Adult Education is Changing and Lifelong Learning is Coming Into Its Own

Adult education, non-traditional learning, and vocational training have long been seen as alternatives to the traditional higher education path of a college degree. But adult education, and even the education path for those who are just leaving high school, is shifting. What was once an alternative is becoming the preferred path.

This has long been true for adult, non-traditional students. They tend to have less time to spend on core courses, and returning to maths and even English basics can create struggles that have nothing to do with their eventual ability to complete a degree or their eventual employability. But the increasing cost and debt associated with college degrees have even younger students wondering, “Is a college degree worth it anymore?

The answer is more complicated than it has ever been. While HR departments have moved toward skills-based hiring, studies show that many still hire employees primarily based on whether they have a relevant degree or not, even if that is not a requirement listed in the job description.

Educators are switching their thinking as well, finding alternative ways to “stack” classes and skills credentials to add up to larger qualifications and degrees. This has the dual impact of showcasing the actual skills a learner masters rather than focusing on a letter grade and degree completion.

For example, a second-year student may already have skills that enable them to join the workplace in an entry-level capacity, completing their degree while already employed. This offers advantages for learners, educators, and employers.

That’s all easy to outline, but there is a deeper change happening. Lifelong learning and adult education are truly coming into their own, becoming the norm, and will change the way learners provide evidence of their skills.

Where did this come from, and what is going on?

The Shift Toward Lifelong Learning

There is a harsh truth with the current higher education system, specifically in the U.S., and according to the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Michael D. Smith:

“I fear that we in the academy are willfully ignoring this problem. Bring up student-loan debt and you’ll hear that it’s the government’s fault. Bring up online learning and you’ll hear that it is – and always will be – inferior to in-person education. Bring up exclusionary admissions practices and you’ll hear something close to, ‘Well, the poor can attend community colleges.’”

But it is not as simple as that. Studies show that the public has lost trust in higher education, the wealth benefit of having a college degree has collapsed, and of those who have borrowed money through student loans to attend college, a third still don’t have a degree.

Paul Tough, in an article for the New York Times magazine titled “Americans are Losing Faith in the Value of College” notes that the percentage of young adults who feel a college degree is important fell from 71% in 2013 to 41% in 2019. It’s important to note that that number predates the COVID-19 pandemic, which itself seemed to further shake confidence in higher ed and resulted in lower admission numbers overall. Adding to the issue, over half of parents no longer want their students to enrol in a four-year college.

This attitude, fueled by rising debt, opaque admission policies, and a new emphasis on skills over degrees in hiring, is creating this lack of faith and confidence in higher education.

At the same time, the job market and employers are evaluating the requirement of a degree, and shifting toward skills-based hiring. From a hiring standpoint, the fact that over 60% of Americans do not have a bachelor’s degree limits the pool of job candidates, but unfairly to both the employer and prospective employee.

Employers are missing out on skilled workers. Skilled workers are missing out on opportunities. As the myth of degree-based superiority is debunked, skills-based hiring is slowly becoming the norm rather than the exception to the rule despite the resistance of traditional HR practices mentioned above.

In short, the system is broken. But that does not mean it cannot be repaired. There are answers, but it is not the four-year colleges that are paving the way to innovation.

Shifts in Adult Education

The shift in the learning paradigm is happening in adult education because of the needs of the group that has traditionally been called non-traditional. However, due to the need for lifelong learning and reskilling in the marketplace, adults returning to the classroom is becoming more common than ever before.

And these students have unique needs. They need flexible programs, often preferring online learning, and they need to acquire specific skills as quickly and efficiently as possible. This is where digital learning comes in.

“Our model of higher education has traditionally depended on controlling three scarcities: of access (class size, selectivity), of instruction (faculty experts, educational support), and of outcome (university degrees, university reputations),” says Michael D. Smith.

Why did the appearance of MOOCs and other online learning not disrupt the education world the way many anticipated? “They only created abundance in two of the three areas mentioned above. What they were missing is outcomes, which means that as digital credentials advance to become verifiable, portable, and meaningful, digitisation will disrupt education.”

The key ingredient has always been outcomes. When a college degree meant a larger salary, attending college was a no-brainer. Now “A growing number of third-party companies and organisations, among them Google, Amazon, and LinkedIn, now offer online programs that allow students (at their own pace, on their own schedule, and at low cost) to earn micro-credentials that certify their proficiency in specific skills,” Smith says.

And it’s true. Companies tired of waiting for a change in education have created their own learning and certification programs. Companies like IBM and Google even acknowledge the value of each other’s creations.

The truth is we should want this change. Access to education for all benefits everyone, and abundance in access, instruction – and most importantly outcomes – means a better potential employee pool, higher earning potential that fuels the economy on many levels, and innovation from new voices and groups previously marginalised by the high cost of learning.

Not to mention the value of inclusion and diversity in education and the workspace. These alone should be enough to get us moving. But more importantly than the fact that this change is coming, and that we should want it, is that there is a way to make it happen.

Because a path forward into lifelong learning, adult education, and the digital space is vital to the success of these programs.

Community Colleges, Certifications, and Personal Evidence Records

There’s really only one issue with higher education at the moment: it takes time to turn a large ship when you’re using a tiny rudder. The four-year college system is a large ship, and the time and funding needed to shift to skills-based credentials and new systems is significant.

  • Data is scattered, duplicated, and siloed, and those walls must be broken down and rebuilt in new ways.
  • Some institutions don’t have the digital data needed to create digital records and shift to stacking skills badges.
  • Many faculty members fear that such changes will mean extra work and hours spent on evaluations. As they already feel overworked and underpaid, they are slow to adopt different practices.

Some of these concerns are valid, but in the long run, a shift would benefit faculty members and could even save them time and effort. Digital repositories and automation could speed up the grading and evaluation process rather than slowing it down. And unified data silos, a “single source of truth” would in the long run create efficiencies for many four-year colleges that would result in monetary and temporal savings.

But in the meantime, changes can be made in other areas instead. With the rise of AI, and the certain disruption it will cause in many occupations, we don’t have time to wait for change on such a large scale. The answer? Start small and start early.

The first place this is applicable is community colleges. Many have the data needed to implement skills-based badges, already work with flexible schedules and online programs due to changes made during the pandemic, and can be more agile than large colleges provided they have the funding they need available.

New America, a cohort of community colleges, is working together to do just that. New America, a non-profit, performs research on ways to align education and workforce development with economic and community development. Currently, 15 schools are a part of the program.

Changes will need to be made in nearly all cases, including digital recordkeeping, consolidating career and certificate classes under a single administrative umbrella, and developing new funding sources to finance these changes.

The key for any of these changes is for education institutions to remain focused: “[Those who oppose online learning] are not thinking about our mission, which is creating opportunities for as many students as possible to discover and develop their unique talents, so that they can use those talents to make a difference in the world,” Smith tells us. “If new technologies disrupt our old way of doing things but allow us to advance our mission, then so be it.”

And this mission can start even earlier. As soon as students reach an age where they are employable, in the last couple of years of high school, digital credentials, and skills-based training can prepare them to not only enter the workforce and thrive there, but prepare them better for lifelong learning no matter what their chosen profession.

The education space is changing rapidly. AI, like it or not, is here to stay. Industries will die and others will be born. Those who remain will be changed. The need for rapid reskilling, recognition of transferable skills, and increases in digital learning, digital certifications, and personal evidence records is no longer a novel concept. It’s a necessity whose time has come.

Do you wonder how to pull all of this together? At Edalex, we’ve been a leader in this space, and we know how to take you from where you are now to a fully skills-based system, where digital badges and personal evidence records align with the industry and actually mean something.

Want to see examples or schedule a demo with our team? Contact us today. Because when it comes to the future of education, including adult education and lifelong learning, if you’re standing still, you’re already being left behind.

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