface with stores where you acquire new items. At other times, you’ll interface with stores that mend or adjust your existing clothes. There may even be times where an employer gives you a uniform and take cares of everything uniform-related. The opportunities to update your wardrobe are many and diverse, often evolving, and you’ll continually interact with them throughout your life to keep your suitcase relevant to your needs.

Opportunities abound for companies

This more comprehensive  visualization can lead to policies and innovations better suited for lifelong learning. Learning providers, companies, and policymakers could look along the multiple education-to-workforce interfaces that individuals encounter in life with a clearer understanding of how to best tackle them.

At well-understood, more standardized interfaces, there are opportunities to modularize. For example, where management-level executives once turned to full-time or executive MBA programs, the educational offerings available have become more than good enough, and are increasingly broken down into component parts and repackaged as needed. The market has evolved to the point where companies like BetterUp can provide small chunks of content in an on-demand coaching model.

However, in portions of the lifelong learning continuum where the interaction between training and employment is poorly understood (or poorly functioning), there are opportunities for innovators and government agencies to integrate and optimize existing interfaces, or to develop new interfaces altogether. For example, we have documented how some innovators are integrating to help usher career-changers into new industries, offering technical and soft skills training in an apprenticeship model and then employing those who successfully complete the program.

Opportunities abound for higher education

A better understanding of the lifelong learning paradigm and of the many interfaces that it engenders can also broaden perspectives for traditional institutions. For example, higher education providers could more seriously consider ideas like the “open loop” university, expanding their offerings to engage alumni as perpetual students, helping them transition repeatedly from learning to working and back again. Companies like Degreed are already working on the credentialing infrastructure needed to make this a reality.

This framework also validates the idea of an “education sherpa,” a coach that can guide learners and professionals as they navigate the myriad training options available at different times of life. This would especially help individuals in the ultra-modular gig economy, who aren’t linked to one employer for long periods of time and may cobble together their education through multiple sources like bootcamps, MOOCs, and microcredential providers.

Viewing the higher education-to-workforce interface as a static, one-off suitcase, the labor market indeed seems daunting and riddled with crippling skills gaps. Looking through the lens of dynamic, lifelong suitcases, however, reveals a richly textured tapestry of opportunities for learners, learning providers, and employers alike.

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As a research assistant on the Christensen Institute's higher education team, Richard helps investigate novel business models in postsecondary education, professional development, and lifelong learning.