In times of economic decline and recession, Americans typically turn to higher education to provide both a refuge and a path forward. The Great Recession in 2008, for example, saw a surge in enrollment, especially among “nontraditional” age adult students.
But this recession is far from typical — with the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, for example, saying it looks much more like a natural disaster than a typical recession. It will certainly be different than 2008 in one critical way: The need for little “e” education has never been more essential.
More than 40 million Americans have filed for unemployment during the COVID-19 crisis, while thousands of U.S. companies are still without the workers they need. Many unemployed Americans will need to completely retool or earn new credentials to regain employment — and very short-term training has the ability to equip them with the skills, behaviors and knowledge needed. Americans recognize this, with 59 percent of adults saying that if they were to pursue education in the next six months, they would focus on nondegree programs, including certificates, certifications or single courses to upskill or reskill.
This is what we mean by little “e” education.
Postsecondary education, with its expertise in deep learning, has the know-how to step up to meet this immediate need and to help individuals understand how to translate new skills into longer-term prosperity. To help both individuals and companies navigate this critical juncture, institutions must be as nimble as industry is.
Automation and technological change were already rapidly remaking work. The crisis is only accelerating those shifts. In fact, MIT economist David Autor has described the current crisis as an “automation forcing event.” Research has shown that automation does not happen steadily over time, but rather in bursts — and those bursts are concentrated in times of economic downturn, especially when large sums of federal dollars are being distributed to companies for their survival. We can expect an even greater move to robots and other technology-based tools during this crisis, as having humans perform in-person work not only becomes costly but dangerous.
Workers will have to adjust quickly not only to meet current demands, but to navigate a forever-altered landscape. Postsecondary education can be a key solution for individuals and employers, but to do so, it must elevate little “e” education:
- Think quick: Short programs, single courses and interactive tools are key to creating solutions for our workforce needs. Education needs to be able to create with the speed of business — and to help both workers returning to education and new learners quickly increase their skills.
- Drill into the “uniquely human”: We must use both academic and industry-based tools to blend best practices in human learning with career-relevant learning outcomes and skills. In a world that’s quickly automating, we must redouble our focus on skills and behaviors, such as problem-solving, empathy and creativity, that only humans can perform.
- Recognize all learning is applied learning: Instructors, teaching assistants and industry volunteers should come together equally in physical and virtual learning environments to ensure learning is grounded in both the latest research and theory and in workplace application.
- Think competencies, not degrees: Regardless of the provider of education or workplace, if a learner can demonstrate achievement of a skill or mastery of knowledge, the learner should be provided credit for it — whether collegiate credit, other academic recognition or workplace value. Similarly, we need job descriptions based on competencies that candidates can clearly demonstrate, allowing for more efficient and effective matching of job candidates and organizational openings.
By focusing on short-term programs and new ways to deliver and measure discrete learning, postsecondary education can have a positive impact during the COVID-19 crisis and beyond — helping individuals reskill and upskill as quickly as possible.
In other words, to meet this enormous challenge, we’ve got to think small.