Dec 1, 2021

The Serious Overhaul That is Seriously Overdue

A change in cultural context and a reshaping the needs of the workforce can really help to promote the reinvention of education. In order to explain, I’ll share a quick story.

About 25 years ago, a cohort of relatively small, private colleges and universities discovered an unusual competitive challenge.

At that time, US News and World Reports was busy doling out rankings to highly selective, well-endowed institutions in the Carnegie Baccalaureate category which — by definition — graduated a majority of their students in traditional liberal arts disciplines.

The rest of the world — and the workforce — were demanding students with integrated professional preparation in their academic program. This marketing conundrum catapulted the modern “theory vs practice” debate in the late 1990’s that drove curriculum development and revision.

More importantly, this dialogue and debate inadvertently launched a consortium of under-known colleges and universities to collaborate, redesign, and market their collective. The New American Colleges were born “as a collaborative network of institutions that purposefully integrate liberal arts, professional programs, and civic engagement.”

You read that right. A strategic opportunity for redefining the work of a university was born out of a disagreement in the purpose of education. Traditional liberal arts disciplines were actually declining in demand as the world had begun to favor professional preparation. And, as a result of the birth of the New American Colleges, traditional, highly selective colleges and universities began to redefine their professional focus, including everything from program development to delivery and price point.

I was working at one of these New American universities at the time. We were on the ground floor of redesign, developing new programs and redesigning education around workforce and students. It was simultaneously exciting and scary.

I share this story to create a parallel for what is happening in the world right now. Private education is again at a crossroads, a redesign of momentous proportions. No one school or college was ready for the pandemic. I have yet to find a strategic plan that included pandemic response plans included in their strategies. Yet, as we all know, COVID-19 is acting as an accelerant for preexisting issues in education. The advances and innovations that are in full swing were all in place before the pandemic.

On the other end of this crazy pandemic, a new private learning organization will be born. I am not sure if we will call them schools, academies, colleges, centers, hubs — we’ll find something that sticks. We need a new name. I see these new learning centers having eight distinct characteristics that will drive their resilience in the marketplace.

Here is how the new learning center of tomorrow will function and how private education will be reinvented. My sense is that we are on the verge of an explosion of innovation, one that will most surely democratize high quality education for the future.

Integrated Ecosystem of Delivery Platforms – These schools will offer an ongoing array of integrated place-based, virtual, and blended learning for the future. It will be the norm. This will allow them to offer different programs and delivery options for different consumers and learners, enabling greater enrollment capacity. There will be no judgement on which delivery system is better. They will be past that very old-school conversation.

Global Competitors and Collaborators for Student and Faculty Recruitment – These learning centers will understand that they no longer compete in a geography, but instead by a geofence. And, they will use their new global sphere to recruit faculty to teach, students to enroll, and resources to collaborate. I anticipate that we will see a new faculty type that will emerge as global adjuncts, teaching around the world in specialities.

Retooled Assessment and Credentialing – We know that seat time in class does not equate to learning, so why does it drive our tuition, finance, and assessment model? This train has already left the station but remains in place for many schools. The new learning center will scrap old school assessment and move toward proficiency-based, skill-based, and experiential learning to drive their programs. The Mastery Transcript is one example of this, but there will be many others. And, they will get involved in new credentialing endeavors, including short-time assessment, for the development of specific skill sets, credentials, and certificates.

Differentiated Price and Access Points – Accessibility has been the Achilles Heel of private education. Enrollment and demand has declined in America’s private primary and secondary schools because many have priced themselves out of the market and cannot find another business model to adopt. The learning center of the future will offer programs at different price and access points, using different delivery options, to ensure that their programs are accessible. And, the great ones will enroll more students and, as a result, have greater societal impact.

Redesign of Time and Schedule – We know that being in school from 8 AM to 3 PM does not equate to learning, but the model persists. Now that the parental work lives and schedules have been disrupted, the security of a full time, expensive baby-sitting school house will not be needed as much in the future. New learning centers will experiment with a combination of half-day learning, short-term learning cohorts and modules, and full-time learning to scale to the changed workforce. These learning centers will operate more than 8 or 10 hours per day and most certainly on the weekend, just like their higher education counterparts.

Reconfigured Physical Plant Capacity – We have learned so much in so little time about how to creatively reconfigure our classrooms, buildings, and outdoor spaces to promote learning in a pandemic. But, the really innovative learning centers will lean into this work, reinventing their existing space. Those that enjoy mild climates will move full scale into outdoor spaces, as well as retool their buildings to accommodate their new delivery models.

Leveraged Technology to Personalize Learning – In 36 months we will look back and understand just how limiting Zoom can be given the explosion of technology on the way. It is a great tool, but it is just the tip of the iceberg to where we are going. These new learning centers will use a blend of artificial intelligence and augmented reality to connect, compete, and collaborate globally. Think of the Mirror workout system in use for education in homes throughout the world.

Environmentally Adaptive Learning Organizations – Finally, these new learning organizations will completely redefine the classroom. They will think about creating strategic partnerships with organizations and employers in their local community for professional and field-learning experiences for their students before building a new building and passing the cost onto the consumer. They will be community-connected and an important learning asset in their local community.

This is our blueprint for reinvention in the private sector. The next five years will see schools and colleges rethink their strategic plans, their paths, and their existing systems and structures. And, one thing is for sure.

Education is on the path to reinvention. There is no going back to the past.

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