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Adapting Higher Education for the Lifelong Learner

Written by Andrew Hermalyn on May 5, 2021

Related content: Higher Education, University, Leadership

Like so many other industries, higher education has been profoundly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. With colleges and universities forced to move online almost overnight, many institutions are now grappling with what role online education will play in their future and how they must adapt and evolve to better serve the growing needs of learners.

Interest in work-based and online education programs has increased substantially throughout the pandemic, and over a third of Americans say they will need additional training or education to find new jobs. Building upon existing skills and acquiring new ones has become a necessity for modern workers. In fact, nearly three-quarters of U.S. adults consider themselves lifelong learners, and more than 60% of working adults consider themselves professional learners, having taken a course or training to advance their careers over the past year.

These changing trends represent an enormous opportunity for those universities that can deliver relevant, accessible, and high-quality online educational programs that meet the needs of learners over their lives and careers.

To mark the launch of Fortune’s new Education hub, I invited Alan Murray, Fortune’s CEO, to ask leaders from three of 2U’s university partners what lies ahead for higher education institutions. Business school deans from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Rice University, and University of California at Davis offered their reflections on his question: How does the mission and structure of the university need to change to meet the demands of lifelong learning?

Douglas A. Shackelford, Dean of UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School

“Providing the right knowledge at the right time will benefit both society and the universities that serve it. When students are 20-somethings, their formal education ends, and we assume their human capital is adequate for the remainder of their lives. In our world of constant change, it’s unrealistic to think the finest universities can provide the most qualified students with the necessary knowledge and skills to grapple with the challenges and opportunities of the next half-century. Likewise, universities focus the expertise of their extraordinary researchers and thought leaders on young people while ignoring a vast market of older people who desperately desire new thinking and retooling.

“We need a technology-enabled education system, where we provide education when people need it—in the same way that a streaming service provides the right music at the right time. To meet these demands for lifetime learning and become truly student-centric, universities must expand their vision of a ‘student’ to include everyone, redefine education to include all forms of knowledge dissemination, and reform their operations to ask how we best educate those who have a desire to learn to thereby become truly student-centric.”

Peter Rodriguez, Dean of the Jesse H. Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University

“Universities are finally embracing the urgent need for lifelong learning, but we still mostly deliver it as bolt-on rather than built-in. Success in this space will require a re-imaging of our relationship with students and learners. Some are ahead of the game, but most are like those transitional offices of a few decades ago: advanced in some ways but still using typewriters, paper records, and fax machines, too. Systems resist revolution longer than seems possible, and in academia, tradition is in our DNA.

“What we need most is to embrace a view of our programs as foundational—basic to advanced training for new recruits, the delivery of a new and glistening software package but one that will forever need upgrades. We must revise allocation of our talent toward learning post-graduation. And for that to happen, we must recast our mission as one that serves students and learners when and how needed for a lifetime. We can already deliver our programs anytime and anywhere but will only succeed at lifelong learning when universities begin to differentiate their offerings in this way and force the rest to catch up.”

H. Rao Unnava, Dean of the UC Davis Graduate School of Management

“Four major factors—increasing life spans, digital transformation of businesses, increased pace of lifestyle changes driven by technology, and automation of several job functions—now demand for learning imparted at a university to be not episodic but continuous and lifelong. Traditional universities offered education in distinct packages (i.e., bachelor’s, master’s, doctoral), and the relationship with students generally ended with degree conferral.

“Today’s university has to change in three major ways. First, the product line should expand to include shorter and focused offerings (e.g., certificates and other micro credentials). Second, geographic limitations imposed by the requirement of on-site learning should be relaxed to make use of new learning technologies (e.g., online education). Finally, formal processes should be adopted to continue to provide advanced learning opportunities to alumni as they progress through their careers. In summary, the mission and structure of a university will change from one of a fixed educational offering early in a student’s life to a more adaptive and flexible set of offerings that permeate the learning experience over one’s lifetime.”

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