Ever since the first college campus was created, its program of studies, modes of instruction and standards have, one way or the other, been controlled by the college and its faculty. Campuses were, relatively speaking, intellectually pristine, information-rich enclaves, separated from the rest of the information-poor world.
Fast forward to the beginning of the community college movement and the passage of the GI Bill in late-1940’s America. Suddenly, colleges were not only not for the elite, but they had overtly economic — as well as intellectual — purposes. Over the last 70 years, there have been multiple changes in post-secondary education and the employment landscape. The basic model, however, that a degree or certificate from a college signals that the individual is intellectually prepared and ready to work has remained dominant.
Today, there is a revolution underway, and the credibility of even those core signaling devices is under assault from forces inside and outside of the academy. At the heart of this revolution lie two realities, one very old and the other brand new. First, the old: As long as there has been folklore in America, we have known that life herself is a magnificent teacher. Think of phrases such as “live and learn”, “the school of hard knocks and “older, but wiser.”
Even when Canadian researcher Allen Tough proved that the average adult spends about 12 hours a week learning purposefully in their daily life, most colleges and employers, as well as adult learners, continued to ignore the value of that learning. This “learning discrimination” placed a determinative value on where and when you learned something, not how well you knew a topic and could apply the knowledge. So, colleges “won,” and personal learning “lost.” As a result, this “personal” — or experiential — learning, despite it constituting well more than half of the learning we do in a lifetime, has been largely ignored by colleges and employers.
The new reality is the technological capacity that is changing the face of the world, including the world of higher education and employment. Now, the entire curriculum of MIT, among other colleges, is available online, for free. Job requirements can be searched and dissected, matching the knowledge, behavior, skills and abilities needed for a specific career path with those held by an individual or taught by a college. And “adult-friendly” colleges are aligning learners’ personal and experiential learning with their degree requirements, thus awarding advanced standing for that learning. Furthermore, they are aligning their degree requirements with work requirements, including behaviors and cross-cutting intellectual skills such as critical thinking and teamwork.
These two realities — the power of personal learning and the technological development to harness its value — are redefining the pathway to the degree. In other cases, it is eliminating the need for the degree and blowing through the “parchment ceiling” that has stymied and frustrated so many adults.
Using evidence-based assessments, learners’ knowledge can be described and applied directly to job and other real-life requirements. And knowledge gained on the-job, in the community or in other venues, such as the armed services, can be applied for academic and economic value, deepening the learner’s personal understanding of their learning as well as the value of that learning academically and economically.
Imagine a world in which you can do all of the following from your living room:
- Calculate your current profile of knowledge, skills, behaviors and abilities;
- Describe the goal(s) you have for your personal or professional growth;
- Determine the gap between what you presently “know” and what knowledge you need to gain to meet your goal;
- And chart your learning path forward to meet that goal, either with a college, an informal learning group, an employer, or on your own.
These are the benefits of free-range learning in a digital world and driven by the new rules and the new eco-system that is evolving to support you and your learning throughout life. And, more broadly, by bridging this divide for all who qualify, it can only improve the social, civic and economic future of our country.
Peter Smith, Ph.D., is the Orkand Endowed Chair and Professor of Innovative Practices in Higher Education at University of Maryland University College. His latest book is “Free-Range Learning in the Digital Age: The Emerging Revolution in College, Career, and Education.”