The Changing Nature of Work and Careers: Higher Education as a Hub for Establishing a Lifelong Learning System

With the rising costs of participating in higher education; uncertain economies buffeted by technological, structural, and political forces; and shifting perceptions of the usefulness of credentials once obtained, the purpose of college has become a popular topic for everything from sound bites and screeds to serious studies. In our contemporary global society, technology keeps information in our awareness and at our fingertips nonstop—allowing millions of people, regardless of their individual roles, to hear about higher education and the issues it faces, including debates about its costs and its value. These factors will continue to challenge educators and their organizations in two important ways: we will need to maintain constant attention to our missions, and, at the same time, we will have to engage in proactive messaging while exercising restraint in reacting to the news cycle.

The essence of the educational process in preparing future generations of humanity—beginning in preschool and continuing into postsecondary educational pathways—is nothing less than the sustainability of civil society and life itself. Liberal education, in particular, empowers individuals and prepares them to embrace the complexity, diversity, and change that are a part of existence. It serves to provide students with broad knowledge of the wider world (in areas of science, culture, and society), as well as in-depth study in a specific area of interest. Liberal education also helps students develop a sense of personal and social responsibility and well-being and allows them to acquire transferable intellectual and practical skills, such as communication, critical thinking, and problem solving, and a demonstrated ability to apply knowledge in diverse settings.

Even though postsecondary education is steeped in tradition and described as slow to change, it has always been changing and will continue to do so. But higher education’s mission is not to chase or catch the newest media or social fad; rather, it is to prepare our graduates for lifelong learning and global citizenship. The ongoing changes affecting higher education’s mission to educate for student success include several fundamental aspects:

• transitioning from a system of credits tied to seat time to one of demonstrating competency and proficiency;

• moving from an emphasis on majors and general education to a focus on the learner’s entire educational pathway;

• shifting from traditional letter grades to the application of learning demonstrated in students’ work over time;

• forgoing learning approaches based on knowledge transmission in favor of approaches focused on meaning- and sense-making;

• instead of providing access to engaged learning for the favored few, ensuring high-impact practices (HIPs) are available to all students, everywhere.

The purpose of college has always been the pursuit of truth and understanding and the transference of knowledge, skills, and abilities. The changes above can be viewed as ways in which colleges are moving away from the reductionist dimensions of higher education that arose in the twentieth century to handle expanded access to college to an emphasis on acquiring more of the higher-order skills and abilities necessary for students’ health and well-being in life and work in the twenty-first century.

The changes also encompass an additional purpose of college—the certification of learning. Through this rearticulation of purpose, it is possible to lift up elements of liberal education that prepare students to demonstrate learning proficiency in more complex ways over time. Through the use of current technology and by practicing learning in meaningful ways—using knowledge to explore solutions to existing problems, for instance—both student and teacher can see growth and achievement through different modes and examples. In this way, certification of learning can be assessed and awarded appropriate credentials that embrace quality achievement.

What we know

Studies continue to emerge that bolster calls to rearticulate the purpose of college as laid out above while countering various canards about the lack of worth of specific disciplines, limited return on investment, and the disconnect between how college prepares learners for workplaces and what workplaces need. A National Academies 2018 report, Branches from the Same Tree, presents, for example, evidence that the integration of humanities and arts with science, technology, math, and medicine leads to improved educational and career outcomes for college students.1 A 2019 Burning Glass Technologies report, The Hybrid Economy: How New Skills Are Rewriting the DNA of the Job Market, makes the case that the changing nature of work requires technology employees to be educated in the essential liberal education outcomes associated with humanities and related fields.2

In addition, for more than ten years, the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) has been surveying employers across the country regarding the skills and abilities they look for as they hire college graduates. In AAC&U’s most recent report, Fulfilling the American Dream, employers across different industries overwhelmingly reiterated what they have been asserting for the past decade: They seek much more than a learner with a specific major. They need college graduates with essential liberal education skills—creativity, oral communication abilities, critical and analytical thinking, ethical judgment and decision making, and the capacity to translate learning from one situation to another—to show initiative while working effectively both in diverse teams and independently.3

While employers also indicate that most college graduates have the qualifications for entry-level positions, they are less sanguine about graduates’ abilities to adapt to the changing needs of a particular job.4 This concern will soon intensify when, as a recent World Economic Forum study predicts, employers find themselves with an outsize increase in demand, relative to the current workforce, for the human skills developed during a liberal education.5 As another recent study states, “Companies need workers that can demonstrate these skills in addition to the digital skills necessary to work alongside automation.”6

Witnessing the learning

High-impact practices (HIPs) offer multiple ways for students to develop the skills and abilities today’s employers are seeking. Examples of HIPs include first-year seminars, common intellectual experiences, learning communities, writing-intensive courses, collaborative projects, undergraduate research, diversity and global learning, ePortfolios, service and community-based learning, internships, and capstone courses or projects. Research has identified a series of criteria associated with enhanced student learning and achievement across all practices identified as HIPs:

• Students must devote considerable time and effort to purposeful tasks that deepen student investment in the activity and connection to their academic program and college.

• Students are put in situations where they must interact with faculty, peers, and, often, community members about substantive matters over extended periods of time.

• Students receive frequent feedback about their performance.

• Students see how what they are learning applies in different settings on and off campus.

Participating in one or more of these practices in the context of a coherent, academically challenging curriculum that appropriately infuses opportunities for active, collaborative experiences deepens learning and helps students interrogate their values and beliefs and how they may be altered, refined, and developed through these experiences. It also increases the likelihood students will experience diversity through contact with people, thoughts, values, and beliefs different from their own. In addition, students develop the ability to take the measure of events and actions and put them in perspective.7

So how do colleges and universities go beyond grades to demonstrate to employers and a variety of other audiences interested in the value of higher education the knowledge students have gained by engaging in HIPs? The following are some ways to create more opportunities to show examples of student achievement and abilities and allow others to independently judge the quality of the learning.

ePortfolios are a medium designed to encourage integration of learning across all or parts of students’ educational pathways—courses, curriculum, cocurriculum, jobs, travel, community-based projects, evaluations and feedback from reviewers or graders, and their own reflections on how specific activities (a paper or performance) demonstrate their mastery of a specific learning outcome. Stanford University, for instance, links undergraduate college transcripts to examples of work from students’ ePortfolios to illustrate how students have applied their knowledge in a course context. The digital learning records captured within ePortfolios can be tailored to and shared with multiple audiences in multiple ways for multiple purposes, such as for graduate school admissions or job applications.8

Comprehensive student records (CSRs) can carry the imprimatur of the college as they capture and verify learning in the variety of ways that HIPs and other learning modes can provide.9 The CSR is essentially a digital student transcript that not only includes traditional courses and grades but also gives examples of student papers, lists participation in community-based programs, and notes contributions to research projects. IMS Global Learning Consortium’s development of standards for the CSR now allows for the consistency and transferability of learning around the world.10

VALUE rubrics and other validated tools for assessing the quality of learning outcomes can be used across a range of mediums and situations.11 The VALUE rubrics allow anyone to see the expectations for proficiency and can be used with various artifacts created by learners. In addition to seeing the learner’s self-evaluations or rubric scores from faculty, potential employers and other audiences can use the rubric standards to judge the quality of student work and learning for themselves.12

Blockchain technology, when applied to higher education, carries the promise of verification and certification of student learning. A record-keeping platform, blockchain allows participants in the chain to download and validate individual records. Those records—transcripts or project scores, for example—are permanent and cannot be altered.13

Where does that leave us?

While higher education has been rapidly changing, its purpose of providing a liberal education to help students develop a sense of well-being and personal and social responsibility; strong and transferable intellectual and practical skills; and an ability to apply knowledge and skills in diverse settings remains intact. If we fulfill our roles as educators, we will engender in our students the necessity for balance between the challenges of technology and education’s traditions and preservation of the past as essential for how humans and educational systems can sustain and inform the lifelong growth and development of new ideas, creations, and directions to enhance humanity and society into the future.

As technology continues to drive change in all areas of our lives, the message here is that there is no end in sight to balancing past learning and future needs. As the Burning Glass report concludes,

Automation changes every job over time, and if we don’t continuously move up the “human value curve” we can fall behind. . . . What’s different this time, however, is not only the pace of change but also the way that roles are being transformed by skills from unrelated functions workers aren’t likely to have picked up on the job. . . . In fact, the theme of “lifelong learning” is perhaps the biggest finding of the study.14

In short, there is no dichotomous separation between the arts and humanities, and the sciences and the professions; nor are there “soft” as opposed to “hard” skills—instead, there is a broad range of essential skills, the acquisition of which is the purpose of college. There is an overwhelming need for liberally educated learners who have acquired the abilities to adopt, adapt, and integrate technology for the betterment of humanity and life.

When the purpose of college is providing a liberal education for its learners, those learners have many opportunities to prepare not only for the world of work but for lifelong learning in a global setting. As ongoing technological changes continue to shape the job market and the structures and relationships of information creation, dissemination, and production, college is the best resource we have for ensuring a healthy and vibrant future. 

Notes

1. The Integration of the Humanities and Arts with Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in Higher Education: Branches from the Same Tree (Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2018), https://doi.org/10.17226/24988.

2. Matthew Sigelman, Scott Bittle, Will Markow, and Benjamin Francis, The Hybrid Job Economy: How New Skills Are Rewriting the DNA of the Job Market (Boston: Burning Glass Technologies, 2019).

3. Hart Research Associates, Fulfilling the American Dream.

4. Hart Research Associates, Fulfilling the American Dream.

5. Centre for the New Economy and Society, The Future of Jobs Report 2018 (Geneva, Switzerland: World Economic Forum, 2018).

6. 2018 Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute Skills Gap and Future of Work Study (Deloitte Insights and Manufacturing Institute, 2018), 7.

7. George Kuh, High-Impact Educational Practices: What They Are, Who Has Access to Them, and Why They Matter (Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2008).

8. See ePortfolio examples at https://www.aacu.org/eportfolios.

9. “Comprehensive Learner Records,” American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers and NASPA: Association of Student Affairs Professionals, 2019, https://www.aacrao.org/signature-initiatives/comprehensive-learner-record.

10. “Comprehensive Learner Record,” IMS Global Learning Consortium, accessed September 12, 2019, https://www.imsglobal.org/activity/comprehensive-learner-record.

11. For more information on VALUE (Valid Assessment of Learning in Undergraduate Education) rubrics, see https://www.aacu.org/value-rubrics.

12. Kathryne Drezek McConnell, Erin M. Horan, Bethany Zimmerman, and Terrel L. Rhodes, We Have a Rubric for That: The VALUE Approach to Assessment (Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2019).

13. Lindsay McKenzie, “Blockchain Gains Currency in Higher Ed,” Inside Higher Education, August 13, 2018, https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2018/08/13/rising-profile-blockchain... Kevin Roebuck,“5 Ways Blockchain Is Revolutionizing Higher Education,” Wall Street Journal, May 17, 2018.

14. Sigelman et al., “The Hybrid Job Economy.”


Terrel L. Rhodes is vice president for quality, curriculum, and assessment and executive director of Valid Assessment of Learning in Undergraduate Education (VALUE) at the Association for American Colleges and Universities.

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