The Career Curriculum Continuum

Universities can and must remain at the center of how people learn throughout their lives, Andrew Hermalyn writes.

March 13, 2019

For thousands of years, institutions of higher learning have played a central and defining role in shaping learning and higher education. Today, an increasing chorus of voices are questioning whether universities are up to the challenge of a new era of work and lifelong learning.

The new reality is inescapable. In fact, every year since 1840, there has been a three-month increase in life expectancy. Today the average life expectancy in the United States is 79, and millennials have a 50 percent chance of living to 100 years. In past centuries, people would study, get a job and retire at age 65. But times have changed, and it’s now estimated that the average person will have 12 to 14 careers in a lifetime.

Longer life spans, coupled with a rapid pace of disruption in the work force driven by technology, will require greater and more consistent reskilling for both blue- and white-collar workers. And although change is never easy, we believe universities are best positioned and equipped to respond to the challenge and meet the demands of this new reality by adapting and transforming into great digital institutions, capable of thriving in this new era.

Enter the Career Curriculum Continuum, a 21st-century construct for lifelong learning -- education without end -- that anchors universities at the center. Career represents the life of the student from an educational perspective. Curriculum is the central role universities play in that student’s lifelong learning. And continuum is the entire spectrum of offerings -- short courses, course stacks, boot camps, professional certificates and degrees -- that institutions will need to provide to meet the needs of the learner over time. The Career Curriculum Continuum is not a menu of options -- it’s a strategy for sustainability.

For many lifelong learners, the Career Curriculum Continuum will begin with free and self-paced options. That is nothing new. After all, libraries have existed for millennia. Thanks to the internet and broadband, modern-day versions of free and self-paced learning -- YouTube, MOOCs and Wikis -- have proliferated. This democratization of information is an inherent societal good. Physical boundaries shouldn’t define or confine access to knowledge.

But access alone is not a substitute for more structured learning where students are motivated by having skin in the game, both mentally and financially. That’s why there is value in universities offering short courses as an accessible entry point for learners along the continuum. These courses -- focusing on both practical skills and disruptive technologies -- provide learners across the globe the opportunity to gain industry-relevant skills that will help them take the next step in their careers. There are many providers offering various types of short courses; in 2018 alone, students from over 150 countries took more than 30,000 short courses across our portfolio, and we hear about these benefits directly from them.

Over time, we believe bundled short courses can, and should, provide entry points into degrees by offering credit as well as more affordable and flexible pathways. In the future, you might even see institutions offering subscription products for lifelong learning.

For millions of workers, short courses won’t offer sufficient reskilling to keep pace with rapid industry changes. Boot camps, which primarily focus on technical training, such as coding, will be a better fit. Today, boot camps typically, but not exclusively, serve students with a complete four-year degree. In the future, large portions of the population -- both those with and without college degrees -- will need to be retrained -- a massive issue facing corporations and governments. Boot camps are clearly part of the answer.

But there will also be a rising demand for long-form professional certificates that offer more intense and focused opportunities for upskilling for midcareer executives. An excellent example of a professional certificate designed for experienced professionals is the Harvard Business Analytics Program -- powered by 2U -- which launched in March 2018. The HBAP is not a single course from a single school, but a nine-month, interdisciplinary certificate program offered and taught jointly by faculty across Harvard Business School, the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and the department of statistics in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. The program has attracted nearly 400 students in less than a year, and students in the HBAP have, on average, 17 years of work experience and range in age from 26 to 78.

Universities that want to serve the needs of lifelong learners must meet them at all three of these points -- short courses, boot camps and professional certificates -- along the Career Curriculum Continuum.

Following the Career Curriculum Continuum ultimately leads universities to their historical strength, traditional degrees, which is also where 2U has operated for the majority of our existence.

We remain strong believers in the power of the degree, which has only increased throughout the years. Over the past decade, universities, whether on their own or partnered with outside providers, have proven that flexibility and innovation of digital delivery can power all disciplines, including highly certified ones -- like nursing, physician assistant and physical therapy -- that people said could never be done online.

We see this as the future of all highly credentialed and licensure-based degrees -- including doctor of medicine (M.D.), doctor of dental surgery (D.D.S.), doctor of veterinary medicine (D.V.M.), doctor of pharmacy (Pharm.D.), and master of architecture (M.Arch.). We also see digital transforming the undergrad landscape, which, for millions of adult learners, means something much different than attending a four-year residential campus program.

By 2020 more than a third of most occupations will require skills that are not yet considered crucial to those jobs today. Students will require education that is flexible and supportive to meet these changing realities, and universities must adapt to stay relevant in this new era. By transforming into great digital institutions ready and willing to meet students wherever they are on the Career Curriculum Continuum -- or in the world -- universities can and will remain the powerful engines of social mobility they have been for millennia.

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Andrew Hermalyn is president of university partnerships and services at 2U.


Andrew Hermalyn

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