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American Colleges can Survive the Covid-19 Pandemic: Self-Driving College Movement

About 80 million adults in the U.S. between the ages of 25 through 65 graduated from high school but don’t have a college degree. Unlike in previous economic downturns, a college degree isn’t necessarily going to provide protection from unemployment. Even those workers with a bachelor’s degree are finding it tough going in this job market. Job postings are down across the board, of course, but since early March, positions requesting a bachelor’s degree have declined more (down 51%) compared to those asking for only a high-school education (down 38%), according to Burning Glass Technologies, a company that analyzes online job data.Higher education needs to reinvent itself for continual learning if it is going to remain relevant and expand opportunity for tens of millions of adults who find themselves unemployed in a fast-changing economy.  

At NUST, to foster economic recovery in the wake of this pandemic, we must start thinking of higher education not only in the traditional way—as a rite of passage for young adults—but also in smaller increments than two or four-year degrees. In this new economy, learning is something that is “continual,” rather than “episodic”—meaning we only go back to school when we stop doing something else, like a job.Short courses offer opportunities for colleges to create new kinds of micro-credentials, including certificates, that can help reduce friction in the job market in two key ways. First, micro-credentials are a stronger signal to employers that an applicant has mastered a specific skill, particularly digital skills like SQL, Salesforce, or other SaaS platforms. Second, micro-credentials can stack on top of one another to eventually allow students to earn a traditional degree over time.

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To build such a continual learning system, colleges will need to work closely with employers to understand the specific skills needed in jobs open now or where there is expected to be job growth in the near future. Those skill sets could then be divided into smaller increments and aligned with short courses: What are the skills that one needs to get started on the job in the first month? What are the skills needed in the second month, fourth month, and so on? Then abbreviated courses (as short as a week, for instance) can be designed around those skills to get workers started in a job. Once in a job, workers can continue to gain new skills with additional short courses. The truth is that the half-life of many skills is increasingly getting shorter as knowledge in the world churns at an ever-faster pace. As a result, what students learn in the first weeks of a traditional degree program might be outdated by the time they graduate.

Skills-based credentials focus our attention in the right place: on what a job applicant can do rather than the degree they’ve earned or where they went to school. We should use the reshaped economy that will emerge from this crisis to let go of our allegiance to the traditional college degree as a signal of job preparedness. Skills—including soft skills, such as communication, problem solving, and teamwork—should be the coin of the realm in hiring rather than majors or the name brand of a school. No longer should the idea of new kinds of credentials seem so insurmountable. At the very least, every student who graduates from college with a degree these days should also leave with some sort of skills-based credential.

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6 Comments
  • James Anderson
    7:44 AM, 17 April 2019

    This blog responds to the pressing societal need to educate and re-educate learners of all ages (students, teachers and workers) in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) content areas to ultimately function in highly technological environments, including in collaboration with intelligent systems. Innovative technologies can reshape learning processes, which in turn can influence new technology design. Learning technology research in this program should be informed by the convergence of multiple disciplines: education and learning sciences, computer and information science and engineering, and cognitive, behavioral and social sciences.

  • BDonell Ncube
    1:50 AM, 24 January 2020

    Framing challenging research questions at inception, and fostering the collaborations needed for successful inquiry is needed for American Colleges to survive Covid-19. The grand challenges of today — protecting human health; understanding the food, energy, water nexus; exploring the universe at all scales — will not be solved by one discipline alone. They require convergence: the merging of ideas, approaches and technologies from widely diverse fields of knowledge to stimulate innovation and discovery.

  • Tanaka Muranganwa
    10:24 AM, 25 January 2020

    To survive, American Colleges must improve collaborative efforts aimed at enhancing the preparation, increasing the participation, and ensuring the contributions of individuals from groups that have been historically underrepresented and underserved in the STEM enterprise such as African Americans, Alaska Natives, Hispanics, Native Americans, Native Hawaiians, Native Pacific Islanders, persons with disabilities, persons from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, and women and girls. Significant advancement in the inclusion of underrepresented groups in STEM will result in a new generation of STEM talent and leadership to secure our nation’s future and long-term economic competitiveness.Awesome post! Keep up the great work! 🙂

  • Adrian Nyuke
    11:13 AM, 25 January 2020

    Awesome post! Keep up the great work! :). I think colleges should have the following technology goals: to introduce new or emerging technologies within the learning or work context (e.g., intelligent tutoring and other AI technologies, virtual or augmented environments, human-technology partnerships, socio-technical integration within learning environments, multimodal modeling and sensing of cognitive or emotional states, natural language and multimodal interfaces, embodiment, and learning analytics). The technology goals should advance the fields of computer science, information science, and/or engineering.

  • Blessing Phiri
    7:06 AM, 3 May 2020

    Learning and educational goals for colleges should be: to investigate learning processes and principles (e.g., cognitive, neurobiological, behavioral, affective, cultural, social, volitional, epistemological, developmental and other perspectives) relevant for the proposed learning technology innovation. The learning goals should advance education and learning sciences.

    • Michelle Ross
      7:46 AM, 17 August 2018

      In the context of work, colleges should encourage projects that: (1) design and develop future learning environments to educate or re-educate workers for new work environments and experiences in collaboration with advanced technology; (2) develop relevant formal and informal learning experiences as well as just-in-time training on the job; (3) support the needs of diverse workers from a broad set of backgrounds and experiences; and (4) support the future work of teachers in classrooms and other related settings.

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