Today’s guest blogger is Jeremy Walsh of Learning House. He has spent his career helping organizations to reach their potential. As a dynamic leader, business developer, former pastor, small business owner, entrepreneur, and business consultant, he has a unique perspective on the convergence of technology and education. 

He outlines many challenges facing higher education. What do you think?
Russ Poulin

A few times a year, my friend Jeanne Meister hosts a really special gathering that brings together leaders and pioneers who are shaping the future of learning and work. I am lucky enough to be a part of it, and on a rainy Monday morning in New York City, I sat in a packed room buzzing with energy. Approximately 120 Learning and HR Executives from some of the world’s largest and most innovative companies, including corporate giants like GE, JPMorgan Chase, Fidelity, IBM and Cisco, and innovative startups, like Degreed, Smartly, Field Nation, and Udemy, were talking about the future of learning and work. We covered a lot, but the topics tended to focus on a few key areas:

  • the continued pressure in the war for talent;
  • the growth of the freelance economy and blended workforce;
  • growing disdain for the lack of preparedness of recent college graduates;
  • the emergence of technology solutions that enable and expedite learning and skill development;
  • the speed at which new skills and technologies are emerging in the marketplace;
  • the impact of AI and robotics on jobs.

Man in suit is pointing his finger to a light bulb graphic that appears to be growing. The light bulb is surrounded by a string of gears.

A Perfect Storm of Change

In July 2016, I hosted a panel discussion at the Connect 2016 higher education summit about similar topics. We brought together people from Cigna, University Health Systems and Whole Foods to discuss what strategic advantage partnerships between industry and higher education can bring in the war for talent.

I always walk away from conversations like this sensing that all the swirling and change has collided upon us today to create the perfect storm. Storms can be violent, but they also have the power to bring change. In this case, there is enormous opportunity for innovative leaders at innovative organizations, both large and small, to build something special and do something big. Those organizations that embrace innovation will bring meaningful education and learning solutions to the table to make a real impact in the marketplace and, ultimately, in individuals’ lives. While the benefits seem obvious, it can feel like they have completely eluded some of my friends and colleagues in higher education.

The Room Where It Happens

In March 2010, when I attended this same meeting around the future of learning and work, I was working for a large university. I, along with several colleagues from other universities, all were engaged in discussing what the future could and should be, looking to develop solutions along with the corporate learning and talent executives.

There was a real sense that we were shaping the future. Over the last six years, I’ve watched the demise of the higher education “voice at the table.” At the most recent meeting, there wasn’t a single representative from a higher education institution. It’s disappointing but true that colleges and universities are no longer looked at as a viable part of the solution for educating, training and preparing those entering and reskilling in the workforce.

The speed of change is so fast, and we’ve been too slow to adapt and respond. Higher education institutions are viewed as outdated, somewhat irrelevant, and mostly inadequate to provide real solutions to the challenges at hand. The irony, of course, is that preparing students for lifelong learning and ultimately to contribute successfully to society through meaningful work is exactly what those of us in higher education are passionate about doing. There is a massive disconnect between the needs of enterprise and the response of higher education.

The Future of Learning

Over the course of this two-day gathering, the catchphrases seemed to be …

  1. Microlearning: digestible, point of need, action-based;
  2. Mobile: available wherever you’re connected;
  3. Social: engaged, “Facebook meets learning”;
  4. Flexible: your time, your way;
  5. On Demand: what you need, when you need it;
  6. Adaptive: knowing how you learn and helping you learn more effectively;
  7. AI Supported: Watson, Siri, Alexa and how they can provide you first-class support.

I’m not suggesting that colleges and universities should or even can adopt all of these into our classes, programs, and models. I am suggesting that if we continue to dismiss these trends, we will continue to be dismissed.

Bootcamps and edtech companies have emerged and in many cases have secured a seat in this conversation. They are attempting to displace the common currency of the degree as the de facto standard for what determines a qualified candidate. With each passing year, I see them gain more trust and conduct more experiments that gather more data that supports their new models. Meanwhile, we are guarding our traditions and are too busy infighting about academic rigor and accessibility to be a meaningful part of the conversation.

I’m hopeful and certain that more of us are realizing our need to innovate faster, understanding that as higher education is now held to the same standards as the rest of the market, we must innovate and evolve. Do it on your own, do it through a partnership, or any other way you can find. Just make sure you are in the game. Those who aren’t will surely sink deeper into obscurity and irrelevance.

The Pioneers

The good news is we have some pioneers to look toward. For instance, in June 2014 Starbucks launched the College Achievement Plan, partnering with Arizona State University to enable Starbucks employees to earn their degree. In April 2015, Starbucks expanded the program to all employees who work at least 20 hours a week. There were several altruistic and business reasons why Starbucks established this plan, including employee retention and engagement and just creating a happier workforce.

One of the pleasant surprises was the impact that the College Achievement Plan has had on recruitment. From FY14 to FY15, Starbucks had over a 10 percent increase in new applications to work for the company, and 63 percent of new recruits cited the plan as a driver in their decision to work for the company. The latest report showed that more than 4,800 employees had enrolled, and ASU reported a 5 percent higher retention rate from these students compared to its core student population. This is just one of several examples of a higher education institution being at the table and providing real value-added solutions.

There are several other examples, like Strayer University working with Chrysler Fiat.  Cigna has been working with multiple universities and colleges, including a few of our Learning House partner schools, to provide a great education as a benefit program to its employees.

Lumina Foundation conducted an ROI study on the Cigna education as a benefit program. This study revealed many interesting trends and provided Cigna with insights to continue improving the program. One of the biggest takeaways from the study was that overall Cigna was receiving a 129 percent ROI for the program.

I believe there are even more of these opportunities happening on smaller scales in regional pockets. As these studies are beginning to demonstrate, I’m confident there is both need and opportunity right in your backyard. Organizations need our support. It likely looks different than our current model, but we can find a way to develop innovative, impactful programs that extend the reach and mission of your institution. So get out there, get involved, and add the value that we are so passionate about bringing.Jeremy Walsh in an suit jacket and no neck tie.


Jeremy Walsh
Vice President of Strategic Initiatives
Learning House


Photo credit: “Idea Gear” photo used under an iStock license obtained by Learning House.


3 replies on “The Future of Learning and Work”

Let’s keep in mind that much of this new activity is new only in content and in some cases new in delivery system. In effect it is a return to the industry-based training norms that existed prior to the 1950s.

For that reason I cannot view these “competitors” as bad for colleges or even a new idea. What they are doing is generating a compression or drawdown of the artificially inflated role of degree-granting institutions that most people think is normal because they grew up with it.

If colleges and universities become smaller and issue fewer degrees because of this educational market correction, that is not a bad thing. There is nothing wrong with job training being provided by a variety of entities. The fact that the process of change is painful for university staff and faculty who are personally affected is unfortunate, but this happens in most changes.

Out of the park!! a grand slam. Thanks for sharing your understanding of the different elements involved.
Peter Smith

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