There’s a strange sort of message in the ceremonial toss of the graduation cap that concludes a college graduation ceremony. It says: Congratulations, you’re done! And for many people, that’s the end of formal education. Most learning done afterwards is accidental and simply called work experience.
Reality is that to thrive in today’s workforce, everyone needs to be continuously learning to stay relevant and keep skillsets modern. It benefits us as individuals and the job market as a whole. It is time to be perpetually throwing our graduation cap, celebrating ongoing education for all.
But who has time to take off of work to go back to school – especially when you often have to pay off existing student loans? Our current higher education system leaves many graduates with debt for decades after their schooling. Education costs have increased 200% in the past two decades, and becoming even less accessible.
Online learning: a university of one, for all
One step towards accessible, always-on learning is online learning. Online educational models are increasingly being adopted by universities, community colleges and non-traditional programs, making lifetime learning affordable, decentralized, personalizable and available at a student’s convenience. Lectures, readings, and tests are a few keystrokes away; study groups form virtually. That this is affordable is nothing short of a revolution in how we learn — and in equalizing the playing field for who has access to education. It suddenly becomes truly democratic, available to all.
The tech industry has lent not only its algorithms to this revolution, but its working philosophy as well. The concept of agile development — constantly reworking iterations of software on the fly — is applied to the human mind. Keep refining what you know as new opportunities present themselves. We see it in the programming world, where developers must constantly learn new languages to keep up with the furious pace of technological advancement. But that can apply to other industries as well.
Take for example, a job opportunity for a nonprofit that takes advantage of your bilinguality but requires copy editing. With online education, you can be agile: you can learn how to copy edit. Or say you’re a customer-service rep at a garden center when a landscape design position becomes available. If that could be learned online, you get a cool new job and the garden center gets to promote from within. You don’t have to wait for the next semester, or move to another city. Education becomes a truly personal journey.
Education that gets educated
With this system, all sorts of barriers to entry vanish. The costs of tuition, room and board, and textbooks, can all be cut down or eliminated. Plus, the Internet solves a scarcity problem in education; really, a space and time problem, in which a limitless number of students can take a course, regardless of lecture hall sizes, on their own schedule (within reason!).
Running everything online opens up the teaching possibilities, allowing for videos and interactive tools and challenges, instead of just textbooks. With artificial intelligence-driven models, courses can be gamified to respond to your own strengths and weaknesses, introducing tutorials in areas where you need help, skipping modules when it’s clear you’ve got the material down pat. And human teachers can handle an increased volume of students with the help of bots that act as teacher’s assistants, fielding queries and offering feedback.
The human element
This shouldn’t be seen as a criticism of teachers. Far from it. My mother was a teacher for more than 30 years; I saw firsthand how she inspired her students, many of whom came back even years later to thank her. Having the ability to talk through material with a caring teacher is what makes great schools great. Would online learning lose the human touch of a teacher, or of other students? Possibly — which is why it’s important that curricula be developed with the input of instructors so that they are freed from standardized parts of the course to focus on those one-on-one relationships.
This also demonstrates the value of a community of supportive peers and mentors to help guide you through the online learning journey. Communities should be encouraged to form in person. Perhaps coworking spaces or incubators could host meetups, for example, bringing the business world into this new educational space and introducing potential workers to potential companies.
We are already seeing solutions to the big problems of cost and access for all. The rest will come. Like the model of education we’re developing, it’s a constant process of learning, and evolving, as we go. And it will only be solved if higher education and businesses work together.
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