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The future of learning and work: Making sure that all learning counts

Good afternoon.

I’m delighted to be part of this discussion on the next steps in higher education … and how to ensure that it remains a positive force in the lives of people throughout the world.

It’s fitting that we’re meeting in Spain—and not just because of the excitement and energy—not to mention the food—here in Madrid. The country that is home to some of the earliest Paleolithic cave paintings and that 500 hundred years ago sparked the age of exploration today is crisscrossed with high-speed trains … and is second in the world in the production of solar power.

These shifts remind us—as our conference sessions have—that we meet at a time of turbulence and transformation.

Artificial Intelligence, automation, robots, and other advanced technologies are upending traditional concepts of work.

Brexit and the rise of populist leaders throughout the world, including Europe and the United States, reflect a sense of dislocation … raising questions about globalization and whether the progress we’ve long taken for granted is reaching enough of our citizens.

All of us here would agree that our ongoing progress has been fueled—to a large extent—by higher education. Yet higher education itself is undergoing a transformation as radical as work.

MOOCs are a great example. As this conference highlights, when MOOCs burst onto the scene a few short years ago, they were seen mainly as an alternative delivery system and a new way to bring learning to those who have been left out and left behind. The explosion in the number of online courses—and students flocking to them—speaks to MOOCs’ability to reach more people at a reasonable cost to provide the opportunity to millions to learn the content and skills that they want and need. That’s powerful, but as important as the global reach of MOOCs has become, I’d argue that’s not the real innovation that MOOCs represent.

In short, I believe we are witnessing the transformation of higher education to meet the needs of a global knowledge economy. The essential trait of that transformation that must concern us is that millions more need advanced skills that cannot be learned in primary and secondary education.

But it’s not simply that more people need and want what higher education has to offer. Instead, what’s happening is that what they need to learn, how they will learn it, how knowledge and skills are recognized, and how we think about quality are also changing at an unprecedented rate. It should be underscored that MOOCs have played a key role in putting these transformations into motion, but the rapid emergence of these new systems is the real story.

So, it’s this broader canvas that I’d like to explore further today.

Please indulge me for leaning on what I know best—trends and data from the United States, where Lumina’s work is focused—but I believe the trends I’ll describe—and the solutions needed—are similar for all of us here. I’ll start by talking about what is at stake.

For most of the 20th century, a high school education was Americans’ ticket into the middle class. For the 30 years following World War II, American high school graduation rates rose steadily, and median family income doubled.

But that started changing in the mid-1970s, as the knowledge-based economy began to emerge. The education and skills that propelled people into the middle class and beyond 50 years ago just don’t cut it today … and certainly won’t tomorrow.

Here’s a statistic that tells the story:

Since the Great Recession ended in 2010, the U.S. economy has added 11.6 million new jobs. Yet of those 11.6 million new jobs, 11.5 million of them require education beyond high school. You heard that right. The recovery never came to those with low-skill jobs, and it never will.

Since World War II, Americans have prided themselves on being a land of social mobility and expanding opportunities for all comers. In fact, those are the hallmarks of what we’ve long called “The American Dream.”

Today, that dream is in jeopardy. In our knowledge economy, inequality is growing, and social mobility is falling. Studies by economist Joseph Stiglitz and others show that Americans are taking much longer to climb the economic ladder than people in many European countries.

Despite eight years of a slow but steady recovery, we’re seeing skyrocketing rates of suicide and drug overdose among middle-aged, working-class Americans with a high school education or less. These have been labeled “deaths of despair.”

But this is nothing new for the millions who lack the money, time, or support needed to succeed at education beyond high school. They are on the wrong side of the growing attainment gap in higher education. Often, they are low-income and first-generation students, racial and ethnic minorities and immigrants. They may be struggling to afford food and shelter, much less tuition.

Higher education has always faced a challenge to assure equity, but today’s circumstances make it essential that we address the equity challenge head-on. In a world where the consequences of not having postsecondary skills and knowledge are ever more dire—not just in terms of jobs but also quality of life—the fact that millions are denied meaningful opportunities to obtain quality postsecondary learning on the basis of their race, nationality, or other circumstances of their birth is unacceptable.

And these challenges are only going to become more difficult—and important to address—as artificial intelligence and automation transform work even faster than experts had anticipated.

Just one example: starting in the 1980s, global auto manufacturers began building plants in the U.S. Today, Mercedes makes cars in Alabama, Volkswagen in Tennessee and so forth.

My home state of Indiana—home to the Indy 500—has built and tested cars for more than a century. Subaru opened a plant there in 1989. That year, Subaru produced 88 cars a day—and a human performed nearly every weld on each car. Today, the plant produces 1,350 cars a day—a 15-fold increase—but the welding is performed entirely by robots.

Of course, it’s not just manufacturing jobs that are at risk. We are rapidly moving beyond robotics to the widespread use of artificial intelligence in all sectors of the economy. Nobody knows which or how many jobs will be affected, but we all know it’s likely to be a lot more widespread than even the use of robots. We also know that a traditional college degree offers no guarantee that your job won’t be affected.

So, we know two things for sure: for our people to be successful—for our countries to be successful—millions more people will require postsecondary learning. It’s still urgent that we get there, given that virtually all the jobs now and in the future require postsecondary skills. That’s why Lumina is focused on increasing the number of Americans with post-high school or postsecondary school degrees or credentials from 47 percent—where it is today—to 60 percent. If we can’t increase that number, fully half our people will be cut off from economic opportunity—with all the attendant consequences.

The other thing we know is that what and how people learn will also change. The skills people need in today’s and tomorrow’s economy are not simple “job skills” that can be learned quickly through a short-term training program. People need sophisticated, higher-level thinking and reasoning skills, as well as technical skills that will be constantly updated throughout people’s lives.

So, like all of you, we’ve got our work cut out for us—even more so given that the face of today’s college student is also transforming. He or she is no longer 18 years old, fresh out of high school, and headed straight to a four-year campus and a lifelong job.

  • Nearly 40 percent of American students now are older than 25.
  • Nearly three-quarters work, at least part-time.
  • More than half live off campus.
  • One in four are raising children while earning a degree.
  • And—you’ll be glad to know—13 percent take all of their courses online.

Others face a different set of challenges. As I said a moment ago, they often don’t have the money, time, or support needed to succeed at education beyond high school. Many are low-income and first-generation students, racial and ethnic minorities, and immigrants. They may be struggling to afford food and shelter, much less tuition.

Many, if not most, are eager to learn the skills that will lead to better lives. Meanwhile, employers struggle to find people with the skills they need to fill good jobs that already exist and more new jobs on the horizon.

So, along with advocating for our 60 percent goal, Lumina is working hard to redesign the overwhelmed, increasingly obsolete U.S. higher education system.

To meet these challenges, we’re working to build an ecosystem in which all high-quality learning counts, everywhere it happens—at work, at home, in the military, in communities, museums, libraries, and more.

We need a system with clear pathways to learning, one with fewer obstacles and off-ramps. We need a system that is affordable, accessible, inclusive, transparent and accountable – and one that is highly relevant to today’s students and dynamic global economy.

And we need a system that measures skills not by the credit hour on which so much higher education is based, but on proven competencies—a system where both learning and credentials are transparent.

Let me take a moment to talk about what I mean by a competency-based system of learning and work, because this is where much of Lumina’s work is focused.

When we think of competency-based education, a clear image comes to mind of a kind of skills-based educational delivery that we are familiar with. This kind of education—programs based on demonstrated mastery of clearly defined learning objectives and skills—is growing in importance and should, in my view, become the norm.

But as important as the growth of competency-based education is, there’s an even more compelling story to tell. The big transformation is the emergence of a wide range of competency-based credentials that employers recognize as representing what they need for each of their jobs. Lumina’s work is focused on bringing transparency to this emerging credentials marketplace by developing the new tools and infrastructure that create a common language for the myriad postsecondary credentials and ensure they are better connected and more easily navigable.

One of these tools is the Connecting Credentials Framework, which connects various credentials based on competencies. The idea is to create a common language by which credentials can be compared—for example, making clear how the skills and knowledge from one credential can lead to another credential.

Another is Credential Engine, a new NGO which has developed something that the computer scientists in the room will recognize: a new web protocol or language called Credential Transparency Description Language, or CTDL, which is being used to build a platform to collect, compare, and share information about all types of credentials, including degrees, certificates, industry certifications, micro-credentials, licenses, and apprenticeships. The goal is to build a data framework from which app developers can make tools that do two things: enable users to understand what credentials mean and how they fit into a skill or career … and help employers understand what skills a worker has.

Yet another attempts to bring these efforts I just described, and others, into a broad talent marketplace. In collaboration with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and companies like Microsoft, we have developed an initiative known as the T3 Innovation Network. The goal of the network is to map how advancements such as AI and blockchain can help us harness education and workplace data to create the future talent marketplace. Tight connections—not information hidden in silos—are the key to this new public-private infrastructure. If we can figure this out—and I know we will—it will expand global economic opportunities for us all. It won’t be easy, but it is the essential next step.

The goal of each of these initiatives is to make the various credentials more transparent and clear in terms of what they mean … how they connect … and what competencies they represent.

Of course, we also need new approaches to quality control, but that focus is also shifting from the education provider to the credential itself. It’s interesting that the ways learning will be assessed and recognized won’t be through a centralized government function or higher education assessment body. It will come through social mediation—as everything else is today. In much the same way that we can go online and read thousands of reviews when choosing a hotel or restaurant or car or any other product or service, these new approaches will allow employers, education providers, job seekers, and anyone else to decide for themselves what credentials mean, and which ones represent the level of quality they are seeking.

These tools are not just used on the education side—they are also transforming the way jobs are defined and the way employers find the people they need for them. For the first time ever, we can now define the competencies needed in jobs down to their most basic level and align those competencies to those developed in education and training systems.

All this can be made transparent to employers, educators, and individuals so everyone knows the competency requirements of jobs, what credentials represent those competencies, and where they can get the necessary education and training. With this information made widely available, we’ll create clear pathways for people to continue to learn, improve their skills, and prosper.

We’re really talking about a competency-based system – where both learning and work are built around the same competencies or skills. Indeed, work and learning are merging into what we think of as a learning-work ecosystem—one where people will be learning at work and working while they learn—a continuous process of developing skills and knowledge.

As my friend Tony Carnevale—a labor economist who’s the director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce—says, “Employers want more hires who are not only work-ready, but also training-ready—ready to learn more.”

So, along with the proliferation of MOOCs, we’re also seeing an explosion of postsecondary credentials, such as certificates, employer-based training, apprenticeships and industry-based certifications.

Over the past 20 years, for example, the number of postsecondary certificates in the U.S. have tripled to more than 1 million—making them more popular than master’s and associate degrees.

A corollary is that a growing number of top companies no longer require a four-year degree—including Apple, Google, Ernst & Young, and publisher Penguin Random House.

The move toward more targeted credentials is shaping a new way of thinking about education—as a combination of parts rather than a sum—just as the individual playlist has replaced the record album of my long-ago youth.

Let me share an example of what Lumina is doing to put these ideas into practice.

The United States has more than 3 million service members, reservists and military veterans who are an increasingly vital part of today’s workforce—a rich source of talent, experience, and expertise.

But their potential is not being fully realized. One reason is this: what our service people know and do every day often doesn’t get the credit it deserves.

In fact, about 200,000 veterans leave the services for civilian life each year—and statistics show that only one in four have the credentials needed for the best jobs. Others are forced to retrain, requalify or start over because the civilian system doesn’t understand the military system. We don’t speak a common language when it comes to skills.

For instance, military medics can’t easily transition to civilian EMT or nurse’s roles. Why? Because the competencies and skills they’ve mastered aren’t recognized by colleges and universities, state licensing boards … and, too often, employers.

Because we believe that learning outcomes and competencies are the true measure of education, we want to change that.

So, Lumina is investing in a research project involving the U.S. Navy and Credential Engine, which I mentioned earlier.

The goal is to align Credential Engine and the Navy’s surface fleet system maintenance procedures. That may not sound like much, but it would be a big deal.

For instance, this would allow the Navy to update, in real time, its internal systems for educating and training sailors, using a common credentialing language to match what is needed in the field.

This also then ensures that, as service members transition to civilian jobs, employers will have an easy, consistent way to understand the expertise they bring. Those transitions will be less painful, and more productive.

We’re not the only ones who think this project is a very big deal. The U.S. Department of Defense has invested $3 million in this work as part of its Sailor 2025 initiative. Northrup Grumman also is contributing funds to support military credentialing.

We believe this project provides our best window into a new learning-and-work ecosystem that reflects a transformation affecting all sectors of the economy, from technology to health care and beyond.

And it’s one of many examples where transparent credentials can make a difference in people’s lives.

So just as MOOCs have opened up new opportunities for people who haven’t had access to higher education … so transparent credentials can open up new opportunities for work to those who haven’t had their skills and talents recognized.

Just as MOOCs can facilitate learning … so clear, transparent credentials can allow more people to have their competencies recognized and rewarded.

I said at the outset that it’s fitting that we’re meeting in Spain. It’s also fitting that we represent countries from around the globe. Because the competencies are clearly universal … the technologies for capturing and presenting information are global … the demand for skills is global.

MOOCs have been first movers. They’ve used the reach of the internet to provide people around the world who had no access to higher education with a rich learning experience—and millions are taking advantage of it.

In the process, MOOCs have shown us that talent is worldwide—and when it’s wasted, it’s a tragedy. They’ve shown us that innovation can come from anywhere and people everywhere can learn to a very high level when they have the opportunity.

MOOCs remind us that people everywhere are hungry to improve their lives … to make a contribution … and that they should not—and will not—be limited in their opportunities to do what they want with their lives based on where they were born.

To continue this progress, these systems must be open, not closed—so everyone has access to the best information. This means rigorous quality control to ensure learners are taking high-quality courses that meet their needs and inspire them to keep learning rather than give up.

This is how we can ensure that education is no longer a phase of life … but life itself.

Not too long ago, someone said: “We need a way to integrate education much more deeply into the fabric of our lives in a lifelong way.”

That someone was Daphne Koller—the co-founder of Coursera—and it’s been an honor to be part of a group of people who are devoting their lives to fulfill that mission.

Thank you very much for the opportunity to be here.

Tracy Chen
Lumina Foundation: Working to ensure a quality education for all Americans
Lumina Foundation: Working to ensure a quality education for all Americans
August 8, 2019

Lumina Foundation is an independent, private foundation in the United States that is committed to making opportunities for learning beyond high school available to all.