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Shifting Definitions of Success Could Change Postsecondary Education

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Topics: Emerging Trends, Future of Learning

Even as postsecondary education institutions and their partners work to expand access to college and provide more young people with pathways to success, what success looks like is changing. Smart machines that can augment or replace human work are becoming increasingly capable of performing non-routine, cognitive tasks. At the same time, employment structures are becoming more granular, with project-based, contingent and taskified work spreading. Together, these drivers of change are changing what it means to be ready for further learning, work and life.

They are shortening the shelf-life of skills and are creating a need to redefine readiness. In this changing environment, the uniquely human qualities that are difficult or impossible to code are becoming even more important. A new foundation for readiness that puts social-emotional skill development at the center promises to help people navigate an increasingly uncertain landscape and learn context-specific skills throughout their lifetimes.

In exploring what the changing nature of readiness could mean for early college providers and other postsecondary institutions, participants at the National Association of Concurrent Enrollment Partnerships’ Midwest Regional Conference raised a range of intriguing and sometimes conflicting implications.

  • The liberal arts could see a resurgence as people increasingly recognize their value in preparing well-rounded critical and creative thinkers and doers to navigate complex landscapes and solve or manage difficult problems.
  • There is a risk that postsecondary education could again become accessible only to people with privilege. Equity will be a huge consideration as we navigate the changing landscape.
  • The postsecondary education sector might need to identify new mechanisms for enabling people to access learning when and where they need it. Those new mechanisms could require programmatic, pricing, and policy shifts.
  • Both postsecondary education and society will need to redefine success to reflect emerging realities. It will be necessary to rethink when, how, what and why people learn throughout their lives.

The Future of Learning: Redefining Readiness from the Inside Out explores how career readiness may be redefined to better prepare students for an uncertain future, based on a series of in-depth interviews with employees at cutting-edge organizations, as well as site visits to workspaces and strategic foresight research into current trends.
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Postsecondary institutions need to strike a balance between immediate and future workforce needs, helping learners enter the current job market while at the same time helping them lay the foundation for future readiness. To begin redefining readiness today, postsecondary institutions can:

  • Focus more on supporting deep personal development as context- and discipline-specific skills and knowledge.
  • Diversify offerings and business models, with a multitude of formats and structures engaging learners and increasing access.
  • Contribute to student-driven and student-designed ecosystems of support that evolve over time and reflect students’ strengths, weaknesses and needs.
  • Help students plan for both their careers and their lives and help them prepare to respond to changing conditions.
  • Enable learners to weave in and out of learning experiences as their career development needs dictate.
  • Collaborate more extensively with workplace partners.
  • Shift the focus of faculty professional development to reflect both a greater focus on supporting the development of foundational cognitive and metacognitive practices and ongoing learning related to relevant workplace skills.

Renegotiating definitions of success with both future needs and the diversity of individual journeys in mind promises to provide the big-picture frame needed to help institutions identify the programs, supports and pathways to suit diverse lifelong learners.

In Shaping the Future of Learning: Higher and Postsecondary Education Strategy Workbook, you can explore five critical opportunities for faculty, administrators and leaders in higher education.