Doctor Peddle? I should be, it took me 7 years to get my Undergraduate Degree in Business.
Why a degree in Business? Why not! Actually, as it turns out, I was pretty good in my Marketing classes, and that’s just how the credits added up. Clearly, from the length of time and the unscientific way I chose my degree, my journey through higher ed could’ve gone a bit smoother. But, as a first-generation college student, there was no predetermined path set out for me, and this is common for a lot of young students these days.
And once they graduate, it’s time to get a job. But again, for first-generation students, this can be a journey in-and-of-itself. You see, the promise of a college degree is that it lays a foundation for career success, and a lifetime of learning. But that’s not how it always works out.
But what if we used the data available at our fingertips support that promise? We can, and we should, because data in education can enable personalized learning that lasts for a lifetime.
Meeting Students Where They Really Are
A few months ago, Motivis Learning hosted students from a nearby university for a Design Thinking exercise. We wanted to understand how they approach career planning. We asked them how they determine which paths to pursue, what they wanted to learn, how they determined what skills, knowledge and abilities they needed and wanted to develop? And, if, and when, they accessed the career center or advising office, and what went into their career and class decisions that would help them meet their long-term goals?
But we found that they were far more worried about the financial burden of college, and making sure they picked a major that would lead to a job. They worried about the value of their degree, and they had formulaic approaches to education and career. They tended towards believing that completing certain classes adds up to one particular major which would lead them into one particular type of job.
Like many other college students, they don’t have the bandwidth to think about what they need to learn to achieve their goals, or to consider how a given degree doesn’t limit them to a single job category—for example, how someone with a degree in marketing can thrive in hundreds of jobs that aren’t marketing related.
That’s a shame, because then they’re less focused on learning than they are on credentials during their time in college, and that limits how they imagine their futures.
Instead, what if students walked onto campus for the first time with a clear idea of the career paths open to them, and a complete map showing them how to get there? Imagine if they signed up for accounting classes—not because it’s a graduation requirement, an abstraction several times removed from their goal—because they have an understanding of the competencies developed in those classes, and how they mapped to the jobs they want? How would that affect their learning, and how they and the instructor worked together?
Or, what if instead of following a predefined degree path that’s only “close enough” to the career they want, they’re able to create a truly personalized lifelong learning path that prepares them with all of the right competencies?
They could see those competencies as they’re mastered—in the classroom, in internships, and at work—accumulating on a dashboard. With data to support them, and articulate fields that match their strengths and identify any gaps in knowledge, skills, and abilities, learners are effectively placed in the driver’s seat of their own learning.
Taking Learning from College to the Workplace
It’s important to get students off on the right foot as soon as they step onto campus their freshmen year. But more importantly, we must instill in them that learning doesn’t stop on graduation day. And, it’s up to use to ensure that their personalized learning path doesn’t end there, either.
As they enter the workforce, they will continue to gather knowledge from on-the-job experience and skills training. When they begin preparing for career changes and advancements, they should be able to map their current skill sets to the job roles they’re aiming for, and identify the competencies that fill the gaps and fully prepare them for the career they desire. When they’re ready to take the leap from project manager to director, they should be able to see the learning paths taken by those before them and their own customized learning plan that enables their success.
As lifelong learners, they won’t need to spend six months to a year working through yet another certificate program, or three years working through another degree that is “close enough” to what’s needed for career advancement. Instead, they can be more efficient about filling the gaps in their knowledge with specialized competency-based education. The gains for students and for employers would be huge.
Creating the Lifelong Learner
Educators talk about creating lifelong learners but, what are they doing to enable them?
If we were to imagine, for just a minute, that each student is a customer, and that each customer requires marketing dollars to recruit, enroll and retain, then don’t we want them to be a customer for life? Not as “students for life,”—a phrase with too many negative connotations associated with it because of student debt—but as “learners for life.”
As of today, when a student graduates, they almost immediately start receiving requests for donations. And, as we’ve already established, they’re already in debt up to their ears. No thanks.
Instead of that initial outreach for money, what if we switched to a subscription-based education model that encouraged a lifelong learning model? For example, once a student earns their degree, they have a predetermined window of time wherein they could come back and take a certain number of credits to “skill up.”
As part of that, they give the institution permission to collect data from their LinkedIn profile. When they switch jobs, they may get a congratulations email or call from their “Learner for Life” coach encouraging them to take relevant certifications, or asking them to mentor for current students. Both are far more relevant ways to encourage alumni engagement than sending donation requests.
The path most professionals take is no longer a four-year degree followed by a lifetime at one job. The line between education and career blurs more and more every day, and adult learners often find themselves facing a return to the classroom—when they do return, it should be relevant, and well worth the time and money.
Shifting the Focus at the College Level
Data is going to be a big part of the story in realizing personalized learning throughout a career. First, we’ll need systems that measure what is learned, rather than what is taught. That’s going to be a challenge for many colleges, particularly for those dealing with financial aid regulations that rely on term- and credit-based structures.
For example, College for America was able to be part of the experimental sites initiative to allow for financial aid, so that they could design degree programs based on competencies. So, rather than organizing courses by credits and measuring course hours, they were able to give students six months to master 18 competencies.
From the point of view of both the students and potential employees, the mastery of 18 competencies is far more valuable than a B-average over two semesters. What’s the qualitative difference between an A and a B, and what’s the difference between two B students? Letter grades are poor indicators of proficiency. But competency mastery has a direct correlation to the skills a student actually knows.
The other exciting opportunity in competency-based education and personalized learning is that it empowers faculty to work in new, more meaningful ways with students. On day one, a class of twenty people in an introductory course may all start on the same path, but on day two, they are on twenty different paths, whether we know it or not. That may seem overwhelming, but with relevant student data, we can build deeper relationships with each learner that allows for individualized learning paths. And, the data permits working with students on a personal level to master the competencies necessary to advance along their own career paths—ultimately achieving personal success.