Education 4.0: Rise of Flexible Learning in the ‘New World’

Jul 15, 2020

A shift is underway in education. From a heavy emphasis on teaching to learning; where the learner has the agency – to learn anytime, anywhere, at her pace, about the topics that interest her.

A teacher in front of a room imparting information for students to learn is how most of us remember getting an education. The traditional ‘sage on the stage’ model is proving glacial, inadequate, and disconnected from the real world.

According to the World Economic Forum, 65 percent of children entering primary schools will end up in jobs that don’t yet exist.

The pace of change is mandating faster and smarter learning methods with a greater emphasis on lifelong learning owing to automation.

A rise in online, self-paced learning is side-lining the chokeholds of the traditional education system. Taking learning from a standardized structure to one based on diverse needs and pace of individual learners. Personalized learning options are giving learners the control to be active participants, not just passive recipients, in their learning process, and be quick to adapt to new skills. An online nanodegree in self-driving cars; a finance certification for non-commerce people; dominant industry players teaching courses on their core products, and more. The restrictions of age, specialty, location, and costs are becoming fluid with modular learning options.

One-third of the US undergraduates take at least one online class. And fastest growing in online higher education cohort are adult learners and working professionals. - National Center of Education Statistics

What’s driving the uptick in flexible and non-traditional learning options?

The Changing Economics of Learning

Digital undercurrents are disrupting the dynamics of demand and supply of learning. Gain a sense of the forces that are under play.

1. An evolving demand landscape

The demand for better, faster, and smarter learning methods is led by two sets of factors, one arising from the shortcomings of current chalk and board learning, and another from the merits of flexible learning solutions. A lowdown.

  • The idea of a mechanistic link between college degrees and wages has come under scrutiny. It took further knocks with many white-collar companies expressing their openness to hiring high school graduates. Employers see experience, say internship, and technical certification as more influential in hiring decisions than a college degree (Kauffman Foundation, 2019). The idea is also echoed by the top industry leaders.

    About half of Apple’s US employment last year included people without a four-year degree. Many colleges don’t teach the skills business leaders need the most in their workforce. – Tim Cook, Apple CEO

  • Pandemic is another factor that has been gasoline to the proverbial flexible learning fire. The idea of paying full fares equivalent to a full-time degree for remote teaching due to social distancing is not sitting well with the students. Many are taking to e-learning and EdTech tools.
  • Higher education often means taking on heavy debts that most can’t afford. As a result, post-secondary education remains out of reach for many. Only 42% of sophomores go on to earn a two- or four-year degree (US Department of Education). Additionally, few of those who get in are able to eke out their first choice, others settle for second or third-course choices. Flexible learning is making education accessible and inclusive.
  • With the shelf life of skills decreasing and the nature of jobs changing due to rapid technological advances, people are realizing the importance of continuing education. Flexible learning presents them an option to update their skills over and over again in one career span as per their interests and the demands of marketplace.
  • Finally, the higher success rate of online learning in increasing information retention (WEF), and self-paced learning proving valuable in engaging previously disengaged students and those with anxiety or other mental health conditions, are other few forces driving the demand for flexible learning options.

2. New dynamics of supply

As the demand for learning is shifting gears toward self-paced learning, solutions are emerging to meet the needs. Even before coronavirus pandemic, there was a heavy growth in the EdTech space. According to the latest reports,

Global education technology investments reached USD 18.66 billion in 2019, and the overall online education market is projected to reach USD 319 billion by 2025.

The surge in EdTech has accelerated since COVID-19 – with a cornucopia of language apps, video conferencing, co-editing, smart calendar scheduling, translation, and other EdTech tools swamping the market. New touchpoints for learners, including computers, video magazines, video games, and MP3 players, are creating new products and sources of supply that are more aligned with the needs of a range of learners – a hallmark of this age of hyper-individuality.

Modular Learning Forms: A diversified credentialing ecosystem

Among a variety of alternative flexible education and credentialing systems coming to the fore, a few methods facilitating a move from classroom-based mandated courses to anytime, anywhere individualized education that stand out are:

1. Project-Based Learning

Closely mirroring the workplace dynamics, project-based learning proves a highly immersive method of content delivery that promotes peer collaboration. It’s a problem-based approach to education and gives learners the opportunities to get hands-on experience and develop critical thinking skills (much-in-demand in modern workplaces). It has found its place in online learning as well. Virtual and augmented reality could further improve online, project-based learning.

For brick-and-mortar colleges and universities, these times are an opportunity to push project-based learning to augment remote teaching and get previously hesitant teachers onboard for personalized education.

2. Stackable Credentials

Fitted together like the bits of lego, there is a rise in learners who are taking slivers of online content and cooking their own expert persona. Combining project management and business writing with photoshop skills, for instance. Enthusiasts call it the world of stackable credentials.

On an informal level, it provides learners the option to pick and choose the specializations they value most for their career advancement and professional development . On more formal daises, some institutional providers are now unbundling the idea of degrees, such as an MBA, into digestible finer pieces that fit the needs and schedule of a learner. Resulting in smaller courses are like nanodegrees. Talking to an international daily, Scott DeRue, the dean of Ross School of Business at University of Michigan says,

It reminds me of the music industry. Earlier, songs used to be bundled into albums. Now they are disaggregated by Spotify, iTunes, and the likes.

3. Digital Badging

Much of the self-directed and self-paced learning was ignored or even missed entirely by the employers and formal education system. The reason being no proof of existence for one’s skills and competence. Digital badging has been the answer and one of the most prominent innovations that lent flexible learning a validation in the outside world. First proposed in a 2011 seminal paper by Peer 2 Peer University and The Mozilla Foundation, digital badges ever since have acted as a solid indicator of an individual’s accomplishments and skills gained through self-learning. CredForce is among the firsts to systematically acknowledge and support flexible learning for new-age skills by according accomplished learners’ digital badges that have now become a regular part of hiring conversations across geographies.

4. Robotic Learning

This one is straight from the future. Thomas Frey, a futurist says that by 2030 students will learn from robo-teachers 10 times faster than today. According to him, a robot will deliver lessons, and the classes will be tailored to every student’s needs. The bot-instructors will be smart enough to personalize lessons and allow every learner to absorb a subject at a much faster rate – four to 10 times the speed of today. Perhaps even completing under graduation in less than a year!

The robo-teachers in 2030 will be able to learn your proclivities, and your interests and reference points to teach you way faster and way better. – Thomas Frey, A Futurist

Responding to disruption

Borrowing DeRue’s analogy of the music industry, when the sector faced disruption from the internet, it looked to offer premium experience through live concerts. The mojo of on-campus education lies in a hybrid of online and offline world education. Learning is no longer about ‘seat time’ in the classroom. Leading higher education leaders are already pacing up with the change by transforming their products, adopting immersive experiences, and making education more flexible and relevant.

Flexible learning isn’t only a function of going online. The idea is to bring the focus back to the learner, prepare instructors to become coaches and guides, and reimagine courses. Reset, rethink, and rebuild the experience of learning and the milieu of education.

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