What does the word ‘learner’ mean to you today – and compared to 5 years ago? What about in 5 years from now? As the world of work has changed, so learners too – significantly in some respects. In our new blog series, Lens on Learners, we’ll take a deep dive into what learners look like today, what their needs are now and in the future and how the modern credential marketplace is meeting the needs of the new global economy.
In our Untangling the Modern Credential Marketplace series, we talked about 21st-century skills, what they are, how they are defined, and how we can define them. We looked briefly at learners, educators, and human resources, and companies looking for workers with a defined set of skills. We even talked about skills and competency frameworks, and how skills-based learning can be turned into a currency that educators, employers, and job seekers all understand and value.
We now turn our focus, or lens if you will, on learners. How do we define learners? Who are they? What are their needs? How do 21st-century skills relate to both their current situation and their future? How can micro-credentialing help them going forward? These are big questions, and right upfront, we want to declare we don’t have all of the answers. This is a dynamic and rapidly evolving area. Progress will be made through collaboration and meaningful discussion.
Defining Types of Learners
First, and perhaps most importantly, we need to establish types of learners. In this particular article, we will do so in a general way. As this series progresses, we will look at each type of learner, the learning stage they are in and what can be done to specifically address the particular needs of each group.
The reason is simple: as a parallel type of education emerges, in some cases it partners with higher education systems already in place, and in some cases works independently of it. Companies are becoming education providers both for their own employees and others. For every type of learner at nearly every stage of earning, this means one thing: choices.
First, let’s explore who these learners are and attempt to identify in general where they are, where they are going, and what education really means to them.
Primary and Secondary Students
While these levels are defined differently around the world, generally these are defined as K-12 students. At the youngest, they are just entering grade school and at the highest level, they are exiting their secondary education and headed toward the generally more focused arena of post-secondary education.
In today’s world, that post-secondary landscape can take on many forms, and we will explore those in a moment. To these younger students, skills-based education involves a couple of things:
- The presentation and teaching of 21st-century skills as a part of everyday curricula. Things like listening, collaboration, team building, and leadership all prepare learners for both additional education and employment.
- The laying of a foundation that teaches learners how to learn. This set of skills teaches them to identify and lean into their particular learning style and also teaches them valuable skills like paying attention, research skills, and others.
The second of these leads to perhaps the most important skill taught at this stage. Not only do learners need to know how to learn, they must understand how to take that education from knowledge to practical application.
While these learners are not on the precipice of entering the job market, except perhaps at the highest levels, they are the employees, entrepreneurs, and workers of tomorrow. Beyond employability, these learners are in a stage where the best gift they can receive from their education is readiness, preparation for whatever comes next.
Post Secondary Graduates
As learners reach the point of graduation from their primary and secondary studies, they are now presented with choices.
- Get a job, and receive on-the-job training to advance from simply a job into a career. This is often seen, albeit imperfectly much of the time, in the restaurant or other service-type industries. There is an apprenticeship, of sorts, and a clear advancement path, often including the transition from worker to management roles.
- Attend a trade school or another school offering certification of sorts, typically preparing the student for a single job or a career field. The best of these programs ideally include 21st century skills learning that is then transferable to other positions or careers.
- Enroll in a university education program, often four years or more in length, that provides a more detailed and in-depth education in a variety of disciplines related to a “major.” That major can be career or job-filed focused or centered around a broader set of skills within a certain discipline.
These are by far not the only choices. Many companies offer pre-employment or on-the-job training in various areas, and there are dozens of fields to choose from. The point, at least for the sake of this definition, is that this learner is faced with a myriad of choices, and may or may not have structured guidance to help them make the right choice for who they are, their goals, and their unique situation.
One of the largest debates is the investment of four years in a university degree program (and in some areas of the world, thousands of dollars in potential debt) that may or may not still be relevant by the time the student graduates, and that may not make them any more employable than before their education.
As we progress through the education system, we come to the learner who has completed their university degree and is asking what might be next. They too are faced with choices.
- Get a job, and continue training on the job, enhancing university skills and building a career.
- Continue their education with a graduate degree, adding skills and knowledge that make them more employable.
In some cases, learners will choose not to make a choice, at least right away. They might take a year off to travel, take an unrelated job, or otherwise take time to consider their next career steps.
At this stage, the learner may be what we would define as employable, but yet they might remain unemployed. This is where the fine line between employment and employability is often drawn. A learner may fall into the latter category yet not have accepted a job for any number of reasons.
The learner is just entering the job market (or not) and still has a number of options to choose from.
Lifelong Learner Looking to Advance or Grow Their Career
This category of learner has already completed secondary and post-secondary education. Upon graduation from a university or trade program, they entered a career field, and have been engaged in that field for an indeterminate period of time.
They are looking to advance or grow their career, and have realised that, for whatever reason, their education so far is not sufficient. This can be for a variety of reasons.
- Their job or career field has evolved, and new skills are needed to transition to a higher position or even to remain in the field.
- The learner has determined a change for direction is needed either for their personal satisfaction or to achieve financial or other goals, and to do so, additional education is essential.
- The learner needs additional skills and knowledge to enhance and build on their current position, perhaps due to changes in the field or perhaps simply due to the desire to improve their performance.
There are a variety of other contributing or potential reasons for additional education or training. The key to understanding this learner is understanding what drives them: they are both employed and employable, but they are looking to make changes or advancements.
Typically for this type of learner, this change is not urgently needed, even though it can be urgently desired. They are looking for something better, which sets them apart from our final general type of learner.
The Lifelong Learner Who is Unemployed
This type of learner actually falls into a couple of different categories, and they are important to distinguish when approaching the challenge of changing learning systems.
- The first is unemployed and unemployable in their current or another similarly gainful career or field.
- The second is unemployed but employable. They are job seeking and may feel that additional education will aid and enhance that search.
The approach of these two types of learners is similar, at least from a mental standpoint. Both likely need a more immediate solution to their career challenges. They are both more likely to have what we might call adult level obligations: mortgages or rent, car payments, credit cards and all that goes with them, and even marriages and families to support.
This means that a four-year degree is often not a viable solution. A quick, bite-sized piece of education, one the learner can apply to their resume immediately to improve employability is key. They need to get back to work, and back to work as soon as possible.
In other words, their education needs are immediate and urgent. This is often one of the places where a discussion of micro-credentials arising from micro-course, mini-MBA degrees, and other “compact” education choices originates.
It doesn’t mean that type of education does not meet the needs of other learners. But the learner who is unemployed or underemployed, and in need of an immediate boost in employability tends to take center stage in the same way that a squeaky wheel gets oiled first.
Aside from definitions, the key is to ask, why are we talking about these learners now?
Why Talk About Learners Now?
March of 2020, the world changed. Not that it had not already been changing. The very term “work” has begun to mean something different since the early 1990s. The topic of parallels to higher education perhaps began at the same time, with IT specifically spawning a series of “certificates” and certifications that would perhaps not replace a degree, but enable a learner without a four-year degree to enter a field changing so fast that higher education had difficulty keeping up.
However, even before the pandemic that changed “normal” forever, a perfect storm of global drivers was emerging. Think of it in terms of artificial intelligence, and its adoption.
For every job artificial intelligence “replaces” there are new jobs created. While it may not be a 1:1 ratio, for the sake of simplicity we’ll pretend that it is. The issue is that AI is eliminating an unskilled position and creating a skilled one in its place. For the employee displaced, this makes them “critically unemployed.”
By numbers, “eliminating 10 million jobs and creating 10 million new jobs would appear to have negligible impact,” according to an article by BCG regarding The Future of Jobs and AI. “But the reality is this would result in a huge economic disruption.” The challenge is the Skills Bridge. How do you get the critically unemployed, unskilled worker who was displaced from where they are now to a skilled, employable worker? It is this bridge we must build. We must change the landscape of learner capability at a root level.
The pandemic was simply a catalyst for change – an injection of steroids if you will. The job, and therefore the education space, has been injected with a renewed urgency. The oft-talked-about skills gap has moved from a topic of academic discussion to an urgent to-do item.
Preparing Learners for the ‘New Normal’ Job Market
If you have been sickened by the term “new normal” and unprecedented, prepare yourself. You may be hearing more of both again. The pandemic has hyper-focused the lens on learners at all of the stages above, and the action steps we can take to prepare them for a job market that looks nothing like the one we faced even a decade ago.
And we would be remiss if we did not mention programs already in place, such as:
- Google Career Certificates
- IBM and their digital badging program
- Coursera (who filed an IPO in early April)
And others. These types of programs and new certificates are clearly here to stay. A new survey by Strada shows the most popular path for adults looking to further their education is a “certificate, certification, or license” rather than a degree. Since the onset of COVID-19, companies issuing credentials of their own have risen 83% according to Credly.
But these skills are different than the specific IT skills of the 1990s. Rather than proprietary software or hardware education, new credentials are based on broader, more transferable skills. Some industries are even partnering with higher education providers so that learners can “stack” credentials into degrees and certificates that have even more meaning.
All these things lead to why we are turning our lens on learners. Learners are the end-users and first-line beneficiaries of these changing education models, and if they don’t understand their value, they are less likely to embrace them as alternatives to more traditional methods of education.
Above all, we must meet these learners where they are, address their pain points and needs, and help them turn their education, no matter what that may look like, into currency that leads to employability and a gainful and satisfying career. And so, over the next several articles, we will look at these learners and how we can prepare each for a new normal.
Because while we may all long for “precedented times” education and learning are more likely to stay in the unprecedented arena for the foreseeable future. What do you think about the ‘new normal’? What can you see coming on the road ahead? We invite you to share with us in the comments.
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Credentialate assesses, monitors, promotes and validates learners’ attainment of evidence-backed skills, supporting the transition from learner to earner. It is a secure, configurable platform that assesses and tracks attainment of competencies and issues micro-credentials in a digital badge to students.
Stakeholders in the Modern Credential Marketplace
In this blog series, we will focus on the key Stakeholders in the Modern Credential Marketplace – who they are, what drives them and what challenges and opportunities they face.
- Lens on Learners – how can micro-credentials help today’s learners achieve their education and employment goals?
- Lens on Educators – if micro-credentials are driving a shift in how education providers approach skill development, how are they responding and what impact does it have?
- Lens on Employers – how are companies responding to the need for work-specific skills and how are micro-credentials impacting on their ability to verify candidate skills?