Last month, the Economist released a special report on Lifelong Learning, which noted that the speed of economic transition is putting a greater emphasis on efforts to retrain and reskill workers and pressuring policymakers to focus on the role of higher education in lifelong learning. Putting some dimensions around the problem, a recent Oxford study estimated that 47 percent of U.S, jobs will be automated in the following 20 years. For many of these workers, going back to school for two or four years to earn a new degree isn’t the answer—but what is?

In a recent paper, I profile one institution, Northeastern University, which has committed to “future-proofing” itself by innovating around lifelong learning. Northeastern recognizes that many college graduates struggle to translate general and theoretical knowledge learned in college into the practical skills required for workforce success. On the other side of the challenge, employers struggle to identify workers who can fill roles in emerging but high-demand technical fields. Northeastern’s president, Joseph Aoun, calls for a fundamental rethinking of the traditional four-year degree: “It’s time to stop thinking of higher education as an experience people take part in once during their young lives—or even several times as they advance up the professional ladder—and begin thinking of it as a platform for life-long learning.”

One of the ways Northeastern is answering higher education’s workforce readiness challenge is to build an experiential analytics bootcamp called Level, led by Northeastern’s vice president for new ventures, Nick Ducoff.

Bootcamps have proliferated over the last five years; there are now 300 coding bootcamps, which together churned out an estimated 16,000 graduates in 2015. Bootcamp programs promise intensive training in tech skills and boast robust job opportunities for successful graduates. They have found success in areas where technological innovation is creating jobs more quickly than traditional higher education can build programs to train workers. Course Report, an online bootcamp directory, estimates that over a third of bootcamp students are women; this stat compares favorably to traditional computer science programs, where only an estimated 14.1 percent of students are women. Bootcamp students tend to be older than traditional undergraduates, and the majority of them already have an undergraduate degree. Given the short duration and low cost of bootcamps, they appear disruptive relative to longer, more expensive traditional master’s programs.

Level’s main offering, Level Core, is a curriculum designed to immerse students in the tools of data analytics. The $8,000 program gives learners—80 percent of whom have not previously enrolled in a Northeastern degree program—the flexibility to enroll in either a two-month full-time, in-person program or a five-month blended program with online courses as well as in-person sessions one night a week and one weekend a month. Level also developed an introductory bootcamp called Level Set, a 15-week blended program that focuses on prerequisite statistics and Excel skills to prepare students for typical business analyst responsibilities as well as for more intensive data analytics programs like Level Core. Level also recently built an eight-week program in cloud computing with a curriculum co-designed by Amazon Web Services. Level’s first year saw over 100 graduates, but over the course of the next year, the team expects to see hundreds of students complete the program.

Level has structured its programs to align with openings in high-demand fields, which builds on Northeastern’s tradition of partnering with industry. In designing its programs, Level evaluated research on the most frequently requested skills in analytics-focused job openings. Ducoff’s team then talked to a series of hiring managers to further understand the skills required and how they prioritized them. Those insights drove Level’s curriculum development. Level has also embedded employers in the curriculum itself: industry experts engage with students throughout the program through lectures and panels. Employers also sponsor labs and experiential cases, which allow students to polish their skills in scenarios and projects designed by the employers who might hire them at the end of their program. All students finish the program with a capstone, which is a real-world project that each student works on directly with a potential employer. Level’s goals are to help students build skills that are immediately applicable for the working world and to facilitate each student developing a professional network.

Level shows signs of being a disruptive innovation, reaching out to lifelong learners and helping them adjust to new realities in the workforce. Level has been built as an autonomous unit, part of Northeastern but distinct from it. This enables Level to establish its own processes and priorities, separate from the organizational drivers on the main campus. Although it accepts some Northeastern students, most of Level’s students are adult learners seeking to skill up in order to advance their careers. These students don’t need a full bachelor’s or master’s degree, which would overserve them.

Another sign of Level’s disruptive potential is that by traditional measures, bootcamps are “not as good” as formal degrees—they are shorter and more targeted to a specific job or role. Their short duration and often flexible scheduling make them more accessible and affordable than a typical master’s degree in computer science. Ducoff’s team has demonstrated an ability to improve Level’s offerings and move into additional markets, and although it is still early, the business model looks sustainable. A few schools have partnered with independent bootcamp providers to develop bootcamp programs affiliated with their institutions. Other schools have shown interest in having Ducoff’s team develop “white-labeled” bootcamps for them. But it is likely that most institutions will ignore the bootcamp model, given that these programs are not currently eligible for Title IV funding, do not enhance academic prestige, and do not meet the needs of universities’ core customers.

As the Economist noted, and as disruption theory would predict, many of the innovations in lifelong learning are happening outside the traditional institutions of higher education—in addition to bootcamps, think of MOOCs, microcredentials, and nanodegrees. But colleges and universities can—and should—follow Northeastern’s lead, and innovate to transform college into a place of lifelong learning.

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  • Alana Dunagan
    Alana Dunagan