Education, Disrupted: A Live Session at Disruption 2020

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Education can provide a model for corporate employee experience.

Editor’s note: A version of this summary was provided by getAbstract.

Disruption — in the form of online learning and massive corporate reskilling initiatives — was already reshaping education when the coronavirus pandemic struck and revealed additional fault lines. Education consultant Michael B. Horn, the chief strategy officer at the Entangled Group and cofounder of the Clayton Christensen Institute, describes the drivers of disruption in higher education, the accelerating challenges to traditional educational institutions, and the new players and platforms that appear poised to take their place.

Online learning has improved since the beginning of the century, so that traditional educational institutions are now losing ground to more accessible and affordable digital alternatives. Meanwhile, corporations have widely adopted digital delivery or online formats for employee training. Some large employers find that traditional educational institutions aren’t rising to meet the challenge of reskilling workers at a massive scale. Amazon, for example, intends to invest $700 million to train 100,000 workers — roughly one-third of its workforce. Amazon’s leaders have decided that traditional higher education can’t provide the education Amazon employees need, so the company is taking ownership of the educational component of its value chain.

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, colleges and universities could suffer 10% drops in enrollment numbers and consequent hits to revenue of up to 20%. Some will have to close their doors or declare financial exigency — higher education’s form of bankruptcy. Laid-off adult workers, as well as college-age students who can no longer attend classes on campus, will turn to affordable online alternatives.

Even before the pandemic, online learning was already poised to displace traditional education. Online learning had already begun to disrupt the low end of traditional education before the pandemic struck. Southern New Hampshire University — which, at the start of the 21st century, was a small liberal arts college in financial straits — grew to a powerhouse online university by innovating to meet the needs of adult learners. Online learning environments can offer better interactions between students and professors than traditional face-to-face classes.

Platforms and tools such as Minerva and Lobster allow students to engage in active learning in flexible, immersive environments that incorporate synchronous and asynchronous elements, video conversations, and lab simulations. To create opportunities for community experiences, companies such as educational technology company 2U have begun to enhance online learning with brick-and-mortar elements by forging partnerships with coworking spaces.

Although online learning can enhance access and affordability, many low-income students lack the internet connectivity and hardware necessary to participate. The federal government, employers, and learning providers should bridge that gap to ensure all employees and students can access learning. Corporations are discovering the strategic value of education as a benefit. Corporate leaders have begun to see that education is more than a nice-to-have benefit. Instead, investments in employee education can offer substantial returns in the form of performance improvements, engagement, satisfaction, and retention. When Starbucks partnered with Arizona State University to provide online learning to baristas and other employees, the company saw significant gains in retention.

Other large employers are turning to Guild Education to build their relationships with education providers, to package learning as a benefit, and to measure the returns. Education as a benefit will likely remain robust thanks to metrics that are proving its value.

The realm of education can provide insights for improving the overall employee experience:

  • First, avoid overwhelming people with too much communication, too many updates, or too many assignments (missteps made by public school districts early in the pandemic). Communicate consistently and efficiently.
  • Second, improve employees’ experience during meetings and other group events by giving people opportunities to connect, participate, and contribute.
  • Third, consider how mobile formats that offer efficient upskilling and education could also enhance the employee experience, for example, in terms of communication.

Takeaways from the session:

  • Online learning, corporate upskilling initiatives, and the coronavirus pandemic are driving disruption in education.
  • Even before the pandemic, online learning was already poised to displace traditional education.
  • Corporations are discovering the strategic value of education as a benefit.
  • The realm of education can provide insights for improving the overall employee experience.

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