The pandemic has opened up huge opportunities for online learning and short-term degrees to help meet the needs of students and employers.
Last January, the educational technology company Cengage published a report on the big quit that happened in the United States. During this month, 4.3 million people quit their jobs. The following month, another 4.4 million people left their posts. The reasons varied, but more than three-quarters of respondents to Cengage’s survey said they wanted to make more money and felt burnt out. They also said they felt like they weren’t growing in their positions.
An incredible 11.3 million jobs remain open across the country because connections cannot be made between potential employees and employers. Most applicants want to pursue new careers, but feel they lack the skills to make it happen. Employers also point out that students leaving college are ill-equipped to meet the needs of available positions.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the need for colleges to scale and prepare students, and especially adult learners seeking retraining, more than ever, progress has been slow. Education experts say employers must help train the next generation, but higher education also has an important role to play. Intoxicating colleges and universities offer these pathways.
“Our current labor shortage is partly due to the need to train more workers in in-demand sectors, but also due to archaic hiring practices, extensive educational requirements and a need more support for alternative career paths, like apprenticeship,” says Michael. Hansen, CEO of Cengage. “Especially in the midst of the great quit — or as I like to call it, the great reassessment — workers are signing up for online courses and training to retrain in other industries and may not have a traditional university degree to quantify the extent of their knowledge, skills or experience.”
Embracing these options, along with Pell’s continued expansion to include online as Hansen and others have called for, is critical to building that student-to-higher-education-to-business pipeline. Being flexible means offering multiple learning modalities, providing short-term degrees, embracing open educational resources, and partnering with businesses and community organizations.
Hansen and Cengage provide an assist. Along with digital learning platforms that empower instructors, they have become key voices in higher education to fill these gaps. Hansen participated in an all-star roundtable on Monday to discuss pathways to higher education at the ASU-GSV Summit in San Diego with 2U and edX’s Anant Agarwal, Coursera’s Jeff Maggioncalda, Skillsoft’s Jeff Tarr and Gregory Sebasky of Ascend Learning. Before the session, University Affairs asked Hansen to talk more about the convergence of higher and online education and potential pathways that can help improve workforce outcomes.
What is the future of online learning? Where can we expect to see growth in the coming year?
Many students want or even expect at least some courses to be completely online. They also see the benefits and flexibility that hybrid or hyflex courses can offer. Most students today are non-traditional – older, living off-campus, and with jobs or family responsibilities – so their educational experience must fit their lives. Online learning makes this possible.
Where we will continue to see growth is in short-term, non-credit, workforce-aligned online training. The population of high school graduates is shrinking, but there is demand among older adults looking to upgrade, retrain or change careers. There is a real opportunity for academic institutions to tap into this demand with shorter, flexible and more affordable programs. A quality online education offers a way to do just that, giving full-time workers, parents, and even “traditional” students the opportunity to learn new skills and knowledge sought by in-demand industries.
Have colleges embraced the idea of providing this flexibility to students?
Institutions that are willing to experiment while understanding that there is no “one size fits all” approach have the most success. We work with institutions like Ivy Tech Community College in Indiana, one of the largest community college systems in the nation, to help lower the cost of course materials. Ivy Tech partners with open educational resources and commercial providers to provide online learning materials and platforms for their students. Ivy Tech actually used CARES funding to purchase Cengage Unlimited for Institutions and cover costs for students, eliminating a major barrier to education. They have also experimented with short courses and work directly with employers to develop local talent.
Flexible, short-term courses represent a huge opportunity for academic institutions, and many schools are experimenting with partners to meet this demand. In our ed2go business, which works directly with institutions to deliver short-term online courses tailored to the workforce, enrollment has doubled during the pandemic. Many people suddenly found themselves unemployed and had to learn new skills to find another job, while others were simply looking to change careers or fields. This winter, we surveyed 1,200 adults who had recently resigned or were seriously considering resigning (Great Resigners Report), and 78% of resigners said they signed up for online training opportunities to give them a head start in the search for their next job. Again, educational institutions have the opportunity to capitalize on this demand for continuous competency-based learning.
Besides Ivy Tech, are there any good examples of higher education institutions that have been able to chart these paths?
Arizona State University, Western Governors University, and southern New Hampshire have led the way, challenging the status quo and rethinking higher education. In a LinkedIn Live session I recently hosted with Marni Baker-Stein, Academic Director and Vice President of WGU, she explained how WGU links its offerings to the development of key employability skills. It sounds simple, but it’s incredibly important for four-year-olds to more easily demonstrate their skills to employers.
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What are some of the benefits that Cengage has seen over the past decade, and particularly since the onset of the pandemic, in terms of impacting students and preparing for the world of work?
Long before the pandemic hit, employers said recent college graduates lacked key employability skills, and recent graduates said they lacked the opportunity to develop these key job skills. In a survey we conducted last spring, almost half of college graduates said they would not apply for entry-level jobs because they felt they did not have the right skills. In short, we need to ensure that graduates are ready to work, not just to graduate.
Learners tell us they want more flexibility. They want education more relevant to the workforce and they want it to be affordable. On the contrary, I hope it has brought higher education and employers closer together. We see this through the massive interest in our rapidly growing workforce skills offerings. I have also been encouraged by the growing acceptance of alternative pathways to learning key skills and by the fact that many employers, including the Cengage Group, are adapting their hiring practices and removing degree requirements for many positions.
Are there still disparities in terms of access to online learning for certain groups of students?
There is a huge population of students who are excluded from education due to affordability barriers. There are important partnerships between different organizations to help people access on-the-job training and/or skills opportunities, but this needs to change. In general, we need to rethink the way we measure higher education, not by its exclusivity but by its inclusiveness. For more people to realize the benefits of education, they must be able to afford it. For example, limiting the use of Pell by excluding online programs only exacerbates these disparities.
What trends are you focusing on for the future?
The biggest trend we’re seeing is the growing appetite for our workforce skills offerings. We recently acquired Infosec, a leading provider of cybersecurity education and training. Cybersecurity is an area where the skills gap is deep and has far-reaching consequences. Today, there are nearly 600,000 vacancies in cybersecurity in the United States, but more than half require at least one certification. On top of that, cyberattacks have increased as the workforce remains remote. I’m excited to help develop more cybersecurity professionals and fill those gaps.
Overall there is a lot of excitement in the edtech space as online learning has grown during the pandemic. Additionally, the willingness of provosts, presidents, and CEOs to experiment with different models and tools has enabled needed changes in higher education. I hope we will continue this experimental spirit. These are exciting times for everyone as we redefine a new normal. We keep our eyes on the ultimate, shared goal of helping learners achieve their goals.