Hacking Education for our Future of Work:

A Grand Challenge

It’s time to apply our hacking skills to education. We need a mashup of work and education — work and education cannot stand separately in a world of quickly shifting tasks, roles, and careers. I’ve had the chance to write and speak to audiences about a “mosaic” of education, but here I’d like to go further. We need an on-going mashup where the contributors are the organizations who need work done, the people doing the work, and the organizations who provide educational opportunities for the workers. Imagine a grand challenge, like those attacking global health and development issues, that creates a world where:

  • We are all students and personally engaged with our lifelong learning
  • Universities are open, agile, and sustainable
  • Organizations partner with education ecosystems to identify short, medium, and long term knowledge, skill, and ability requirements
  • Technology tools support the above
School room for son’s of workers at Barcelona’s Basilica of the Sagrada Familia (image from about 1909). We have come a long way.

Lifelong Learning

Whether we evolve to a world where we have “overlapping micro-careers,” or something more paternalistic like lifetime employment, we need to do a better job of being prepared for the work that needs to be done. U.S. Census data from 2009–2013 shows that 28.8% of those 25 years and older have a bachelor’s degree or higher. However, other data shows only about half go on for a Master’s or other advanced degree.

Even if a master’s degree is the goal, education shouldn’t flatline at graduation (note that we call graduation “commencement.”) As a university professor, I know universities can’t do much more for our future of work than teach foundations and a process of critical thinking and problem solving. In our current form, we can’t accredit formal degrees fast enough to stay up with the pace of innovation — though I am impressed to see how quickly degree programs in analytics and unmanned aircraft systems (drones) have developed.

Success and a viable livelihood will fall to those who manage their learning as carefully as they, hopefully, have managed their careers. It’s not enough to do your current work well. You need to be preparing for the work to shift, and many may just want to be prepared to do something different than what they are doing now.

Technology platforms are likely to support us as we manage our learning. LinkedIn’s recent purchase of online education platform, lynda.com, offers an opportunity to apply artificial intelligence to how we predict what we need to learn next. I’m hoping LinkedIn will use the data from our resumes, the data from their job posting services, and the educational possibilies of lynda.com to suggest what we should learn for the short, medium, and long term — and then help us find the positions to put that learning into practice.

But we can’t just rely on LinkedIn or other tools. They don’t start early enough in our careers and it’s really a mindset that needs to change. I was thrilled to discover that there are more than three times as many “high school career counselor” positions open than “high school college counselor” positions (data from LinkedIn — I’m interpreting these openings as signs of growth rather than attrition). High school, or earlier, is an opportunity to help people learn to understand the knowledge, skills, and abilities needed for different work, how to find that work, and how to prepare for the next step.

Open, Agile, Sustainable Universities as Part of an Educational Ecosystem

To the extent that there is a viable ecosystem, rather than each of us trying to do this on our own, we will be more successful. Universities, the broader education ecosystem made up of platforms like Lynda.com, Udacity, edX, Kahn Academy, etc., and organizations positioned to know about work requirements and openings need to create tighter relationships. Education doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Our professional schools have generally understood this, but could do even better. IBM’s work with business schools and universities to support big data and analytics skill development is an example of such a tight relationship.

Universities are well positioned to create strong scaffolds to support lifelong learning, though I agree that university degrees in their current form are at risk of obsolescence. My own business school (Santa Clara University), Carnegie Mellon, and others, are creating one year master’s of science degree programs in areas of special focus to complement their regular MBAs. The MBA degree generally requires the equivalent of two full-time years. This shortens the time from need to capability and in some cases can be completed while working.

What universities haven’t done is change how these programs come into being, how they will be sunsetted, how they institutionalize the practice of identifying new areas, or how they support lifelong learning for alumni. Imagine a scenario where a student graduates and commences his or her career. Wharton, and I’m sure some other business schools, are offering free lifetime access to some amount of executive education following graduation from their MBA program. Is that enough?

What if universities had evolving programs where alumni and others could keep coming back? These programs could be developed in partnership with employers, freelance marketplaces, job boards, technology providers (like IBM in the example above), and niche online educators. Some learners might approach the university for a formal degree, others might return for a refresher, and some others might ask to have current capabilities evaluated in preparation for approaching an organization that doesn’t care about degrees, but does care about performance. (Google, for example, is hiring more people without degrees and Automattic, the company behind WordPress.com, uses project “tryouts” to evaluate candidates.)

These different activities exist, but we’ve yet to bundle them, or even identify them as an ecosystem. It’s a lot to ask of a new member of the workforce to navigate these systems individually. If the universities won’t, then I expect LinkedIn or similar will.

Are You Ready for this Grand Challenge?

We aren’t starting from scratch. Many individuals are formally developing their personal brands. (Accounting firm PwC even has an open learning and toolset to help — great way to build relationships with possible job candidates.) When you pay attention to what you can offer by developing your brand, it seems likely that there is also attention paid to what you could do to improve.

Universities are taking initial steps with shorter, more focused degrees, certificates, and open-enrollment. This provides the opportunity to create “mosaics” of capabilities with finer detail than might be offered by an undergraduate major, or even a major and then a master’s degree.

More employers are evaluating work product rather than degrees. Recruiters are using sophisticated tools to scour coding sites like GitHub for the best contributors — based on the work done, rather than the certification. Next steps can be to feed this information back to the educational ecosystem to keep the learning and working in sync.

I look forward to a day where we use similar sophisticated analytics to evaluate learning activities. For example, the Open Learning Initiative is taking steps to apply research on learning and cognition directly into how courses are designed, presented, and evaluated. Ideally this will become common practice.

The U.S. Whitehouse defines Grand Challenges as:

…ambitious but achievable goals that harness science, technology, and innovation to solve important national or global problems and that have the potential to capture the public’s imagination.

What I don’t see yet, and why I make this call for a Grand Challenge, is a trigger that will bring these efforts together. Perhaps it will be the talent gap (McKinsey suggests talent undersupply is costing between $800 million and $1 trillion — even just considering four sectors of the U.S. economy, cited here). Perhaps it will be a “killer app” that creates such vast opportunity we all have to get onboard. Perhaps it will be a grassroots effort that pushes governments, universities, and employers in the right direction.

Until then, let’s each take one step. I’ll improve my courses by leveraging the open learning initiative. What will you do?