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The Future of Learning: Content Curation

Supporting learners in their journey through navigating available education experiences

February 27, 2022

The explosion of online learning content in the past decade is both an incredible opportunity and a headache for prospective students. I’ve seen this first–hand, both as a fully–online student at the Questrom School of Business at Boston University, and in my career running non–degree programs at Harvard Business School and the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth. The good news is that there’s every reason to be optimistic about finding better ways to help students navigate this growing part of the education world.

As a business student, I was excited, then overwhelmed, and eventually frustrated as I tried to figure out which of many options to choose. In my jobs designing, developing, and marketing effective online programs, I became acutely aware of just how many stakeholders have to work together to make online programs work. Think universities, tech companies, and employer partners all trying to surprise, delight, and engage pandemic–weary students seeking vital skills. On the positive side, there is an embarrassment of riches when it comes to digital learning content—everything from full degree programs, to micro/stackable/industry–recognized credentials, to bite–sized “just–in–time” learning. The sheer numbers are staggering: the nonprofit Credential Engine tracks the data and came up with a 2021 count of nearly one million unique credentials in the US (967,734 to be exact).

However, learners badly need help sifting through what Ray Schroeder, a Senior Fellow at the University Professional and Continuing Education Association (UPCEA), calls “a tsunami of alternative credentials” Some might want to qualify quickly for a raise or promotion, others to explore a new career or begin earning credits toward a degree. How to choose? The underlying problem with navigating this “dizzying array of credentials,” according to a Strada Education Network Report from 2020 is that learners are “hampered by the absence of a common language to match the skills they have or can learn with the skills demanded by employers.” They need trusted guides. That means, as Schroeder notes, universities, educational providers, and technology companies will all need to collaborate.

student studies for fun and profit.

The exact nature of the tactics we use and the advice we give might look different for each learner depending on where they are in their journey: a “traditional aged” student weighing a “traditional” four–year degree against other learning pathways, a prospective graduate student trying to decide which master’s degree is the right fit with current work and family responsibilities, a mid-career switcher looking to pivot industries or functions, or a true life–long learner looking to upskill and reskill. However, I believe there are a few approaches that may work well across this spectrum:

  1. Technology: There have been incredible advances in artificial intelligence (AI) when it comes to aiding the learning journey (such as “Jill Watson” invented by Ashok Goel at Georgia Tech, which uses AI-powered adaptive learning to answer student questions about a particular class or curriculum; our own ATOM platform provides an adaptive learning environment for many of the students taking our exam prep courses.). It would only be a natural next step to implement this predictive technology earlier in the process to aid learners on deciding what content is the right fit for them in the first place. There are some measures in place such as Springboard’s short quiz that directs learners to the right bootcamp for them or Coursera’s algorithm nudging you toward different courses based on your keyword searches. What’s needed is a broader AI initiative that is platform and provider agnostic that looks at both conscious and unconscious inputs to direct learners to the right content for them at their unique point in their learning journey.
  2. High-Touch Advising: My mother used to say there is no substitute for putting in the work. While technology is great and very useful to whittle down the available options, there is no substitute for advisors in the learning journey. This is certainly true for the student experience once a student is enrolled in a program. In his study, “Making the Most of College”, Harvard University Professor Richard Light says, “Good advising is the single most underestimated characteristic of a successful college experience.” This is certainly true for online and non–degree programs as well. Take Kaplan’s Metis bootcamps in data science and machine learning. A huge piece of the program’s success is high-touch advising on the projects that learners complete in each short immersive experience, as well as the career coaching and placement to help participants secure new professional opportunities in the data science field. I would hypothesize that it is just as valuable for someone who gets one–on–one counseling about whether signing up for a course in data analytics or machine learning would be a better fit for their career goals. Strong advising helping learners navigate their array of options to find the experience that is the right fit for them will be critical in fostering positive learning outcomes.
  3. Partnerships Across the Ecosystem: For this content curation approach to really work, we need to partner and collaborate and align across the educational ecosystem. This includes traditional incumbents like universities, new entrants like the plethora of ed tech providers, and employers who are looking to hire educated talent as well as upskill and reskill their existing labor force. While these relationships are happening already—Fortune 100 companies often partner with business school executive education programs to develop custom classes for their senior leadership, for example—I would like to see this idea of curating content for the learner be a centerpiece of these conversations, especially for early and pre-pipeline talent. What if rather than an organization simply financially supporting ongoing learning in an “education–as–a–benefit” capacity, they partnered with an educational institution to develop a curriculum in alignment with their own core learning competencies? This would not only create a robust experience for the learner, but would also curate the available options based on partner alignment.

The real solution will be a combination of these approaches that may differ depending on where a learner is in their journey. If as an industry we can crack this nut, just think of what that will mean in terms of access to education.

One example: my Kaplan colleague, Brett Frazier, combines high–touch advising with the alignment of partners across an ecosystem (industry affinity organizations offering credentials such as the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), college stakeholders, and Kaplan) to support Pierce College’s Career Bridge program, which prepares learners with the skills, certifications and credentials needed for jobs that pay family–sustaining wages, and guides them to those jobs in less than a year. Through a partnership that maps a vast portfolio of industry–recognized credentials to these Career Tracks, students are guided through credential options that make them more employable, bolstering the entire Philadelphia talent/employer ecosystem.

There’s clearly a lot more work to be done. But it’s energizing to see a rich supply of online programs and classes out there, and promising tools and approaches available to help people make smart choices. When all partners collaborate and work together across the educational ecosystem, there is enormous opportunity for curating unique learning experiences for every learner to reach their maximum potential.

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