A learners-first system sounds simple, but changing the status quo won’t be easy

by Joseph K. Clark

Editor’s note: Peter Smith is a higher education professor at the University of Maryland Global Campus and was the founding president of California State University, Monterey Bay, and the Community College of Vermont.

The COVID-19 pandemic has ripped away from the shroud of traditional practice in higher education, revealing a discriminatory system that, despite our best efforts, excludes as many people as it serves.

It is impossible to overstate the challenges of changing that status quo or the social, civic, and economic consequences of failing to do so. Racial discrimination, financial insecurity, and wasted talent are all troubling byproducts of the current system.

system sounds simple

In higher ed, we are used to controlling the dialogue. This time, however, we do not hold the forces driving change. Some colleges will go out of business. Simply trying to adapt the status quo to a changing world will only yield marginal success. We must instead put learners first — and to do so, we must focus on developing fundamentally new models.

The modern American higher ed system has been a miracle in the making since the GI Bill and the Truman Commission in the 1940s. The Truman Commission called for a radical rethinking of higher ed structure and purposes, and the GI Bill paved the way for significant, need-based financial assistance.

But our current system was designed for a bygone era. We need a new, more inclusive model for higher ed. A growing “learners-first” movement is a central part of that call. It acknowledges that our current system excludes as many people as it serves, exacerbating economic and racial divides and hurting our competitiveness. It calls out the failure of our current approach to meet shifting workplace demands. And it anticipates lifetimes of learning, service, and work supported by on-demand, tailored, and evidence-based learning services that, in turn, are supported by new government policies. Peter Smith Permission granted by University of Maryland Global Campus. The result will move away from the vertical “ladder of educational opportunity” with degrees at the top. The new educational opportunity structure will be lifelong, a horizontal ecosystem of resources and information that is learner-centered and need-responsive.

Is this too extreme a prediction? I do not think so. Clayton Christensen’s theory of disruptive innovation rests on a core premise: that the needs and capacities of the community around your organization change, and those changes transform what has been your greatest institutional strength into your greatest weakness, allowing new economic and delivery models to compete successfully.

That is precisely what is happening to higher ed. Campuses were once oases of organized knowledge in an information-poor desert. They were the only game in town. But the desert has gone green, and our increasingly information-rich and technology-enhanced society is revolutionizing the opportunity to learn whatever, wherever, and whenever throughout life. There is no dodging this bullet. Forward-looking higher ed leaders understand this. One such group, the President’s Forum, has built a Learners First Framework for creating a new ecosystem for learning and work, based on 10 principles:

  • Focusing on learner objectives.
  • Embracing lifelong learning.
  • Achieving equity and inclusion by design.
  • Owning our results.
  • Signaling through skills.
  • Developing outcomes-centric innovations.
  • Instilling cultures of service.
  • Crossing boundaries.
  • Ending the broken economics of learning.
  • Modernizing policy.

At its core, the framework recognizes that simply trying to adapt current practices to an unknown and rapidly changing future won’t work. Here are some of the characteristics in the framework that I believe will come to characterize quality.

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