The Learner Revolution

The Learner Revolution

Higher education is in the throes of a learner revolution. Within a decade, we will see all colleges and universities responding to the needs of students – or not, at their peril. Trends ranging from the new majority of postsecondary students to the rise of artificial intelligence to the shrinking half-life of job skills have conspired toward this moment, a wake-up call for all but the most exclusive global higher education brands. Meanwhile, leaders are addressing the needs and goals of a changing student population. Calls for “student-centered” design can be heard throughout the ecosystem.

Colleges and universities must be more deeply attuned to the pressures of student debt and a competitive job market. They must increasingly translate learning outcomes to work-relevant skills. Burning Glass Technologies recently identified the top three requested skills from 150 million job postings: communication, critical thinking and collaboration¹. While these can be “learned” in liberal arts courses, students will need to see, practice, articulate and digitally verify them for employers and their own mastery.

Defining the Learner Revolution

The “learner revolution” will deconstruct the degree as we know it: A world where a learner will not be tethered to one institution. Where earning a degree will be only one metric of success.

For now, employers still rely heavily on degrees. Only half view them as “fairly reliable representations of candidates’ skills and knowledge,” ² while a majority have begun or are actively exploring efforts to deemphasize degrees and prioritize skills in hiring. The Lab’s employer partners all say they need new hiring tools that recognize credentials other than or in addition to the degree. Over 500 institutions have joined a network to use our 21st century skill badges³.

For the first time since 2008, the U.S. Department of Education may overhaul the federal government’s relationship to higher education—allowing a greater use of direct assessment and departing from the credit-hour standard for federal financial aid eligibility.

The last major bulwarks supporting the degree as the gold standard may be giving way among others. At present, jobs that are high-touch – that is, those that are inherently human-centred, such as consulting or customer service – are increasing yearly at a rate of 86%. And low-skill, low-touch jobs are vanishing at a similar rate. Yes, the robots are already here. Hence the need for transferable skills.

We develop these skills by feeling, sensing and discovering through personal interactions and experiences. Alas, education is increasingly monetised and shipped at scale as ‘content’ rather than as ‘learning’ and is becoming impersonal – particularly in the digital space. Our uniquely human capabilities are at risk if this trend continues.

Competencies, Not Courses

Within the decade, all but the most exclusive learning providers will compete for students at the competency level. A learner might use a trusted Amazon-style platform with employer endorsements to choose her pathway from a marketplace of experiences, courses, badges, certificates and internships, including offerings by employers interested in her candidacy. Even sooner, colleges will likely be the curators of competency-earning opportunities. To promote an equitable future, those menus will need to be available through federal financial aid.

Prior learning assessment will become integrated into the student application process, and blockchain technology or credential “backpacks” may eliminate the need for actual assessment.

Some colleges might compete in the “coming of age, residential experience” space, while others focus on employer-sponsored pathways. But the big winners will be critical mass, user-friendly platforms or marketplaces, like LinkedIn or Amazon. Colleges offering learning products will compete, similarly to how NBC and HBO currently compete on other companies’ distribution platforms (think Comcast, Verizon FIOS). Over time, platforms and content providers may compete directly: think Netflix and Amazon, who are upending the streaming business as both content creators and distributors.

Ultimately, employers will drive the models that flourish. A small but growing proportion are experimenting with competency-based hiring and promotion, including IBM, EY, Microsoft, Cisco and SAP. This trend will accelerate as more employers isolate and articulate their non-technical requirements.

To better align business and education, we need new tools.


Five Models for an Institution’s Role in the Learner Revolution

If it sounds like a future of all online learning, all the time, it is not. There are great opportunities for campus-based, high-touch models. We see at least five models emerging, most of which can best be imagined (at least with near-term technology) through an in-person or hybrid lens. With the exception of the first model, which will be inevitably driven by market forces, most of these can be designed to track to student success research on High Impact Practices4.

The Platform Facilitator: A few institutions will become Netflix-like distribution curators, while others, as content providers, will license courses, experiences, certificates and other services. A few dominant platforms could emerge, or we could see a more distributed future where many institutions develop open degree pathways and learning providers convert learning outcomes into portable, stackable competencies, competing for slots in those pathways.

The Experiential Curator: These institutions are doubling down as curators of expansive learning experiences. Programs and institutions are embracing the potential of highly interdisciplinary education, project-based learning and guided reflection, making it their primary value proposition. Advances in assessment, the maturation of online and hybrid education and the increasingly connected and global nature of work have ripened this market.

The Learning Certifier: These institutions are recognizing the broad expanse of learning, helping students codify, even gamify, their out-of classroom experiences and translate their total value to employers. Increasingly popular micro-credentialing tools offer one way to capture informal skill building, development plans and assessments.

The Workforce Integrator: These institutions are tightening the competency link between learners and employers. They are building in-demand workforce competencies into curricula and on-campus employment programs. Two factors are driving this change: 85 percent of students cite a good job as their motivation for college, and institutions are addressing equity issues for students who have to work their way through college5

The Specializer: These institutions are taking a niche specialization, such as religious affiliation, and reimagining it as an asset. Such colleges tend to be small and may be facing serious challenges around sustainability. Those with their backs against the wall are most willing to innovate and take risks.

The learner revolution is here. Higher education must shift its mindset to value students as “customers” and align its delivery more closely with students’ goals and employers’ needs. Survivors in the Learner Revolution will be the institutions that adapt to the future; the leaders will be those who design it.


1 Markow, Will, et al. “The New Foundational Skills of the Digital Economy: Developing the Professionals of the Future.” Burning Glass Technologies and Business-Higher Education Forum, 2018, wp-content/uploads/New_Foundational_Skills.pdf.

2 An interactive timeline of the history of agriculture in the United States. Growing a Nation. www.agclassroom. org/gan/Rmeline/farmers_land.htm. Retrieved in August 2019

3 Education Design Lab. 21st century skill badges. badge-toolkit/

4 High-Impact Educational Practices.

5 CIRP Freshman Survey. Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, 2017. TFS-2017-Infographic.pdf



Kathleen deLaski is a social entrepreneur, having launched three education organizations, including the Education Design Lab, which works with institutions and employers to design education toward the future of work. The Lab has worked with 100 institutions and Kathleen has shared her expertise with practitioners around the world. Her higher education interest grew out of her service on the board of George Mason University, her years as an executive with Sallie Mae, and her founding of Sallie Mae’s foundation to promote college access for minority students. An early pioneer of online consumer information products, Kathleen spent five years at America Online creating the first interactive tools to engage the public online in elections, government services and major news events. She began her career in journalism, ending with five years as an ABC News Washington correspondent. Kathleen was also named by President Clinton as Chief Spokesman for the Pentagon.

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