Tuesday, January 9, 2024

Expanding the Scope of Postsecondary Education

Where, when, with whom and what we learn is changing

Here are a handful of education trends worth watching as we embark on the new calendar year:

Digital First Design.

Today’s learners are digital first. Meeting the evolving learner needs means providing effective and high-quality digital experiences in all aspects of higher education, with programs that are career-focused and that support job-readiness.

Our postsecondary education system was designed to support learners coming from secondary school. These are now the minority of learners when you consider the system as a whole. The non-traditional student is now the norm. With Canada enjoying one of the highest tertiary education attainment rates in the OECD the majority of learners are now returning to education to upgrade skills and competencies in support of career and wider lifestyle engagement. As outlined in the (excellent) CDLRA’s 2023 Pan-Canadian Report on Digital Learning Trends in Canadian Post-Secondary Education, all learners expect greater digital by design learning options. These options render extensible learning location: online, hybrid and fully face to face – all oriented to supporting skills and competency acquisition. These options also reinforce the importance of digital transformation: using technology to empower trailblazers, improve learner experiences, strengthen resilience to sustain growth across the sector and prepare the workforce of the future to thrive.

Competency over content. 

And speaking of competencies, 2024 will mark increasing progress of competency over content. Higher education as we know it today is largely based on learning content. Vocational programs in professional faculties (medicine, law, skilled trades) focus on developing competencies, but generally speaking our model of higher education produces content experts based on programs of study (majors). The focus on skills that has arisen the past two decades has slowly disrupted this; the advent of generative AI has accelerated this disruption. In a world where Artificial Intelligence helps mobilize the widespread public availability of content (with many downsides given baked-in biases in this public content) we will see a renewed focus on competencies emerge. These competencies may well be in the effective use of AI, but themselves will be AI-proof. And by making content more context-aware, AI provides the scaffolding to support learning by doing at scale. Work integrated learning is the best fulcrum for learning competencies and legitimate peripheral participation in communities of professional practice. 

Missions not majors. 

Content knowledge is still going to be important even as we shift more to focusing on competencies. It is the operationalization of content that is key, and this will be important as we support a much greater emphasis on mission-oriented education instead of focusing on majoring in subject areas. Think learning ecosystems linked by shared values that enable learners to obtain credentials in a subject area that is defined by a social or economic purpose versus the content area itself. We already have this in the form of entrepreneurship education, where learners can stand up their own social venture or company as part of business school curricula. But it will become increasingly common, particularly as new generations of (re)learners seek to participate in addressing social, cultural and economic priorities such as climate change through social purpose and business incubation. Significantly, this trend helps to promote the increased porosity of postsecondary education institutions, for work integrated learning and research partnerships. This is part of a broader embrace of demand-driven innovation across the postsecondary environment. 

Micro- and bespoke credentials

Commensurate with an increased focus on competencies and the mission-oriented education model sketched above is the continued growth of micro-credentials, including stackable micro-credentials that cohere into larger credentials over time. This includes innovative pathways for credential completion and support for lifelong learning comprised of fast-track educational pathways in areas of critical need for the economy (healthcare, AI/ML, automotive innovation, climate change mitigation, entrepreneurship). Features of this theme include: employer partnerships; easy credit transfer and stackability of micro-credentials into degrees comprised of courses from any participating institution; newcomer credential recognition and scaffolding into Ontario credentials; digital access to a suite of supports, skills transcripts and industry engagement. À la carte curriculum journeys will enable broader engagement with education contiguous with personal career management. Providing the tools to do this will support social and economic resilience. eCampusOntario is supporting the development of AI tools that enable learners to identify competencies obtained via content-oriented credentials, figure out gaps in career mapping, and find micro-credentials to scaffold these gaps. 

Subscription models of education.

The economics of postsecondary education are under significant pressure. The mission of higher education – creating informed citizens capable of navigating increasingly complexity – is more important than ever before. 

The business model of education is evolving to meet the current and future social, economic and cultural demands of society. Some will decry focusing on the economics or using terms like business models in education, but the reality is that educational institutions must balance public funding, public missions and mandates, the need to embrace digital transformation and the reality of meeting rising costs. The trends outlined above are part of this evolution. The evolution of subscription models as applied to education will mark a significant step forward in helping institutions realize new and different models of educational delivery with revenue diversified streams.

It is fair to say that majority of people today stream music, movies and other media. I read various news sources to which I subscribe. Doing so lowers the per item cost and provides the media organizations with (relatively predictable) recurring revenue. Subscription models make sense.

Applying subscription models to education takes advantage of the evolution of micro-credentials that disaggregate learning into more discrete bits that scaffold learner engagement over time. More people need to access higher education in ways that better fit their lives with family care obligations, working, and lifestyle considerations that complicate the ability to spend 2 or 4 years dedicated to full time study. This is still important, but not the norm going forward. By providing subscriptions to education our institutions can help frame lifelong learning within current contexts and paradigms of curation and consumption while fostering affective investment in learning itself. These models are effective for companies – large and small – seeking to future proof their workforces, as well as for individual learners seeking to grown and manage their careers. Engagement of alumni networks is one simple step to realizing the value of subscription models for lifelong learning. 

Disruption, digital by design.

Education in the digital by design era is going from anywhere, any time, to everywhere, all the time. Disruption is ubiquitous. Higher education is increasingly focusing more on experiential and work integrated learning, and on more bespoke educational paths and credentials. Experiential and work integrated learning can be aided by AI that can also help us make better sense of the competencies we gain from our content-based curricula by analyzing what we learn and how the credentials we confer also infer competencies. We can help learners to make sense of what they learned, but also what they learned how to do.

Dx and Strategic Foresight: innovation you can implement.

As technological, social and contextual changes emerge higher education is embracing Digital Transformation to more fluidly engage with learners. You can learn more about how eCampusOntario supports the Six Dimensions of Digital Transformation with our Digital Transformation Guides:

Explore digital futures: Co-design the future of education with Strategic Foresight.

Empower digital leaders: Engage academic teams with professional development.

Investigate digital technologies: Discover, Pilot, Review, and Adopt educational technologies.

Find strategic partners: Build capacity with partners and access new networks.

Expand Open Education: Adapt, Adopt, and Create Open Educational Resources.

Develop tomorrow’s workforce: Align new programs to labour market demands.

Stop by our Strategic Foresight practice to tap into the wealth of knowledge included in the excellent series of Foresight reports: tools to support the navigation of uncertain and complex futures. 

Reach out to engage and learn with us.