Learning and Earning: Vision of a Toolbox for the 21st Century

As I look across the emerging playing field for post-secondary and lifelong learning, the gap I see between traditional institutional structures and practices and the capacity to serve people differently and better has never been greater. When mobile devices, the internet, and big data intersect, our ability to coach, advise, support, and assess learners becomes an anytime, anyplace activity, limited only by self-imposed boundaries.

Old dichotomies cease to exist. For example, the claim that education was either “job-related” or “intellectual” (academic) no longer holds. We know that the intellectual and behavioral traits that have historically been associated with liberal arts degrees such as critical thinking, problem-solving, teamwork, and leadership also lie at the heart of what we now call “job holding” skills.  And we know that advanced applications of knowledge can be learned in an environment (like the workplace) that encourages reflection, critical thinking, and writing while acquiring the necessary “knowledge.” Moreover our ability to connect learning with earning, strongly and specifically has never been greater. Now when a person goes to work or gets promoted he/she is ready to succeed on Day One.

There has been a lot of writing and thinking about the unbundling of higher education in the last five years, including my own book Harnessing America’s Wasted Talent: A New Ecology of Learning. But the unbundling itself is really a symptom of something far more complex and profound. Learning and its validation have the potential to become free-form exercises, adaptable to whatever the needs of the learner or the employer are. Like a piece of clay or a set of Legos, resources can be molded to the needs of the learner and evidence of learning generated as the proof of what was learned.

This does NOT mean that all learning is going to be random and self-directed. Not in the least. In fact, there is plenty of evidence that most learners need and benefit from structure and clear expectations as well as personal support. What it DOES mean is that most forms of experience can be mined for their learning value. It also means that the construction of learning experiences and their assessment can be done far more precisely, linking directly with social, civic, personal, or employment requirements. This tells learners and employers alike what capacity they bring to work and to the community in terms of skills, behaviors, and intellectual equipment.

This is not meant to imply that certificates and degrees are outdated or irrelevant. It does mean, however, that their value has, in many cases, changed from a necessary cost of doing business to an elective option valued and chosen by the learner and/or requirements demanded by employers or consumers. It also means that all these forms of learning will be available and affordable throughout the learner’s lifecycle.

With all this in mind, what are some examples of the new practices and applications that can be developed in the environment created by the intersection of big data, mobile devices, and the internet? I’m curious to know what others think.

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