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Robots, A.I., education: The future of learning and work

How we work is changing, so fast that it’s possible to miss the way that robots, artificial intelligence and the rise of new-collar workers are changing something else: How we learn.

It’s not just that people need “job skills” that can be learned quickly through a short-term training program. For jobs of the future — and increasingly, today — people need sophisticated, higher-level thinking and reasoning abilities, as well as technical skills that are constantly updated throughout their lives.

The pace of change can be uncomfortable, but there’s a benefit: Workplace innovation is pushing us toward some long-needed changes in education.

Part of the answer emerged a few years ago. Even when they burst into popularity around 2012, massive open online courses or MOOCs were viewed mainly as an alternative delivery system. But online courses keep growing, reaching millions of people at a reasonable cost and providing the opportunity to learn critical content and skills.

Competing in a global knowledge economy requires even more innovation. We now know that, of the jobs lost in the Great Recession of 10 years ago, decent-paying jobs that require only a high school education are largely gone, and they’re not coming back.

Global competition also demands a commitment to racial justice and fairness. Higher education has always faced a challenge to assure equity, but today’s circumstances mean we must address the equity challenge head-on. The fact that millions are denied meaningful opportunities to obtain quality learning after high school because of race, nationality, or other circumstances of their birth is unacceptable.

Our country has millions more job openings than we have skilled people to fill them.

The simple math of our economic future demands fairness: Our country has millions more job openings than we have skilled people to fill them. Whether we’re talking about plumbers or programmers, this country needs every bit of talent we can find.

That’s why Lumina Foundation supports increasing the number of Americans with post-high school degrees or credentials from 47 percent, where it is today, to 60 percent. Failure would mean cutting off half our people from economic opportunity.

And to get there, we must redesign an overwhelmed, increasingly obsolete U.S. higher education system, something the market is already signaling it wants. Case in point: A growing number of top companies no longer require a four-year degree, including Apple, Google, Ernst & Young, and publisher Penguin Random House.

We know what will help grow educational attainment. Lumina is helping build a system in which all high-quality learning counts, everywhere it happens — on the job, at home, in the military, in communities, museums, libraries, and more. It’s a system with clear pathways to learning and fewer obstacles — one that is affordable, accessible, inclusive, transparent, and accountable.

The system we envision measures skills not by credit hour but on proven competencies, where both learning and credentials are transparent. Such a system would be highly relevant to today’s students and the fast-changing global economy.

Already, we’re seeing the emergence of a wide range of competency-based credentials recognized by employers. To help them, we’re working to bring transparency to what amounts to a “credentials marketplace” that features a common language to understand postsecondary credentials and ensure they are better connected and navigable.

Here’s some of what we’re working on:

  • The Connecting Credentials Framework, creating a common language by which credentials can be compared — making clear how the skills and knowledge from one credential can lead to another.
  • Credential Engine, a new nonprofit organization that is developing a platform to collect, compare, and share information about degrees, certificates, industry certifications, micro-credentials, licenses, and apprenticeships.
  • The T3 Innovation Network, developed by Lumina with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and companies such as Microsoft. The network maps how advancements such as AI and blockchain can harness education and workplace data to create the future talent marketplace.

These and other efforts are helping to define the competencies needed in jobs down to their most basic level and align them to the competencies developed in education and training systems. We’re working to make all this clear to employers, educators, and individuals so everyone knows the competency requirements of jobs, what credentials represent those competencies, and where people can get the necessary education and training.

Eventually, this will lead to what we see as a learn-and-work ecosystem — one in which people will be learning at work and working while they learn. It’s a continuous process of developing skills and knowledge, a world in which transparent credentials can open new opportunities for work for those who haven’t had their skills and talents recognized.

Our increasingly competitive global economy reminds us that talent is worldwide, and when it’s wasted, it’s a tragedy. We know that innovation can come from anywhere, and people everywhere can learn to a very high level when they have the opportunity.

Education, in this new world, is no longer just a phase of life — but life itself.

Adapted from remarks delivered Sept. 27, 2018, to a conference of global education leaders in Madrid, Spain.

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